Isaac sighed as he placed the trumpet back inside its battered case. The red velvet lining was beginning to look worn and had torn in a few places. He once imagined it covered in stickers of exotic locations and visa tags, but now, the only thing it was coated in was the beer some drunk had knocked over as he passed by. He cleaned and buffed away until the liquid and the smell had gone. He sighed again as he shut the case and locked it.
Three of the bulbs around his dressing room mirror had blown and never been replaced. It made his strong, dark face look drawn – grey almost. Strange shadows fell down from his brow. His salt and pepper stubble and matching buzz crop hair made him look younger than he was, but the crows-feet and eyes themselves never lied. He was old and tired.
He took his old trilby hat from the stand and placed it on his head. He looked in the mirror and let out a third and final deep sigh. At least black never went out of fashion. The hat, shirt and suit were the only clothes he owned, but he had never needed more. He opened the door of the dressing room and turned out the lights as he left.
He crossed the dark bar in silence, giving a simple nod of the head to Bubba – the big, mean looking, but actually kindly owner who was stacking the tables and chairs. In a few short steps he was out into the early morning air.
Honestly, what do I expect? he thought. He looked around. He was playing in a swamp, on the outskirts of a town even Louisiana considered distinctly back-water. This is how he would end his days, playing in an out-of-town bar surrounded by nothing but swamp, gators and cottonmouths. He shuffled along the dirt track to the crossroads where he would wait for his grandson. He set down the trumpet case, disturbing the dust a little so that it was picked up and carried a little in the wind.
It wasn’t cold out, but he felt a sudden chill in the air. As he looked up, he watched as the stars seemed to go out one by one. He checked his watch to see if he was early, only to notice the second hand slowly shudder and then stop. He heard the wind pick up, then suddenly, it was rushing along the road, howling like an express train, and, as he looked, he caught the thick tendrils of a twister as it touched down a little way from the crossroads. As his breath caught in his chest, it seemed to suddenly change size and velocity, passing him by in a cyclone of brown tainted air and tumbleweed. He realised it was just a dust devil, but he felt unnerved and on edge.
He looked back up the road and saw a pair of headlights steadily approaching him. He smiled with relief, grateful for his grandson’s timely appearance. But as the car drew near, he realised it wasn’t his grandson in his dishevelled Volkswagen bus. It was a sleek, black, 1965 Lincoln Continental in immaculate condition. It looked like it had just driven off the production line. It slowly trundled to a halt beside him, the big V8 four-stroke engine burbling and rumbling its displeasure of the low spluttered revs as it idled. The blacked-out window now opposite him slithered downwards with an electric hum. A silver-haired, handsome – but older white man, met his gaze with steely blue eyes and a smile that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a crocodile.
“You must be the Isaac I’ve heard so much about,” grinned the man.
At that, the driver’s door opened and a very large black man, wearing an expensive and tight fitting pinstripe suit stepped out. He had a huge barrel chest and he seemed to ripple as he walked. Isaac had seen Cassius Clay and Doug Jones fight at Madison Square Gardens in 1963, and he felt sure this man would have been able to hold his own against either of them, or perhaps even both at the same time. As it was, he appeared to be the man in the car’s valet, as he opened the door for him.
The man wore a perfectly tailored, dark grey pinstripe suit, with a claret red tie and a white silk shirt underneath. As he stepped from the car, he put on a matching grey pinstripe fedora with a claret silk band. Isaac had always liked the look and feel of a hat and found himself warming to the man unintentionally.
“Who have you heard about me from?” Isaac asked, wondering if he could be a talent scout maybe.
“Oh word gets around,” smiled the man. “Smokey Bo Benson mentioned you, wanted me to check you out.”
“Really? Thought that boy died a long time ago,” Isaac smiled.
“Bluesmen don’t die, they just improvise,” grinned the man.
“You play?” Isaac asked.
“I’ve been known to play a mean fiddle from time to time,” the man quipped with a grin. “Why don’t we talk about getting you out of this dump and into the limelight Isaac? Come sit with me whilst you wait for your grandson.”
Isaac took a step towards the car. After all, what do I have to lose he thought.
The grate over the waste pipe had corroded. Esteban knew it wouldn’t hold his weight, but his gut was telling him Ming was down there. The saltwater crocodile was over a hundred years old and one of the most legendary pursuits of the so-called ‘Hell Hunt’. And the old male croc was a legend for a reason – Ming had survived every season so far, whilst those who had gone after him had not. Esteban wanted him more than any other of the potential trophies on the island. He held his shotgun out in front of him as he jumped, crashing through the rusted metal grate, and landing confidently in the recess of the pipe below.
The smell hit him immediately. Rancid flesh and rotting carrion. The tell-tale stench of a crocodile’s larder. He edged forward into the gloom. The damp air engulfed him, and he could barely breathe. As his eyes adjusted, he began to make out shapes in the gloom. Shapes that moved and came towards him. He soon detected the eyeshine of an animal directly in front of him. It raised up onto its haunches as if to study him. Esteban raised his gun and fired. The pipe erupted into light and then noise. He felt fear take hold in the pit of his stomach and he wanted to retch. He had seen what was coming for him down the pipe. High-pitched squeals and the clicks of a thousand claws raking on metal echoed towards him. He fired again, then threw the prized shotgun out of their reach back through the broken grate above him, just before they swarmed him and began to feast.
General Tiao smiled at his own cunning. The giant African pouched rats had been a delightful addition to the island, and more than one hunter had mistaken their stash and stink for Ming. They were also now completely dependent on meat and a force to be reckoned with. There was no camera feed inside of the pipe as the rats had chewed through the wiring, but Tiao had known Esteban’s fate as soon as he had headed for the pipe. He now turned his attention to the island’s only current surviving guest, although he suspected that wouldn’t be the case for long, as far as the unfortunate Englishman was concerned.
Rupert Witherspoon knelt to examine the steaming pile of dung that sat in the centre of the trail. The predator had evacuated its bowels both as a warning and in defiance of its pursuer. It knew it was being tracked and a spray of faecal matter not only lightened the load, but also often confused and distracted anything behind long enough to make an escape possible. Tiao watched the screen as the Englishman wiped the sweat from his brow and took a moment to gather himself. It wasn’t hard to imagine why. As he stood up, Tiao noticed the slight tremble in his arms as Witherspoon worked the pump of his shotgun to chamber the next round. Undoubtedly, the jungle had just gone very quiet and the hairs on the back of the Englishman’s neck would be standing on end. They both knew he was in the presence of one of the world’s most proficient predators – in this case, the Amur tiger.
Khan was a formidable opponent. A mature and rather well-fed male, he tipped the scales at over 600lbs. He was also especially grumpy and irritable, even for a tiger. His long fur and heavy build were far better suited to his natural home of the Russian arctic. But here, those attributes made him uncomfortable and often, hot and bothered. Combined with a short temper, it meant he was always ready for a fight. Tiao often had to intervene to put distance between Khan and his pursuers. The tiger had no fear of humans and actively sought them out as prey. The Englishman would have been claimed by Khan on his first day on the island, had it not been for numerous diversions and distractions. But now his time, just like his luck, had run out.
Tiao watched the monitor as the man crept forward along the trail, oblivious to the fact that the animal he was tracking had just emerged from a thicket of bamboo and back onto the trail some thirty feet behind him. Tiao wondered if the man realised how stupid he looked in the leather bush hat and drovers coat, especially given his pasty skin and thin wire spectacles. The tiger sprang forward and was on the man within a few easy bounds. Witherspoon only had time to let out a wimpish bleat of fear as he was engulfed by Khan in full fury. The tiger bit down through the back of the man’s neck. Tiao sighed. The Hell Hunt was over, at least until his next round of guests took their chances with the lethal menagerie that called the island home. This time round, Tiao had been glad at the misfortune of the human hunters. There were plenty of game animals on the island, and the extortionate fees paid made them easily replaceable. But the more unique specimens, such as Khan and Ming, were much harder and more expensive to procure and replace. He was glad he would not have to go to the trouble before his next guests arrived.
SAN ANGELO, TEXAS, USA
David Moore and Noah Ramirez were happy with their spot. They were positioned on the north shore of the Twin Buttes reservoir, facing west and towards the San Angelo Regional Airport. The cove they were in wasn’t easy to reach, so they were pretty sure they wouldn’t have any competition. They’d scouted here several evenings in advance and baited several prime locations. All were within range of their rifles – both David’s Mossberg Patriot Predator in 22-250 Remington, and Noah’s Savage Model 24, which boasted a Remington .223 barrel on top, and a 12-gauge shotgun tube beneath. This gave Noah the best of both worlds in varmint hunting, with the long range of a decent rifle, and the close comfort of a shotgun for when a coyote or bobcat sprung out of the brush unexpectedly.
Only four of their 24 hours remained.
Thomas opened his eyes and for a moment, didn’t stir. He wasn’t startled, but something had woken him. This wasn’t unusual. Five hundred metres from the house, a remarkable predator that the world hadn’t seen in Millennia, casually patrolled its enclosure, occasionally letting out a roar that had been officially recorded at 147 decibels. It was quite something, but somehow, he’d grown used to it. The lynx housed in a paddock next door, not so much. They still viewed their outsized neighbour and distant cousin with suspicion. After all, the sabretooth was big enough to see them as a snack rather than family.
That wasn’t what had woken him though. He moved his head slowly and quietly to the side. His wife, Catherine, still slept. Her snores were sweet and soft. She always worked harder than he did. She was tired, and sleep was a luxury they didn’t always have. Silently, he lifted his side of the bed covers and brought his feet to the floor. Dressed only in a pair of pyjama shorts, he tip-toed over to the window and looked out. He could see the enclosures for both cats from where he stood but saw no sign of them. The sun was barely just beginning to edge above the forest canopy, still almost entirely shielded from view by the mountains beyond. Known locally as “the Walls of Mullardoch”, the series of Munros – mountains over 3,000 feet, contained the river valley, loch, and ancient forest that leant their name to these granite precipices. The highest of the mountains was Càrn Eige, a lone, pyramid-shaped peak that stood tall and resilient against the rest. It was the same mountain where Thomas had tracked and faced the hybrid father of Tama, the sabretooth now in the enclosure outside. Tama too was a hybrid, her mother being a mountain lion from a collection in a nearby glen. Zoo fences hadn’t been enough to stop her father from reaching the female in heat, to mate. Thomas carefully eyed the enclosure fences. Nothing was out of place.
Thomas cocked his head and placed his hand on the glass. A few moments later, he felt it more than heard it. He glanced at Catherine, who still slumbered, then ran barefoot from the room – silent, but unable to control his excitement any longer. He took the stairs three steps at a time, quickly rounding the corner and bursting into the downstairs room of his seven-year-old daughter, Cassie. As he had expected, she too was standing at the locked glass doors to the rear of the room, looking out. Like him, she was also in her pyjamas – dark blue with assorted dinosaurs on them. She turned her head sharply, causing her shoulder-length, red curly hair to sway and bounce with the movement. She smiled when she saw her dad.
“Did you hear it, Dadda?” she chirped in her soft, Scottish lilt, her eyes bright with wonder.
Thomas smiled. Despite being born in Drumnadrochit, on the shores of Loch Ness, he had lost his accent after a move in his early years to the North of England. Catherine shared his mixed heritage with a mother who also hailed from Scotland, but she too had grown up in London, meaning neither of them had accents. Cassie’s was one that made him smile. In fact, Cassie just made him smile, full stop.
“I think I did,” he finally replied, drawing closer.
He unlocked the doors and took Cassie’s hand as they stepped out onto the deck. He looked down as Cassie lifted her head and gave him a mischievous smile whilst holding a finger to her lips. He did as he was told and closed his eyes, listening. Then it came. Soft and distant, but unmistakable. The “sawing” call of a leopard.
Thomas froze as he saw the print etched into the soft sand of the loch shore. Over the last few weeks, he’d begun to seek out paths and trails where he might find traces of his elusive new neighbour. As his excursions had taken him farther into the forest, he had discovered a stream that ended in a seven-foot waterfall that fed into the loch. Here, he had found the spoor of the leopard – a male, just as he’d suspected. After the pattern repeated itself a few times, he accepted that the leopard drank here often, and it had become part of his regular route. Today though, as he’d feared and been told, the cat’s injury was recorded in the shallow impressions before him. The right front paw barely touched the ground, and the rear footing was irregular and turned outward. Usually, a leopard’s feet turned naturally inwards, and the rear paw would automatically be placed where the front paw was – known as proprioception. But this cat was hopping awkwardly and dragging its front paw, which it held off the ground as it went. The farmer had found his mark, and now, what had been a benign creature minding its own business and keeping to itself, was more likely of becoming dangerous and turning on the easily killed sheep. The farmer had inadvertently created the problem he had been seeking to prevent. It also didn’t slip Thomas’ mind that many a maneater had started its career after being wounded in a similar fashion.
Thomas took a breath and reminded himself that this leopard had been reported as black, and therefore was more likely to be descended from animals that lived in Southeast Asia. That meant it was probably an Indochinese leopard, a subspecies that was slighter and lither than the African cats he had more experience with. He was also led to believe they were less confrontational and aggressive because of their smaller size. Their dark coat had proven to be an evolutionary advantage in the thick jungles of Thailand and Malaysia. South of the Kra Isthmus – the narrowest part of the Malay peninsula, and where the jungles were thickest, all leopards were melanistic and dark in colour. They were built to hide and ambush rather than waltz into a stand-up fight.Unfortunately, their black coat also made them highly desirable in the exotic pet trade. Melanistic leopards were also known as black panthers, and it was they that had been sought after significantly when keeping such animals had been popular in the 1960s and early 70s.
Dr. Drake Dumm waited. The two parents sitting across from him hadn’t said a word, but it was plain as day his conclusions had not been well received. The father had a strong chin and a wavy mop of black hair that was kept under control with the minimum amount of wax. He wore light denim jeans and a dark, heavy shirt. His arms were crossed against his chest, forming a barrier between him and Drake. He tapped his foot, constant enough to create a beat and his jaw was clenched tight. Any minute now, Drake knew beads of sweat would start to form on his brow – if he didn’t explode first. The mother was the opposite. Blonde and petite like her daughter, with long straight hair, she clutched her coat like her life depended on it, and her teeth were pressing hard against her bottom lip. She rubbed her left arm above the elbow with her right hand, heavily invested in a microscopic examination of her feet, visible through the canvas sandals she wore. If he pulled a gun on her now, he doubted she would make eye contact even then.
“So, she’s making all this up then, for no reason.” Bruce, the girl’s father accused.
Drake addressed him quickly and assertively, making direct eye contact.
“That a monster is visiting her nightly and tapping on her window, hoping she’ll come out and play? There should be no doubt she’s making it up Mr. Clark. But I certainly never suggested for no reason.”
“So, you’re going to tell us it’s our fault, right?”.
“Blame isn’t something I like to assert in therapy Mr. Clark,” Drake explained. “And I don’t have enough facts after a single session to determine cause.”
“Is she… unwell?” Bianca, the mother asked.
“Think of Sienna as a ball of string. We’re going to have to pull at some threads before we unravel what’s underneath. But in our session, Sienna was confident, alert, polite, and honest.”
“But you just said she was making it all up!” the father barked.
“Mr. Clark.” Drake objected, leaning forward over the desk.
Psychology 101 – move closer to be closer.
“Bruce,” he nodded, quieter.
“Bruce,” Drake acknowledged. “Sienna whole-heartedly believes every part of her story. The reason you are here is because her story comes across as genuine.”
“We obviously don’t believe there’s a monster visiting our daughter, but we thought it might be… you know, a guy, a pervert. In a mask or something.”
“In our initial assessment, you stated that there was no evidence of anyone being on your property, no footprints below the window, no security lights going on. I believe you also have a dog?”
“And a cat,” Bianca added, seemingly eager to help.
“What breed is the dog, may I ask?” Drake enquired.
“An Australian shepherd, named Dingo.”
Drake nodded. He was familiar with the breed – enough to know that they had originated from California, bred from collies. They had good herding instincts, were easy to train due to being intelligent, and were protective of their homes and family.
“Then I think it’s highly unlikely. However, one of the things I would suggest is that you set up a trail camera outside Sienna’s bedroom. But you must understand this isn’t to prove that something or someone is visiting Sienna in the night. It’s to prove they aren’t.”
Bruce nodded, although it seemed a little reluctantly.
“Having an imaginary friend is completely normal for children, and it’s more typical in girls. Especially when they’re an only child,” Drake explained. “Children with imaginary friends have been shown to be more creative, better at seeing other people’s perspectives, and are better at keeping themselves entertained. There is no link between imaginary friends and mental illness, or other issues.”
Drake shifted his weight in his seat, subtly directing his attention back to Bianca, the girl’s mother, as she had been the one to bring up being unwell.
“But… this isn’t really an imaginary friend, is it?” Bianca asked, looking directly at him. “It’s a monster.”
Drake sat back and gave a slight nod of acknowledgement, aiming to provide both comfort and a softened rebuttal.
“Imaginary friends usually fall into one of two categories,” Drake explained. “The first, often visualised as a baby animal, enables the child to take on a nurturing, teacher-like role. The other, are beings like superheroes or creatures and people with magical powers. In those cases, it’s often about feeling competent.”
“You’re losing me Doc,” Bruce interrupted, holding up a hand.
Drake gave the father the same nod he’d shared with the mother just a few moments ago.
“Let’s say Sienna needs to feel brave or good about doing something,” Drake continued. “What better way of reminding yourself, than knowing you’ve faced a monster. But, ultimately, this monster can’t and won’t harm her. And despite us associating this creature…”
“It’s a werewolf thing, I think,” Bianca stammered.
Drake smiled appreciatively and leant forward again, his elbows resting on the desk.
“We think of it as scary because we’ve seen movies and pop-culture references that tell us that. Sienna doesn’t have our tarnished insight. What she has, is a playful, brown – I assume Dingo is brown, like Sienna says the monster is?”
Both parents nodded. He could see they were taken aback and were joining the dots, just as he had.
“We’re just worried that she’ll go off into the forest, at night,” Bianca explained. “You know what we’re like in the South. Locking doors is almost unheard of. But we’re checking doors and windows every night. Maybe it’s making us paranoid,” she shrugged, looking at Bruce.
“As I said, Sienna’s behaviour is well within normal expectations and she will grow out of it,” Drake said. “The only flag of concern was this latest incident, where she blamed some bad behaviour on the creature.”
Bruce nodded, a flash of colour flooding his cheeks.
“She tried to unlock the front door,” he answered. “If I hadn’t stayed up watching the TV, I wouldn’t have seen her. She snuck right past the doorway.”
Bianca offered a weak smile.
“When we asked, she said the doggy told her to do it,” she stammered, a tear racing down her cheek.
Drake turned in his chair and took the silk handkerchief from the breast pocket of the linen blazer draped over the back of his chair. He handed it to Bianca, with his gaze fixed on Bruce. By not making eye contact with the woman, he hoped to save her any embarrassment she felt for breaking down.
“Again, I want to reassure you that you’re not alone, that many other parents have gone through what you are, and that Sienna’s behaviour is completely normal for her age,” Drake smiled reassuringly. “And it is nothing that you’ve done or are to blame for,” he added.
When he looked again at Mrs Clark, she smiled, and he could see that she had wiped her tears away. The damp handkerchief had been half pushed back across the desk to him.
“The only reason I would recommend I see Sienna again is so we can guide her away from negative behaviours and prevent anything potentially unhealthy like a paracosm being established,” Drake explained.
“A para-what?” Mr. Clark asked.
“A paracosm is a detailed imaginary world that some people retreat to in order to process emotions or situations they find difficult in the real world,” Drake continued. “There are many benign examples of this – C.S. Lewis created Narnia based on a world he invented with his brother as children. However, very rarely, when a child experiences trauma, they can revert to an earlier stage of development to feel safe. A paracosm works in very much the same way, enabling the child to step out of reality to protect themselves from things that upset or frighten them. Yet, if it becomes a refuge – a place where they’d perhaps rather spend more time than the real world, then that can have significant psychological consequences.”
Drake immediately regretted his explanation, reading the wide-eyed looks of concern in both parents. He raised his hands slowly, as if in surrender.
“That is not what is happening here,” he said quietly and calmly. “Sienna is clearly imaginative and as an only child, is used to playing and entertaining herself. We just need to make sure it stays the right side of the fence.”
The Clarks didn’t take too much time deciding whether to take his advice. A few moments after they left, his assistant buzzed through to the office, confirming their next appointment, and reminding him he was clear for the rest of the day. He walked through to join her in the lobby, just off the hall of his home-turned-practice. Evelyn Harper was the embodiment of southern hospitality. The African American woman was in her late 50s and had been both a schoolteacher and a legal clerk. Drake had met her whilst volunteering at a feed the homeless kitchen, set up in the town’s community hall. Her compassion and kindness had been as genuine as her cooking, and he asked her to work for him on the spot. She turned him down then, and the next two times. Then, a little while after, as his reputation spread, she had turned up on his door one day, stated her terms, and told him she would start the next Monday. She had both a fine sense of humour and a heart that never seemed to run out of love. Many of his patients – the children of the town, knew her from the private lessons she used to give. They always seemed glad to see a friendly and familiar face.
Evelyn beamed at him as he lingered close to her desk.
“Your sister called,” she informed him.
Drake lifted his chin and smiled mischievously, teasing at the prospect he wouldn’t call her back, even though he knew Evelyn had promised her he would.
“I’ll call Amelia after I’ve taken a load off,” he assured his assistant, as she gave her best schoolteacher look in warning.
“There’s some peach cobbler and iced tea in the kitchen,” she smiled, grabbing her back and getting up from her chair.
She walked over to him and cocked her head.
“You did good,” she said quietly. “They left more hopeful than when they came in. That’s all that matters.”
Drake gave a single nod and spun on his heels, escorting her to the front door and opening it for her. He wished her a pleasant weekend and closed it behind her. He walked back along the corridor towards his office. He paused just for a moment to peer through the two-way mirror into the observation room. The lights were still on and reflected off the brightly coloured toys and highly polished surfaces. It was a far cry from the dark, clinical room he’d visited as a child. He opened the door and flicked the switch. Closing the door, he started towards his office again, only to snap his gaze back into the room through the glass. He let out a long, annoyed sigh as he noticed the light from the hall now reflecting off the black, beady, plastic eyes of the teddy bear sat on top of a bookshelf.
He’d converted most of the lower floor of the house to be his practice. A living room had become a reception and waiting room. A dining room was the observation room, and the rear parlour was his office. And a downstairs bathroom had been converted into a smaller privy, now reserved for his patients. The front opened into a large hallway with these rooms to the right of a large, open, wooden staircase that led upstairs. To the left of the hall was a second front room that acted as a library and study. He had spent a lot of time, not to mention money, on selecting just the right antique furniture to match the vintage character of the house, complete with its cherry red hardwood floors. It made those visiting feel at home, and that he, perhaps, wasn’t as much of an outsider as they thought. Drake passed through the room on his way to the kitchen in the back. He caught his reflection in the large mirror, set between two dressers. His blonde hair was slicked back, and his eyes shone blue from behind his thin, metal-framed glasses – their years of practice at hiding tiredness and most other emotions put to good effect. He wondered, if maybe, he was trying a little too hard. The braces over his softly striped, light-coloured linen shirt holding up his neat, neutrally toned trousers gave off a deliberate Atticus Finch vibe.
He passed through the double-door sized cased opening that led to the kitchen, where his slice of peach cobbler sat in a bowl, a scoop of vanilla ice cream slowly melting next to it. He picked up the bowl, complete with spoon, and the glass of iced tea next to it from the table and pushed open the back door with his foot. He walked out slowly onto the wraparound veranda and slumped down into one of the wicker chairs. Drake propped his feet up on the rail and sliced a bite of cobbler and a slither of ice cream with the edge of his spoon, before lifting it into his mouth with great satisfaction. He took his time to both enjoy the treat and the warm pink and orange sunset. When done, Drake placed the empty bowl down on the deck and took out his phone. His sister answered almost immediately.
“Hi Amelia,” he smiled.
“Finally,” she sighed in mock frustration. “You okay?”
“Mom, dad? Everything okay?” he asked, his throat drying a little.
“You need to ask them yourself,” she growled. There was a pause. “They’re fine,” Amelia replied. He could sense the smile returning in her voice. “I can call you without needing or wanting something, you know.”
“Yeah, but you don’t,” he accused, laughing.
“Okay, don’t freak out or lecture me, but I’ve emailed you something.”
Drake was puzzled. She sounded excited and goofball-like. So, why would he freak out. He pulled the smartphone away from his ear and hit the button on the screen marked ‘mail’. His inbox had over a dozen unread messages, and he scrolled down until he recognised his sister’s email address. He tapped on it to open it. The message was a link to a news story from their hometown of Silvertail, West Virginia – where Amelia and his parents still lived.
The headline read: Boy, 6, kills cat and says monster under his bed told him to do it.
Drake sucked in a breath.
“Why’d the parents let it get put in the paper?” he asked.
“Wasn’t their cat he killed,” Amelia said dryly. She had a morbid sense of humour. “It was the neighbours. To the back of them… Drake, have you noticed the address?”
Drake went back to his screen and scrolled through the article. Then there it was. 13 Westwood Drive. The “unlucky” house. The one they had spent their childhood in. Only… it was the neighbours with the dead cat that lived there, not the boy and his family. Drake remembered the layout and wondered if much had changed. The backyards of both properties met a no-man’s land in the middle, made up of a small strip of dense trees and scrub. But there were no fences or barriers, at least there hadn’t been then. There would be nothing stopping the boy, or anybody else, from accessing the other property with ease. And vice versa.
From a clinical point of view, the story contained two major red flags. First, the child had taken a life. Second, the boy had refused to take responsibility for it and blamed someone else. Something else. Famously, harming, torturing, or murdering an animal and feeling no regret or remorse, was believed to be an indicator of potential serial killers. He suddenly felt cold and an involuntary shiver ran down his spine, as he remembered the same was said about children who set fire to things.
“You still there?” Amelia asked, her voice bringing him back to the present.
“Is that why you sent me this? The old house?” he accused.
“You know why I sent it,” she snapped. “But it’s not just that… I know Harper. And Asher. He’s a sweet kid. The Williams folks are a nice family.”
Drake choked on his laugh.
“He was quiet and polite, mainly kept to himself. It’s hard to believe he could do something like this,” he said, rolling his eyes.
“Exactly,” Amelia chimed in, all too eagerly.
“Sis, I just gave you word for word what was said about Ted Bundy,” Drake grimaced. “They just leave out the bit where he burned a neighbourhood cat alive.”
“He’s not like… that’s not what I meant,” she said.
He could tell he had hurt her feelings.
“Maybe you’re right,” she replied. “And clearly, anyone who sets fire to something – say a building, must have something very wrong with them.”
“What is it you want me to do?” Drake demanded.
“You know what smalltown America is like,” Amelia sighed. “They don’t want him in their schools. The doctors don’t know to cure anything a kid has, unless it’s with lollipops and ice cream. I… I think you can help him. I want you to.”
“Because it’ll get me up there, get me home.”
“Tell me you’re over it. Not just avoiding it. Over it. You’ve had closure. You’re free of it.”
Drake looked up at the darkening sky and sighed. He rested his elbows on his knees and rocked gently back and forth, the phone still to his ear.
“I’ll sleep on it,” he said quietly. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”
The light bronze Chevy Malibu, complete with rental sticker still in the window, pulled up outside the yellow-boarded house. The driver switched off the engine, reclined his seat, and began to watch for his mark.
Drake sat up in bed with a start. He took ragged, raspy breaths. Panting hard, he found it hard to move. The think grey cotton of his T-Shirt had turned dark and damp with sweat. His eyes felt too big for their sockets, and he began to panic, realising he couldn’t blink. Tremors ran down his arms and legs and across his shoulders. Someone had cried out; he was sure of it. Then, slowly, as rationality began to return to his splintered mind, he realised it had been him. Vomit rose in his throat, and he forced it back down. Controlling his breathing, he listened to the thunder of his pulse lessen in his ears and, as he began to calm, he was able to close his eyes again.
He had been free of the nightmares for years. Yet one, brief conversation with his sister had been enough to bring at least one back. He threw the covers back and dropped his feet to the floor. Rolling forward, he staggered into a standing position. Using the furniture to support and guide him, he made his way downstairs. The urge to switch on the lights was almost overwhelming, but he fought it with all his might. Not until I get to the kitchen, he demanded of himself. Leaning heavily on the banister, he poured himself down the stairs, pausing at the bottom. Shaking his head violently and running a hand through his hair, he straightened up. Calmly and collectedly, he walked slowly through the library room and into the kitchen, reaching for the light switch as he passed under the beam of the double doorframe.
He reached for a glass from the shelf and slowly turned the brass taps over the sink. He watched the water slash against the ceramic bottom and drain away, in a daze. Putting the glass down on the counter, he cupped his hands and threw water over his face. He massaged his temples and dragged his fingers down across his face, stretching the skin around his chin tightly. After filling the glass, Drake walked out into the cold night air and sat in the same chair he had in the afternoon. This time though, he looked up at the stars. There was the tiniest hint of a breeze, and it quickly cooled his sweat-laced skin. His soaked-through T-shirt felt cold, but not in a bad way. It made him feel alive and awake, and that was what he wanted. Dragging the empty adjacent chair over to him, he propped his feet up on it and sipped at the water. Ten minutes went by, then twenty. It was at the half-hour mark he truly began to feel cold, and he re-entered the house as the first hints of dawn began to creep across the sky.
He’d waited as long as he could, but now, he really had to go. Lou Green had parked the rental car in sight of the house, but also close to a little stretch of trees for this very purpose. Quietly and slowly, he opened the door and got out. Lou hesitated. It was a quiet street, and the houses were spaced far apart, with little lots of scrub in between. Although he was sure he hadn’t attracted any attention since his arrival, he still peered up the road to the next house along. It was a good two hundred yards away and shrouded in darkness. All was quiet. The only other vehicle he’d seen had belonged to the parents of the little girl, and they’d left hours ago. Lou also knew he had every right to quit. His relief hadn’t arrived, and he’d already stayed much later than he’d intended. But the agency in West Virginia had paid him good money. His motel was only ten minutes away, but he’d left it too long now. He’d never make it in time. With another quick glance up and down the street, he walked back behind the car and into the trees.
Lou unzipped his fly and relieved himself over the roots of a thick-trunked scarlet oak. The tree was so large, he couldn’t see all the way round it, and it shielded him from prying eyes. As he finished up, he heard something move in the branches above. His head snapped upwards, and he scanned the shadows. Somewhere above, a branch buckled and shook. Possum he thought, dismissing smaller critters like squirrels. Whatever was above him had some weight to it. But there was something else too. He stood still and quiet, his head craned upwards and his senses alert. There was no more movement, but there was something. God, he thought, realising he could hear the creature breathing. The noise was raspy and ragged, like the thing had a cold. Each breath was laboured and as if laced with mucus.
Then, suddenly, there was the slightest movement. Lou didn’t see what hit him, but it knocked him to the ground. Dazed, he blinked slowly, and tried to turn his head, but couldn’t. He had collapsed onto the ground, with one leg bent underneath him. His scalp felt like it was on fire. Carefully, he tried to move his arm and hand. The left was no good, but the right came free, and he touched the top of his head, near his hairline. He flinched, and a searing pain raced over his scalp. He couldn’t see in the dark, but he knew the moistness sticking to his fingers was blood. He was hurt, and more badly than he thought. He tried to get up again, which was when a shadow fell across him.
The figure was in silhouette and the moon was at its back. Lou couldn’t work out what he was looking at. It seemed hunched with rounded shoulders. The legs were thin and spindly, almost too slender to hold up the body, which was thickset. An obvious pot belly bloomed over where he imagined the waistline would be. Its arms were much more muscular, and long, thick fingers of one hand were gripped tightly round a wooden staff that the figure leant upon. Then it turned its head slightly. Two orbs of gold glowed just for a moment, where he imagined its eye sockets must be. It moved again, looking towards the house he had been watching most of the day. Doing so gave him a glimpse of the crooked, bent, oversized nose that was thin and sharp. Lou let his gaze rise along the wooden staff it clutched, and he let out a gasp of fright when he saw the gleam of metal at its top. It’s some kind of spear, Lou thought, dread and panic flooding his thoughts.
The figure took a step towards him, and its own foot touched his. That’s when Lou realised how small the thing was. He doubted it would even come up to his waist. He still couldn’t see it properly, but he could now make out the outline of clothing. It was wearing a simple vest or waistcoat that covered its torso. Around its waist was a thick heavy belt that was bent out of shape by the pot belly. Like its arms, the legs were bare, but it wore pointed boots over its long, slender feet. As it lent towards him, Lou saw the flash of its golden-coloured eyes again. There wasn’t much light, only a soft glow from the street beyond and a slither of moonshine. But it was enough. Enough to see the sneer on the creature’s face. Lou saw its jagged, irregular teeth and the singular droplet of saliva that ran to the end of a canine, before dropping onto his shirt. That’s when Lous realised the creature was standing directly over him, to the side. Unable to get up, and his head beginning to spin, Lou opened his mouth to yell for help.
The flash of the blade was quicker than his thought. He felt no pain, only shock. He could see the shaft of the spear, gripped firmly in both hands by the creature. A slight tremble from the creature’s hands ran along the metal, causing his head to move in unison. That’s when Lou realised the spear had penetrated his body. Why couldn’t he feel anything. How long had it been since he had blinked… this was the last conscious thought that slipped through his mind before the darkness came.
The creature stood poised, its grip on the weapon rigorous and dedicated. Only when it was sure the man was dead, did it pull the tip of the pikestaff from its victim. The blade had sliced through the man’s throat and out through the back, severing the spine. After mashing flesh and bone, it had sunk more securely into the tree behind the man. The creature pulled his weapon away effortlessly and rested it lengthways against the tree, tip pointed into the ground. Its eyes dropped to the dark liquid spilling from the wounds caused by the spear tips entry and exit. Reaching up, the creature removed its cap and carefully smoothed out the creases in it. Then, slowly, and methodically, it dipped the cap in the dead man’s blood until it was saturated. With equal care, the creature then cleaned the blade of its pikestaff. Seemingly satisfied with its work, it leant on the weapon, and turned its gaze toward the house the man had been watching, still just visible through the trees. It grinned… and then vanished.
Inky blackness consumed the night sky. Indigo streaks and green flares broke up the smog-clad clouds, reminding Jordan Knight of swamp gas. She knew it was pollution from the near six and a half million vehicles that trudged along Los Angeles streets and highways every day, but she still thought it looked pretty. But, just like the soft yellow light of the flickering streetlamps, the illumination was unnatural. The downtown street she was walking along, and the city itself, never saw a pitch-black night. From up in the Hollywood hills or the Santa Monica mountains, the fragmented L.A skyline gave off a ghostly pale glow that seeped into everything surrounding it.
Like any city though, there was darkness here. It waited in the alleyways and parking lots. It stalked the city parks and roadsides. And it always found prey. On average, three hundred people were murdered every year within city limits. Another two and a half thousand were victims of rape. Eight thousand citizens would be robbed in the coming twelve months, and sixteen thousand would be assaulted. The statistics, which Jordan knew off by heart, made her habit of walking the streets of her downtown neighbourhood in the early hours look unwise. Strangely, it was the veiled threat and uncertainty that made Jordan enjoy it. Confidence also came in the form of a neatly holstered Sig Sauer P320 XCOMPACT pistol, and a bronze-plated badge in her jacket pocket with the numbers 8306 and letters L A P D stamped into it.
She crossed the street, taking a left as she passed under a streetlight. It was habit by now, a good place to see if she had picked up any unwanted interest. But no shadows were catching up with her own, and the only footsteps she could hear were hers, as the soft echo of her sneakers sounded out on the hard concrete of the sidewalk. At the end of the street she could see lights, and she wondered if Lorenzo’s would still be open. It was unlikely, being the wrong side of 3am, but Anthony – or “Little Tony” as everyone seemed to call him, often let the hours slide by if everyone was having a good time. She was glad to have found a decent jazz club only a few blocks away from her apartment. Especially one where they didn’t water down the drinks and served decent food.
She slowed as she approached, trying to gauge if the lights were indeed coming from Lorenzo’s. As she got closer, she heard the lonely notes of a piano seemingly chiming along with the rhythm of her heartbeat. She paused by the steps that led down to the entrance. It was dark. Officially closed. She decided to try her luck. She stepped as heavily as she could on the stone stairway, as if to give Tony warning of her arrival. She pushed down on the handle of the dark red door and smiled as it swung open. Instantly, the piano music stopped.
“Had a feeling you’d be coming around. Why is it always when I don’t see you, I know I’m going to see you?” came a smooth, deep and booming voice out of the darkness.
“Come on Tony, you know I can’t sit in here when you’re open. Otherwise, I’d have to pay,” Jordan replied, walking forwards.
“And?” the voice challenged.
“And… I wouldn’t get private performances from LA’s most underrated pianist. You don’t take to the stage unless you’re closed.”
Tony responded with an amused grunt. As she walked forwards, she could see his huge form sat at the piano. The instrument itself was one of the things that had first indicated that Lorenzo’s was a special place. It was a Stuart & Sons grand, of which there were only about eighty in the world. It boasted an extended keyboard, which meant a musician with enough talent could play things on it that would be impossible on other pianos. It was also eye-catchingly finished in blackheart sassafras timber, with long strips of dark brown set against pale yellow grain.
For a man that must have weighed well over 300lbs, Little Tony was light on his feet. The heavyset African-American wore a tailored charcoal pinstripe suit and a blood-red shirt, the colour of which she caught as he walked underneath one of the few spotlights still turned on. He was headed to the bar. She smiled.
Tony picked out a cocktail glass and placed it on the counter. Now nearer, Jordan could hear the strain of the air as is battled past his stuffy, partially-closed nostrils. A generous pouring of vodka went into an ice-stuffed stainless-steel shaker, followed by Cointreau and cranberry juice. Jordan watched as his large left hand roughly squeezed a ripe lime until it burst, allowing the juice to join the rest of the contents. He slapped the lid on without ceremony, then, using both hands, he shook the container violently. He poured the cosmopolitan expertly into the spotlessly clean glass and stood back.
“What would I do without you, Tony?” Jordan laughed.
“You’d god-damn go someplace else and flutter your eyelids at them until you got what you wanted,” Tony challenged.
“I don’t do that to you,” she huffed. “And I can’t get what I want anywhere else, they’re all closed,” she said softly.
“Imagine,” Tony replied with mock surprise. “You know I only do this because you told me it helps you sleep.”
“It does, but not as much as…”
Tony let out a sigh and turned his back to Jordan and took a key out of his right suit pocket. He unlocked a cabinet at the rear of the bar and reached in. Jordan couldn’t see past his mass, but she could hear him at work. When he returned, he was carrying a small plate. On it, thinly-sliced Ibérico bellota ham sat beside Cornish Kern cheese.
“You have New York taste and L.A. attitude Ms Knight. That’s a dangerous combination,” Tony scoffed. “And cheese before bedtime is meant to give you nightmares”.
“Don’t forget my English education,” Jordan replied, upgrading her colloquial British accent to something more aristocratic. “But nothing gives me nightmares,” she added, much more softly.
An hour later, Jordan slipped back into her apartment. She silently walked past the kitchen, quickly checking on the sleeping white and tan pit-bull terrier stretched out in front of the refrigerator. World’s greatest guard dog she thought, smiling. She walked into the bedroom and took off her sneakers. She placed the pair of black Bottega Veneta shoes in their empty slot inside the wardrobe, then lay down on the bed. She closed her eyes.
Three hours and thirty-seven minutes later, the ringing of her cell phone dragged her from the recesses of sleep. She studied the lit-up screen for a second, seeing it was her partner, Lucas Christian.
“You awake boss?” came his tentative query.
“Who on Earth do you think’s answering the phone, genius,” she replied, trying to vail the croak in her voice.
“I honestly don’t know sometimes, but whoever she is, she’s needed at the launderette on East 3rd Street, you know, the one opposite the Korean BBQ?”
“What have we got?”
“It’s best you just come see for yourself. Let’s just say if you weren’t you, they’d be thinking about calling the Feds.”
Jordan put down the phone and sat up, swinging her legs out of the bed. She stripped off the sweat pants and T-Shirt she’d been wearing as she headed for the shower. Three minutes later, she finished towelling herself down in front of the wardrobe. She picked out a charcoal coloured suit and a white shirt as she refreshed her underwear. Dressing quickly, she slid the gun holster back on, covering it with the suit jacket, which in turn covered her slim frame, bulking it out slightly. After grabbing a pre-packed blue leather wallet bag that would fit into the suit’s inner pocket, she popped her feet back into the black designer sneakers and checked herself in the mirror. The gun and the bag equalled out the pull on the jacket as she’d hoped. She pulled her long dark hair up into a ponytail. Her green eyes flashed in the darkness of the bedroom, where she hadn’t bothered to turn on the lights. She felt tired, but she knew she looked better than she felt, and that was all that would matter. Her male colleagues, although their own grooming habits were questionable and nowhere near as fine-tuned as hers, would see weakness instead of the toll of the job they all suffered from.
Lucas’ comment about the Feds had sparked her interest. Something significant had happened. As she walked out, she passed the framed doctorate in Criminal Psychology from Stanford that hung above a small bookshelf. Beside the collector’s edition of Sherlock Holmes stories, were three books she herself had written. One put the spotlight on unsolved murder cases, three of which no longer fit that category, thanks to her. The second focused on the social motives behind violent crime. The third was by far her “best-seller”, giving a blow-by-blow account of her part in taking down a cunning and sadistic serial killer known as “The Fox”.
A further nod to her obsession and career trotted up to greet her in the hall. “Watson” was a handsome dog, mainly white, with a tan eye patch and saddle. She had rescued him from a dog-fighting ring discovered in the 7th precinct. As a homicide detective, she hadn’t been involved directly, but she had seen the pups brought in. His brothers and sisters had gone to the shelter. Watson came home with her, and she had named him after the famous companion of Sherlock Holmes. So far, it was the only long-term relationship she’d had in L.A. She made a fuss of the dog and kissed him on top of his muzzle.
Lucas looked up as he heard the distinct rumble of Jordan’s car. The black 1977 Jaguar XJC coupé had a V12 engine and he could only imagine it was hell to drive in L.A. traffic. With lowered suspension and a custom set up, it wasn’t quite as out of place in the city as it seemed, but it was still an unusual sight. He watched, bemused, as the comparatively small Jordan appeared beside the enormous car. She wandered over to him. He reached inside the unmarked Dodge he had driven from the precinct and took the reinforced cardboard cup from the holder. He handed her the black tea as soon as she crossed the street to join him.
“Do you know how hard it is to find a coffee shop that serves tea you approve of, in a recyclable cup?” he complained.
“You wanted to be my partner, partner,” she chastised. “I work better alone.”
“You’re about to get your chance,” Lucas hinted, nodding towards the door of the launderette, crowded with uniformed officers. “Shall we?”
Jordan walked through the door and stopped. Her eyes scanned the shop front. Everything looked normal. Nothing broken, upturned, or out of place. A residual layer of dust suggested the floor hadn’t been cleaned in a couple of days. She noticed the imprints of the heavy-footed officers leading beyond the counter and followed them.
“Forensics are on their way, but you’ve got the place to yourself until then,” Lucas added.
Jordan knew that was unusual. Captain Ramirez would have had to make the call to break protocol. It was a rare privilege for detectives to access the crime scene before forensics. She sipped her tea as she made her way further back into the store. She froze as what was waiting for her came into view. The round, glass-fronted door to one of the stainless-steel industrial dry-cleaning machines was open, and she could see smears of pink smudged across it. She took a sip of her tea and walked forward. Inside the machine was the crumpled body of a man. The corpse sagged to its left. Jordan guessed part of the shoulder was crushed, and the collar bone and sternum were both certainly broken. Apart from a pair of shredded boxer shorts, he was naked. His skin had turned the colour of a boiled lobster. Bluish purple bruises and ruptured contusions covered the body, and what remained of his skin looked like it had been through a cheese grater. The left eye was missing completely. The thumb of his left hand was also gone. The rest of his fingers were grotesquely twisted backwards, all broken. But despite the mess the body was in, she already knew exactly who she was looking at.
Vincent Bianchi – known in certain circles as the Great White. A known money mover for a syndicate based on the West Coast, he was a big hitter. Or at least, he had been. Her eyes had swept the floor as she walked in. Blessed with an eidetic, or “photographic” memory as it was popularly and incorrectly known as, she retraced her steps in her mind and knew the crime scene was spotless. Yet somehow, a heavyset, six-foot three-inch man had been stuffed into a dry-cleaning machine. Presumably against his will. As a lover of Italian food, it had always been a gripe of Jordan’s that Bianchi owned three of the best restaurants in the area, and a decent nightclub. She never visited them out of principle. She looked at the dials of the machine. They were still on.
“Someone has a well-developed sense of irony,” she stated, looking closer.
“What’s that boss?” Lucas asked.
“A well-known money launderer who’s been laundered? I can imagine the headlines already. See the froth around the mouth and nostrils? He drowned in the solvent. His skin is bleached from the heat of the drying process, and he’s been torn and busted up pretty badly by the sieve. But he was already dead by then, so the blood is only on the surface, see?”
“Guess we don’t need forensics after all,” Lucas shrugged.
“Oh, we do.”
Lucas looked at her for an explanation.
“Look around, Detective,” Jordan prompted. “No signs of a struggle. Nothing out of place. But there is something missing, at least from our vic. Two things actually.”
“Okay, so, I saw his eye was out. Wasn’t that just the machine?”
“Far too neat. As was whatever took his thumb off.”
“Oh yeah,” declared Lucas, peering closer.
“Some detective,” Jordan smirked. “The point is. Vincent Bianchi was subject to extreme violence, and his substantial frame was loaded into that machine whilst he was still alive. But this place looks like it’s business as usual. That’s anything but usual, and I’d gander too subtle for his syndicate friends. I’d like to take a look at the office.”
“Back there, to the left,” Lucas indicated.
Jordan walked to the office, sure of what she would find. She pushed open the door and saw it straight away. The electronic safe, which she guessed required a thumb print and iris scan, was open and empty. Except it wasn’t. Inside was a single hundred-dollar bill, weighted down at both ends by Bianchi’s missing body parts. The eye in particular seemed to have been turned slightly upward, as if to meet the gaze of anyone looking in. As she peered closer, she noticed something else. A series of small, printed letters across the top of the bill.
“Rinsed the laundry. Will keep an eye on you J. X.”
The big Jaguar’s engine growled as it worked its way through the downtown traffic. Bianchi owned a condo on the 20th floor of “The Quillon”, one of the newer high rises on the north side of Wilshire Boulevard, at the far west of what was known as the Wilshire Corridor. The drive wasn’t going to be quick. Lucas had ditched the pool car, and they had both left the launderette as it was being processed by the forensics team. Lucas sat in uncomfortable silence in the passenger seat, finally bringing up what had been on his mind all morning.
“So…other than the guy’s thumb, what did I miss back there?” Lucas asked.
“Meaning?” Jordan shot back sharply.
“The note. Kind of seemed that might have been meant for you?”
“That’s quite a leap,” Jordan dismissed, not taking her eyes from the traffic ahead. “You can’t make those kinds of assumptions if you want to solve cases Lucas. The significance of the letter J could mean anything – we don’t have enough to go on yet. We need more parameters to establish any kind of link or motive, based on evidence. And we don’t have a lot of that yet.”
“Sorry Doc, my bad,” Lucas nodded, amused. “So, what’s your take so far?”
“Break it down for me, what are the facts – you’re meant to be a detective too remember,” she teased, shaking her head.
Lucas sensed he’d gotten off lightly.
“The crime scene was clean. For all intents and purposes, indications are that Bianchi entered the machine whilst alive, without force. It’s also indicated that the thumb and eye were removed post-mortem. Robbery appears to be the motive, and whoever did it, knows Bianchi’s connection to the syndicates. That’s why we think only Bianchi’s personal money was taken. The business holdings were untouched, and in a separate safe.”
“Good, glad you were listening when I was talking to forensics,” Jordan mused. “What can you conclude about our suspect?”
“They’re clearly persuasive – and don’t rely on brute force to get the job done. They also know what they’re doing – no trace evidence, fingerprints, or otherwise immediately identifiable. So, this is unlikely to be their first rodeo. And, the note, the sense of humour – suggests intelligence and a need to be in the spotlight.”
“Not bad Lucas,” Jordan replied genuinely. “You’re dangerously close to crossing the line from a rookie gumshoe to some fairly decent behavioural analysis there.”
“Learnt from the best, boss,” Lucas chuffed.
“Now all I need to do is get you to work on your dress sense,” Jordan laughed, noting his sand-coloured suit and off-white shirt that was noticeably missing a tie.
Lucas was literally head and shoulders taller than Jordan, much to the amusement of their precinct colleagues. It had often been said that they looked like a father and daughter when they walked down a corridor together, at least height wise. Lucas looked every bit the Californian stereotype. Blonde hair, blue eyes, tan skin. He even surfed. It was a stark contrast to Jordan’s slimline stature, straight dark hair and pinkish white skin, often reminding Lucas of the stereotypical English rose.
It was another thirty minutes before they pulled into the underground parking levels of The Quillon. As they walked towards the private elevator that would lead them to the 20th floor and Bianchi’s condo, Jordan noted the three reserved parking spaces for the apartment. Two were occupied by expensive looking Cadillacs – an enormous black SUV, and an equally large black sedan. The third space was empty, but a small oil stain on the floor and a narrow tyre track showed it had maybe only recently been vacated. Jordan pressed the intercom button for the elevator. It was answered immediately.
“Bianchi residence,” came a deep, but well-spoken voice.
“Detectives Knight and Christian, L.A.P.D, we’re investigating the murder of Vincent Bianchi. I believe you were made aware of our request to see Mr. Bianchi’s home and personal affects?”
“Why do you think we’re here, sweetheart,” the voice replied. Jordan caught the muffled laughter from whoever else was already upstairs. “Hit the button for the 20th floor, it’s the only stop on that level.”
Jordan and Lucas stepped into the elevator. When the doors opened, it was onto a wide, white-painted corridor. More doors on each side led off to what Jordan presumed were bedrooms and bathrooms. She could see the corridor culminated in a living area. A well-built man in a turtle-neck and blazer greeted them. Jordan noted two more men stepped into view from either side of the doors opening onto the lounge. One, wearing a dark brown leather jacket narrowed his eyes as she approached.
“You’re a cop?” he barked as he approached.
“That’s right, they even let us girls join the force now,” Jordan replied, pulling her badge. Lucas was still showing his to the guy in the turtleneck. “Wow, looks like we already have a detective here, could have saved us the drive over,” she quipped.
“You look familiar. You investigated Bianchi before?” the man questioned.
“He might have crossed my path, why, how many’d he kill?” Jordan shot back.
There was no reply, but the man seemed to continue to scrutinise her.
“Okay boys,” Jordan declared, as if tired. “Let’s cut to the chase. My name is Detective Knight. This is my partner, Detective Lucas. You don’t want us to be here and you want this to all go away. So, show us some ID and answer our questions, and we’ll leave quicker and quieter than if you don’t. I take it you are all employees of Mr. Bianchi?”
“We work together, put it that way,” the man in the turtleneck replied, opening his wallet to show them a California driving license. The name printed on it was Ivan Miller.
“In what capacity?” Lucas demanded, stepping forward to check the second man’s ID, revealing him to be a Levi Jones.
“Protection mostly,” the big guy in the leather jacket stated, holding his ground at the end of the corridor and still staring hard at Jordan.
“Might want to update those resumés,” Lucas whispered under his breath.
“We’re more about protecting certain assets Mr. Bianchi has in play. And they ain’t been affected, in fact…” Ivan replied, only to be cut off by a murderous look from the man in the leather jacket.
Jordan walked up the corridor, ignoring Bianchi’s muscle as she made her way across the room to a large, glass-topped desk that sat in a corner of the expansive lounge. His gaze followed her. Wall-to-wall windows flanked the desk on both sides, giving breath-taking views from the city skyscrapers to the ocean.
“Go ahead Ivan, finish that sentence, unless you’re chicken?” Jordan taunted.
“It’s nothing,” the heavy in the leather jacket cut in. “Syndicate business. As we said, we ain’t here as Mr. Bianchi’s protection.”
“You think he had his hand in the till?” Jordan enquired, looking over the desk and not meeting his gaze, although she caught the inflection that indicated she was right. “How’d you find out?”
“Something you cops like, an anonymous tip. Complete with returned monies,” the heavy replied.
Jordan flicked through the papers that were on the desk, checking the drawers. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, then her eye caught the indent on a pad she had brushed aside. It was extremely faint – made from the press of a pen or pencil on the sheet above, which was now missing. Jordan reached into her suit jacket, retrieving the pink leather wallet bag and unfastening the silver skull catch.
“Being a cop must pay well,” the leather-jacketed goon huffed. “That’s designer. My girlfriend has the same one, but black. I bought it, so I know what it cost lady.”
“Alexander McQueen,” Jordan remarked, as she fished out a sophisticated looking eyebrow pen and gently began to sweep it back and forth across the paper pad. “And, I imagine legitimately-obtained gains are something you’re less of an expert on.”
Jordan stared down at the paper. The imprint and lettering were much clearer now.
Meet her at the shop. Midnight.
“Do you know who he was meeting at the shop?” Jordan asked, looking up at the room. “I presume the shop is the dry-cleaning business?”
“Yep, that’s what he called it,” Ivan replied.
Jordan decided to focus on him, as he seemed to be more amenable and inclined to talk.
“Who was she?”
“We don’t know, he told us it was a date. We presumed it was a girl, you know, a…”
“Hooker?” Jordan answered for him, recognising his discomfort.
The man nodded.
“Tell me what you know,” Jordan chirped, confidently.
“Not much to tell. We’re not permanently attached to Mr. Bianchi. We only know he had a date, because he called Joey to tell him,” he nodded towards the man in the leather jacket.
“I thought Mr. Bianchi was married?” Jordan declared with mock surprise.
‘Yeah, well, he’s also Italian,” Joey laughed, heartlessly.
“Okay gents, a couple of things, then we’ll be out of your hair. First, I need to know what the Great White was wearing yesterday, and I need to know where the other car is.”
“How did you know a car was missing?” Joey challenged.
“Because I can read, and I can count,” Jordan sighed. Despite her flippancy, her hand tensed, ready to break to the holster hidden underneath her suit jacket. She could feel the tension, and her every instinct was reading the room. Even though the hostility seemed to only come from Joey, it was beginning to infect the other two. She could sense the agitation growing in all of them.
“Err, boss, I think I might know what he was wearing yesterday,” Lucas stated, looking through a door into the nearest bedroom.
Jordan crossed the lounge and peered in. A dark-coloured suit, a powder blue shirt, and pink and blue polka dot tie were laid out on the bed, sheathed in plastic. The white logo for Bianchi Dry Cleaning stood out against the clothing. As she took a step closer, she spotted the fine cotton pink socks neatly folded into the breast pocket of the suit.
“This is what he was wearing?” Jordan asked Ivan.
“We think so,” he nodded.
“The suspect dry-cleaned his clothes, then brought them back here?” Lucas asked out loud.
“As well as the syndicate stuff?” Jordan added. “This all happened this morning?”
The silence that met the question confirmed it.
“Sorry boys, we’re not getting out of here as quickly as you thought,” Jordan remarked. “Lucas, we’ll need forensics, and security logs for the building, camera footage from every store, hotel, and apartment block that has a view of the building entrance or parking level.”
“So, Joey, how much do you think they took altogether? I’m guessing anyone who took the time to come back here perhaps gave the place a once-over to make it worth their while?”
“We were trying to figure that out when you got here,” Joey shrugged.
“You mean someone beat you to the loot?” Jordan challenged.
“Want my help or not lady?” Joey grunted.
“My apologies, what do you know was taken, as you carefully and meticulously tried to account for Mr. Bianchi’s personal affects?”
“We figure about $4 million in cash,” Joey replied. “About a mill from here, and there would have been two to three at the office, easy. His watches are missing too, and some jewellery. They left the small stuff but took anything with big stones. Most of it isn’t traceable, except that car you mentioned.”
“Everything they took is easy collateral – they can shift it and sell it with little or no trouble,” Jordan mused. “So, the car?”
“A 1963, light blue Jaguar E-Type convertible with a red leather interior. Guy thought he was James Bond or something.”
“Know the license number?”
“I’m surprised you don’t yourself. Now I seen you up close, I got a feeling I know where I seen you befores,” Joey grinned.
“Oh really?” Jordan challenged.
“Couple of days ago, we were driving in. I only caught a glimpse, but you were stood by that very car, like you’d been looking at it. You walked to the lobby elevator, and you were wearing sunglasses, but it sure looked like you now I think about it.”
“I can assure you, unless Mr. Bianchi was upgrading from low-level money movement, he wouldn’t have been on my radar,” Jordan rebutted.
Jordan and Lucas waited until the forensics team and uniformed officers arrived to take over. As they left, they saw Joey and the other two confiding together. Even as the elevator doors closed, Joey didn’t take his eyes from Jordan, still talking to the others until they were blocked from sight.
“So, you been looking into Bianchi?” Lucas asked, quietly, as they walked back to the car. “Best I know now, or this gets ugly fast.”
“I don’t even eat in his restaurants, which is more devastating than it sounds,” Jordan replied. “That enforcer, Joey, he didn’t see me. But he definitely saw someone we need to talk to. I think we can safely say our leading suspect is currently female.”
“And looks like you,” Lucas grinned, regretting the remark instantly as he met Jordan’s angered stare.
A shuddering, violent exhale of breath burst from the blow hole of the bull, as his great back breached the surface and rolled under again. Close to exhaustion, he drifted a few yards and stilled his tired body. The water around him was colder, darker, and much shallower than his usual paths and harbours. The pain in his head had driven him far beyond his familiar haunts, into dark lonely seas.
The sound of the small boats above and behind him stirred him into laboured movement again. He slowly arched his back and raised his tail into the air, smashing it down onto the water’s surface to vent his frustration at their presence and efforts. Although the pulse in his head was much more subdued in these colder, eastern waters, he still had to fight the aggressive urges that swept over him. In the sixty-five years he had lived, he had been lucky to have never been hunted, although he had witnessed the pursuit once as a calf. His memories of the water turning red, his father’s screams as his side had exploded, and the thrashing slaps of his flippers as he writhed in agony had long been buried. But recently, they had surfaced again, tearing through his consciousness with renewed intensity and purpose.
Since the death of his father, whenever he had heard the mournful, grieving song his mother and aunts had sung that day, he had known to turn away and seek new seas. His new memories of humans had been good ones. They were of small boats like the ones surrounding him now, filled with people that coaxed him closer with gentle sounds, or divers drifting with him in warm blue water. He bore them no grudge.
The bull rolled onto his side, letting his flipper tower out of the water. Residual streams ran down its surface before it splashed back down. He righted himself and moved off again with deliberate flicks of his flukes. He ignored the purr from the boat motors, his echolocation telling him he was unable to go much further now. Although invisible to him in the dark murky water, he could sense the banks of the river rising out of the bed of the estuary and closing in on him. He could taste the mixture of salt and fresh water, the salinity dwindling with every move forward. The physical toll of his journey, and the extra effort needed to keep his mass buoyant in the waters of the river was draining the last of his strength. He knew he wouldn’t live much longer. He hadn’t fed during his lonely swim to the east and south.
Sergeant John Mitchell of the Metropolitan River Policing Unit circled the immense whale again, frustrated by its stubborn passage along the Thames. The small boats he had commandeered to try and force the animal back were not having the desired effect, and as he looked up, he saw that several recognisable silhouettes of the London skyline were coming into view. Largest and closest was the London Eye, the giant Catherine-wheeled tourist attraction whose elevated pods gave views stretching across the capital. But today, all eyes were looking down.
The tide was at its highest right now, but in five hours’ time, the mighty Thames would be at its lowest point. The whale would be in serious danger of becoming stranded in the shallows or even on the banks.
He glanced at the helicopters beginning to gather in the sky. The stubborn cetacean was the only news story for Londoners today. Humpback whales followed strict migration routes between the polar seas and the Caribbean. Although they were known to spend several months off the coast of southern Ireland and even western Scotland, it was a very rare and strange occurrence to see them in the North Sea or English Channel. One had never been reported in the Thames before.
The whole spectacle sickened Mitchell. If the whale was to die, which he now suspected was its reason for wandering into the estuary in the first place, the city would be able to watch it on the breakfast news, just another momentary spectacle in an otherwise boring and stagnant world. He grabbed the radio.
“Is the net ready? Over.” He spoke so quietly it was as if he was asking only himself.
There was only a second’s pause before the crackled reply came.
“Yes sir, it won’t get beyond Waterloo Bridge. We’re all set here. Over”
He replaced the radio back on the wheel column of the Targa 31 Fast Patrol Vessel he was piloting. He wondered what the whale would do when it reached the dead end. He knew his commanders were talking to authorities around the world as to why this creature was even here, in his river. Some were saying climate change. Others were saying illegal whalers had chased him there. The only thing that seemed clear was that nobody really knew.
The bull now knew his purpose. At first, it had been to simply keep moving, hoping the pain in his head would dull. His enormous brain, the size of a small car, had recognised the link between his aggressive desires and the pulsing agony. It was as he had prepared to attack and sink a small vessel in sheltered waters that he had noticed the sudden subduing of the pain. He had turned away from the boat in angry confusion, driving himself away. He was used to parasites – the crustaceans that clung to his flippers and flukes, or the remoras that sucked onto his belly. He now recognised the violent urges that swelled up in him as the alien intrusions of such organisms. He fought the unnatural desires with his wavering will-power, seeking out and trying to communicate to the animals he felt compelled to destroy. Now stripped of his strength, there was little more he could do. It was then that he began to sense the net.
Sergeant Mitchell felt the swell underneath as the whale’s giant tail rose out of the water in front of the boat. The animal was putting on a sudden burst of speed, heading straight down the middle of the river. Waterloo Bridge was in full view to the small boats following in its wake, and as Mitchell looked to his left, he could see large crowds gathering on the embankment.
The enormous rippled spine broke the surface of the water. There were cheers and shouts from both sides of the river. The great black head surged through the froth, creating a bow wave as the whale put on more speed. Whistles and camera flashes began to ripple along the banks of the river on both sides. Fathers held their children on their shoulders, pointing and smiling. The cheer rose as one, as an enormous snort thundered out of the blowhole, followed by a jet of mist that rose seven feet into the air. Then it disappeared below the water’s surface.
The bull spread out its flippers wide as it tilted its body and glided into a graceful turn. He sang a last and pitiful song knowing there would be no answer. The very edge of one fin gently stroked against the muddy bottom of the river as he propelled himself upwards with powerful thrusts of his tail. With a final and well-timed flick of his flukes, he shot into the air. His head burst from the water, his body rigid and working hard to gain height and momentum. Then gravity turned against him and his mass, slowing his ascent to the point he seemed to hang in mid-air. He began to twist and fall backwards.
The crowd had little time to react to the enormous creature as its shadow fell across them. They hadn’t expected it to breach so close to the embankment. They watched, unable to move as its great eye moved over the crowd. Those closest felt a wave of sadness sweep over them as they understood its action. The whale crashed down over the concrete rail, rolling forward through the snack and souvenir stand at the entrance to the London Eye. Water streamed down the sides of its body. Its own weight was already killing it, crushing the heart and lungs that would usually be protected from its bulk suspended in water.
As Sergeant Mitchell circled close to the bank, children on the shoulders of their fathers cried. The crowd surged backwards as wonder turned to horror. They turned away from the spectacle they had turned out to see, hurt and embittered by an event they could have never imagined. As families comforted each other, little did they know it would be a poignant yet unheeded warning.
From his booth at the beachhead’s car park, Tory had an almost perfect view of the girls as they stretched out on their beach towels. The small town of Binalong Bay was one of Tasmania’s most beautiful stretches of coastline, with crystal blue waters and diamond white sand, but even he got bored of that view after a while. That was not the case today. He had let them park for free, their flirtatious smiles and pleadings not lost on him for long. A blonde, brunette and a redhead all in one jeep, it was as if his fantasies were all coming true. And now he was getting his reward. The sand was hot and it hadn’t taken them long to get uncomfortable. The good thing about the hard, quartz crystals was that it really did get everywhere. The coarse granules quickly became unwelcome distractions to the warm sunshine and the sound of breakers. The bikini tops had soon be loosened and then finally discarded one by one. He was fairly sure the redhead was giving him a show as she leaned her head back, her frizzy hair falling over her shoulders. Now whenever she laughed or moved, the white flesh of her chest flashed pleasingly in his direction. The salty air had made her nipples hard and erect. This was definitely more his idea of a view.
If only the damn seal would shut up, he thought. At its eastern-most peninsula, the beach ended in a rocky outcrop. It went some way out to sea, but it met both the beach and the car park along its perimeter. The day before, a lone bull southern elephant seal had hauled itself out onto the shore and was now bellowing regularly and very loudly, much to his annoyance. There was a breeding colony on Macquarie Island, but they were rare visitors here. And the bull was an unwelcome one as far as Tory was concerned. He returned to watching the girls.
The elephant seal stopped his bellows, rising up onto his rear. As he flopped down, he swivelled back towards the water, his gaze fixed on its surface with a quiet focus. The bull shuffled forward, dragging its bulk over the rocks with a blubbery wriggle. It dipped its head again towards the water, as if listening. The seal let his weight pull him forward and plunged head first into the cool water. The transformation from unbalanced, lumbering land animal to lithe and graceful sea creature was instantaneous with the mere touch of the waves. The bull eased forward with a few flicks of his hind flipper-like feet, propelling his 7,300lb bulk through the water with lazy ease. He drifted motionless with the current as he focused on the dark silhouette approaching out of the deeper water.
The great white shark was a female, just less than twenty feet in length. She was cruising sedately and made her way past the motionless elephant seal in a slow sweep. Her great mouth was open as she swam, her gleaming and deadly dentition on show. Each triangular tooth was just over two inches long and had several replacements growing within the jaw behind them. She sank deeper, hugging the reef line and seeking the darkness where her svelte shape wouldn’t be seen.
Tory smiled as the girls threw back their towels and playfully kicked sand at each other as they made their way into the breakers. They touched the water with joyful, gentle caresses of their fingertips, rubbing it over their skin to free them of the gritty residue of the sand and the scorching kisses of the sun. Soon they stood in water up to their midriffs, laughing together and enjoying the coolness.
The redhead was the first to break away, pushing herself off into deeper water. Tory’s disappointment at the girl’s bare chest slipping beneath the surface was made up for as he caught a momentary glimpse of her curved behind, porpoising above the waves as she kicked and thrashed her way through the water. The others were soon chasing after her. Tory leaned back in his chair, putting his feet up onto the narrow counter of the booth as he waited for their glorious return from the water, and the slow, inevitable walk back up the beach to their towels. It would be worth the wait. He didn’t notice the absent bellows of the elephant seal now.
The great white turned in the water in an arc that seemed benign but was cloaked in speed and purpose. Her powerful tail moved her out from the sheltered corridors of the reef with a few quick beats that thrust her forward into open water. She dipped her snout and curved her spine as her powerful senses became flooded by the electrical impulses resonating towards her through the water. Miniscule elements of blood and urine teased at her olfactory tract and the static discharge of three pumping hearts sounded out both the path and distance to her prey. She accelerated, her dorsal fin just cutting a fine spray above the water as she swam towards the source.
Tory noticed the streak of greenish black as the triangular fin momentarily rose above the surface from the corner of his eye. He sat bolt upright, watching the water for a further sign of movement or for a shape to take form. He lifted his binoculars to his eyes and scanned back and forth over the water. He stopped when he came to the girls, who were looking curiously towards where he thought he’d seen the movement too. They were obviously bothered by it, as they seemed to be making their way back out of the water. He focused his gaze on the surf, holding his breath as he did. Something in his gut told him something just wasn’t right. Suddenly, the redhead jerked sideways and disappeared beneath the water. As Tory watched in horror, a red slick began to colour the churning waves to a pinkish hue. He grabbed the first aid pack from the shelf and sprang out of the door in a sprint towards the beach.
The great fish rolled onto her side as she swallowed the leg, cut through just below the knee and circled round again towards the girl it had just attacked. The redhead resurfaced, screaming in terror at her friends as they swam away in panic. As adrenalin flooded into her system, she became silent as her body went into shock. She felt no pain as her trembling fingers searched for the wound beneath the red veil of her own blood clouding the water. She screamed again as she tried to kick out with her left leg, only to find her hand brushing against the soft stump and trailing, tattered flesh the shark had left behind. She closed her eyes as the three foot high conical fin surfaced beside her and cruised past. When she opened them again, she watched it streak away as it headed for the other two girls.
Tory stopped in his tracks as he watched the blonde rise up out of the ocean, the shark hitting her from beneath, so her legs straddled either side of its open mouth. She writhed, opening her mouth to release a horrible and unnatural high-pitched scream. The sound stopped abruptly as the fish closed its terrible jaws, severing the girl’s legs and midriff from her torso, as its shot-glass sized teeth came together like scissor blades. A thrash of its tail propelled it beneath the waves again as it took the blonde’s upper half into its maw, gulping in quick muscular spasms to coax the remains down its throat. As its eyes rolled back from their protective sheaths, it accelerated forward again, closing on the brunette with vicious and devastating speed.
Tory was knee deep in the surf as his arms stretched out for the brunette as he began to wade towards her. His fingertips just touched hers for a brief moment, before she was jerked backwards with such force that she fell across the green-tipped snout of the shark, its jaws closed on her flailing right leg just above the ankle. As the fish caught the scent of the blood in the water, it was spurred instinctively into action, its throat muscles working hard to compress and suck the prey into its mouth. The girl had already stopped screaming before she disappeared below the surf.
Tory stumbled backwards, falling out of the water onto the moist sand. He glanced to his left further down the beach where he saw something in the water. As he realised what it was, he pulled himself up again, fighting off the wave of panic that threatened to consume him. He half-stumbled, half ran, as he splashed through the breakers to drag the unconscious redhead from the water. He trembled as he stepped back onto the beach, watching the greenish grey fin cut back and forth through the waves only ten feet or so from the sand. He quickly pulled the pale girl further up the beach. Without hesitating he flung open the first aid pack and grabbed a cravat bandage, folding it into a bandana-like strip. He quickly tied it in an overhand knot above the severed leg and fished out a marker pen, securing it with another loop. He began to twist it in ever tightening turns to make a tourniquet. As the bleeding began to slow and finally stop, he grabbed more bandages and wrapped them round the makeshift dressing to hold it in place. It was then that he saw movement out of the corner of his eye.
Tory spun round to see the lumbering, flopping form of the bull elephant seal coming out of the sea straight towards him and the unconscious girl. It bellowed furiously and rose up on its hindquarters in a defensive posture. Tory scooped up the girl in his arms and stumbled his way towards the sloping path that led to the car park and his booth. He could hear the shuffling and surprisingly fast progress of the seal as it followed him. He made it to the top of the path panting and out of breath, and he almost fell through the open doorway of the booth as he reached it. His strength stayed with him long enough to put the girl down in the seat and lift what was left of her left leg onto the narrow counter. He picked up the phone on the wall and punched in 000 for the emergency services. Then he heard it.
The blubbery slap of the elephant seal’s stomach against the hard concrete was almost comical, as was the gargled, flatulent sounding grunts it made as it covered the ground. Tory instinctively slammed the door to the booth shut and bolted it, just as the whole structure quivered as it received a glancing blow from the animal. Tory peered out of the window, only to find himself meeting the maddened gaze of the bull through the glass. Its bloodshot eyes shone like large black marbles, and in them he saw its rage and fury. It slammed its chest and muzzle against the glass, shattering it and showering Tory with the shards. But although the seal could just about lift its head up and over the window frame lip, Tory had retreated far enough inside to be out of reach.
The bull made a huffing sound as it turned away and fell back onto its stomach. It shuffled away, only to stop beside the open top jeep the girls had arrived in. A low growl rumbled in its throat as it rose up and slammed itself down onto the bonnet of the car. It slithered off, revealing the dents and welts its 7,300lb bulk had left. Another slam smashed the headlight, followed by another that buckled the radiator. Tory watched mystified as the bull used its bulk like a sledgehammer against the car, not even pausing when blood began to pour from open wounds on its bulbous trunk. As the front suspension gave way, the seal at last seemed satisfied and shuffled off back down the path. As Tory heard the sirens of the nearing ambulance, he watched the bull slip back into the surf and disappear into the waves. He had no knowledge of the whale that had breached the banks of the Thames the day before, and he had no idea of what was yet to come.
The U.S.S Desperado glided silently through the dark waters, maintaining a depth of 650 feet. On the surface above rolled waves of clear blue and turquoise. The tourists lining the beaches of nearby Bermuda had no idea that one of the newest submarines in the U.S Navy was navigating its way past the island chain. At 377 feet, the Virginia class vessel’s stealthy and silent manoeuvring was even more impressive than its simple presence, a shadow in the depths that blended into its watery surroundings perfectly.
Lieutenant Cross sat in the Captain’s chair of the Wellcraft 340 Coastal sports fishing boat, casually glancing at the numerous screens fitted to the console on the deck and linked to the surveillance and communications gear that filled the holds, normally reserved for hauls of fish. He caught the sound of a slapping splash coming from the port side. He stood up and leaned over, smiling at what greeted him. The bronze coloured skin of Orion, a three-year old Californian sea lion, flashed in the turquoise water. Her snout broke the surface again and she flipped effortlessly onto her back, gazing at him expectantly and letting out a short bark in anticipation. Cross chuckled and took a fish from the bucket and threw it to her. She caught it easily and dived beneath the surface with her prize.
Cross used the opportunity to check the camera and harness. The view was perfect and the camera was still in position, on the centre of her back and facing her head. Everything Orion saw, he would be able to see too. Colour and focus were sharp, despite the complicated series of turns the sea lion was now performing. Orion was his favourite of the group and despite her disability, also the smartest in his opinion. He leaned over and banged the side of the boat loudly. He knew she wouldn’t be able to hear him, but she would be able to pick up on the vibrations as they echoed out through the water. A few moments later, her snout broke the surface again close to the boat and he found himself smiling as she barked excitedly and looked up at him with dark brown eyes full of mischief and anticipation. Cross straightened up and gave her a thumbs up with both hands, then moved his left fist in a series of circles until it touched the right. Orion barked and dived beneath the surface, recognising the command to follow.
Cross used hand signals based on sign language with all the animals, but Orion absolutely depended on it. He had first come across her in San Diego Bay as he conducted exercises with the Marine Mammal Program. She just started showing up, often coming right alongside the zodiac whenever he was performing open water exercises with the team animals. It got to the point that whenever he saw the red and white frontage of the Hotel del Coronado, made famous for its role in the movie ‘some like it hot’, he would start looking for the ambitious yet emaciated sea lion. It wasn’t unusual for some of the wild residents of the bay to take an interest in the exercises, especially if they were working close to the wildlife refuge to the south, but she seemed more driven than the others. She’d harass the animals he was working with so they’d give up their fish, or bark incessantly until he fed her. Her condition and behaviour had eventually led him to acquiring permission to capture her and bring her into the program. When he did, it didn’t take long for him to realise that the sea lion was profoundly deaf. That should have been the end of it, and her career with the Marine Mammal Program, but he had seen something in her from the start and he decided to make her a special project. And to a certain extent, his hard work had paid off. She couldn’t take part in some of the more complex operations that relied on underwater sound commands, but she had a place on the team.
Her role on the current task was to help observe its execution from close quarters. Orion was speeding through the water now and as Cross monitored the screen and her progress, he saw the three other sea lions ahead of her. Each was wearing a neck harness that held a camera to one side of their head, and a listening device on the other. The harness and the listening device were both new items of equipment, being trialled during the operation. They looked a little like one side of a set of earmuffs from afar. Soft, coral coloured tendrils cushioned the Buckhannon Marine-Mic over the left ear of the sea lions. Attached to the keel of the Wellcraft was a transmitter that would send out Cross’s instructions through the water. Cross brought up the individual displays on the Panasonic FZ-G1 Toughpad he was holding. The feed was filtered into four streams, one for each sea lion. By tapping on an individual column, he could send separate instructions to each sea lion, or send group commands, at least to the three that could hear and respond to them. It was a real breakthrough for their long range open water missions.
The Navy had been using animals as part of their Marine Mammal Program for almost seven decades. Despite popular conspiracy theories, the animals had never been used in acts of aggression. Their primary role had always been detection and rescue operations, as well as various research roles. From the streamlined design of vessels to the ongoing development of acoustic detection systems, the Marine Mammal Program had contributed to many breakthroughs in such research. But today, they were trying something new.
The Desperado was using her state-of-the-art sonar equipment to search for a wreck that had never been found, despite the rumours that it had been there for nearly eighty years. The story went that the Japanese frigate Wokou had appeared out of the mist one stormy night during World War II, only noticed by a few of the islanders. By dawn she was gone, all but some of her debris that washed up on shore with the morning tide. Popular belief had always claimed that she had simply become another victim of the infamous Bermuda Triangle.
Navy records showed otherwise. Commandos based on the island, who were part of a transition team turning a British Army munitions fort into a new Atlantic submarine base, had spotted the Wokou, despite the heavy fog. It had been suspected she had travelled through the Panama Canal with assistance from the axis-friendly President Arias. The attack at Pearl Harbor was still fresh in the American memory and the Wokou’s mission was unknown. Using a small inflatable craft, the commandos had approached the frigate and used the deep fog bank to their advantage, attaching limpet mines and scuttling the ship before most of its crew had even time to stir in their bunks.
Once the wreck was detected, the sea lions were going to be directed to search for unexploded mines and anti-submarine weapons that might be a danger. If anything, it was a good training exercise for both the crew of the Desperado and for the animals. It was the second part of the exercise that Cross didn’t like. If mines or other explosive devices were found, two dolphins were going to be sent to the wreck with their own limpet mines to destroy what remained of the wreck in a controlled setting. Although this was still classed as a defensive exercise, he had already considered how easy it would be for the animals to apply their training to a more aggressive setting. Too easily, he thought.
Captain Marcus Brody gave the order to stop engines. The heavy reverberations ceased almost immediately as a final ripple of energy echoed down the length of the U.S.S Desperado, and she drifted to a silent halt in the water.
“Confirm report,” Brody snapped at the radar station.
“Report confirmed, sir,” came the reply, “she’s 500 yards off the starboard bow.”
“Okay,” nodded Brody as he relaxed a little, “time to let the circus come to town.”
The lieutenant smiled and picked up the radio.
Cross sighed and tapped the access codes into the tablet. The four feeds on the display blipped to the live streams, each providing footage from the back of a different sea lion. Cross quickly checked the bearings of the four animals and entered an individual code for the three ‘active’ members of the team. As Cross used the modified directional arrows and specialist command buttons for the app, a series of clicks and buzzes were transmitted to the sea lions via the Marine-Mic. Once he had them all together, he could send directions to them in unison, all except Orion, who knew only to follow until she returned to the surface. He punched in a set of commands and then looked up over the starboard side in time to see all four break the surface in perfect symmetry. He tapped the directional arrows again and the sea lions dived one after the other into deeper water.
It didn’t take long for them to find the wreck. Within a few minutes, the blurred edges of the ship were coming into view on Orion’s camera. 600 feet was well within the sea lions normal diving range, but the light at that depth was on the cusp of the twilight zone and diminished further the deeper they went. Cross clicked a bulb-shaped symbol on the software’s control panel, and small spotlights on each of the harnesses blinked on simultaneously. Hannah, a still relatively young and playful character, was taken by surprise by her sudden illumination, and she cart-wheeled a few times before she returned to the others. Cross smiled to himself and shook his head. Hannah was fun, but not all that bright, so he decided to use Holly for the search inside the ship.
Holly had experience wreck diving, and wouldn’t be startled by the confined spaces and shadows. Cross sent a signal to the other sea lions to hold the position whilst he directed Holly forward. Orion started after her, but then slowed and drifted again when she realised the others weren’t following. Cross was impressed with the initiative she showed sometimes. Holly flicked her hindquarters effortlessly, propelling her over the crippled bow of the Wokou. She drifted momentarily along the port side, pausing at the truck-sized hole that had been torn in the ship’s side by the explosives. Cross watched the monitor as he tapped more instructions into the pad. Holly hesitated for a second, but then propelled herself forward into the ship’s interior.
Now, the spotlight on the harness was the only source of light. The explosives had opened a hole into one of the storage holds of the frigate, and it became immediately apparent why the ship had sunk so quickly and why so much damage had been done. The storage hold was part of the ship’s magazine, containing at least twenty contact mines. Cross guessed at least two had gone off as a result of the explosion, noticing the warped metal on the floor, in two distinct blast zones close to what remained of the wall. All Holly would have to do is touch one of the protruding rods on any of the intact mines to trigger a similar explosion. Cross quickly punched the recall command into the touch screen and Holly glided out into open ocean again.
Suddenly, the monitors all crackled and lost their picture momentarily. A slight hum emanated from the radio for a second or two, before it and the monitors all came back on. Cross checked everything, baffled. He put it down to a power surge and checked the equipment over to be sure. All four feeds showed the distant image of the U.S.S Desperado as she began to ascend towards the surface, and away from the Wokou’s explosive cargo. He wondered why the sea lions were suddenly so interested in it. They had seen the sub and many others like it before. Orion was the only one who seemed unbothered, turning away and looking back towards the surface. Cross checked his watch. Their dive time was close to six minutes now, and although Californian sea lions could stay under for as long as twenty, they rarely took dives longer than five. Cross had always exercised great care in not over-extending dive times, keeping them as regular and as natural as operations allowed. He was beginning to get concerned.
Cross got up and walked to the back of the boat. He picked up the red, white and blue barred Charlie signal flag and waved it at the second boat behind his, a Scarab 35 Offshore Tournament. He watched through binoculars as the signal was returned and he went back to the monitors. Priest and Monk, a pair of male bottle-nosed dolphins streaked past Orion, showing up on her camera for a brief moment. Their speed was remarkable. They wore similar harnesses to the sea lions, but also carried rods in their mouths with a limpet mine suspended from each end. That made four mines in total.
Cross continued to watch the monitors. The sea lions were beginning to get bored it seemed. Orion was heading to the surface, whilst Holly was drifting up towards his boat. Lee, the other sea lion seemed to be heading towards the other craft in a similar lazy ascent. He was beginning to get bored himself and he tapped the general recall command into the tablet. The sea lions showed no response to the command, but before he could worry about that, something else made him sit bolt upright with shock.
Monk and Priest were flicking back and forth over the bow of the U.S.S Desperado, spiralling around the submarine’s circumference with ease and gradually getting closer and closer. Cross watched in horror as Monk suddenly darted forward and attached both of his limpet mines to the hull of the submarine. One of Cross’s first objections to the exercise was becoming a reality before his very eyes. The main reason why the Navy had never used the Marine Mammal Program for aggressive operations was because the animals could not tell the difference between enemy and friendly craft. He reached for the radio, about to demand a weapons-hold status, when he was distracted again by Priest as he rocketed up to Holly and Lee, drifting alongside them upside down. He watched with disbelief as the sea lions snapped into action, each taking a mine in their mouths, breaking them away from the rod and shooting up towards the surface.
It didn’t seem to register as he watched the sea lions attach a mine to the bottom of each boat on the tablet. Cross had trained each animal himself and written the program from start to finish. This wasn’t learnt behaviour, it was something new. He had never seen the like of it before. The levels of organisation they were showing were unprecedented. Cross came to his senses fractionally too late, registering the tiny countdown clock in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen. 4…3…2…he closed his eyes.
The mines exploded simultaneously. The Wellcraft and Scarab sports boats were blown apart instantly by the 8lbs of explosive in the devices attached to their hulls. Cross and the small crew on the support boat were all killed instantly. The mines on the U.S.S Desperado cracked open her hull, instantly flooding the bridge and letting seawater into numerous compartments at once, on several decks. There had been no warning, so they had been unable to take any preventative measures. No call for help was made; no order was given to blow the emergency ballast tanks to take them to the surface. Instead, the crippled submarine spun in a slow arc towards the seabed, spewing debris and bodies as it went.
Watching from above, Orion saw the other sea lions join the dolphins as the submarine passed out of view. She lingered for a few moments more, but then turned and headed in the opposite direction towards the open ocean.
Le Renard rose and fell with each gentle caress of the swells within her private harbour. Over the years, Stede had come to know the subtle sounds she made as her cedar and teak timbers called out for the ocean they longed for. He often imagined the yacht singing the sad lonely song of a captive to its partner the free and raging ocean on the other side of the harbour wall. She served as his floating laboratory faithfully, but a boat was meant to go to sea and it had been a long time since she had raised a sail in anger.
He rolled over on the king-sized bed and tenderly caressed the other woman in his life with a stroke of his fingers. Hailey was beautiful. He knew it at a level that he couldn’t recognise. He let his hand glide over the smooth caramel coloured skin along her arm. Her hair fell in natural curls down to her shoulders, and always reminded him of the deep, dark colour of a redwood tree, like dark chocolate with a tinge of cherry. Somehow it always smelled of cinnamon. She opened her eyes, which were almost a perfect match to the rich colour of her hair. She smiled as she straightened out a little under the sheets, but closed her eyes again as she clung to the snug remnants of sleep.
“Have we earned a day off yet?” she asked, creeping closer to him under the sheets as her hands explored and found his waist.
Stede paused, knowing how he’d like to answer. “Not this month,” he smiled sympathetically, as reality began to tug away at his desire to stay put.
He kissed her again, and then pulled the sheets from underneath her, spinning her over to the other side of the bed. She threw a pair of her discarded panties at him in mock annoyance. He stood up, pulling on a pair of sand coloured shorts as he did so.
“You look like Robert Shaw in From Russia with Love,” Hailey exclaimed with a giggle.
“So who does that make you, the old woman with the knife in her shoe?”
“Hah, I’m definitely more Jinx Johnson wouldn’t you say?” She folded her leg over the sheets and turned on her side, revealing the curves of her bare waist and breasts.
Stede raised an eyebrow as he lingered once more.
“And that was pure Roger Moore,” Hailey called after him.
“When you’re quite finished Miss Moneypenny,” he replied sarcastically, finally heading aft to the galley.
He peered out of the mahogany-set windows towards the stylish beach house. Although slightly elevated, it was split over several levels, and its angular white walls to the front gave way to clear window panels, blue steel frames, and hardwood decking at the back that looked out to the sweeping sea views and the glass-walled swimming pool. He hesitated, not wanting to tarnish the spotless galley with an attempt at breakfast. They had only stayed on the boat after finishing late the night before. The bottle of rosé Veuve Clicquot Hailey had found had clinched the decision. He opened the fridge door and smiled as he peered inside. Several containers, each containing a different specimen made up the entire contents. Not a trace of food was evident. He sighed with relief. She might not get to sea much, but Le Renard was the tightest kept yacht in Bermuda and would remain so this morning. That was one thing he’d taken with him from the Navy.
“Hello bubblehead, hello sailor,” said a raspy voice from the other side of the galley.
“Morning Mojo,” Stede replied with a smile.
Hailey’s magnificent and full-sized great green macaw, Mojo, ruffled his feathers and raised the crest on top of his head a little, a behaviour that signified joy and contentment. Stede walked over to the perch and took a walnut from a bowl on the counter. Mojo shrieked with pleasure and took the nut from Stede with an outstretched claw, hooking it into his enormous black beak, where he crushed it with obvious glee.
Hailey appeared in the doorway, wearing one of his island-cotton white shirts, with the sleeves rolled up to her elbows. She folded her arms as she leant against the frame. Other than the shirt and her reclaimed panties, the only other thing she was wearing was a smug smile.
“What?” Stede enquired with a laugh.
“Either your presents are getting kinkier, or you’re in serious trouble,” she explained.
Stede looked at her in confusion.
“There’s a man in uniform standing on the jetty. Navy I think,” she nodded towards the porthole.
Stede lowered his head and peered through it. Sure enough, an American Navy seaman was standing on the jetty. He seemed nervous and hesitant.
“Better put some clothes on then,” Stede shrugged, grabbing a dirty T-shirt from the floor.
Hailey was pulling on some shorts of her own and quickly buttoned up the shirt, eager to find out what their visitor wanted. Stede climbed the short set of steps that led to the deck and popped the hatch. They both scrambled out, and he glanced behind quickly at Hailey. She was smirking, clearly proud of their unkempt and sleep-stained appearance. Her mischievous side was something he had grown addicted to at Harvard, and it showed no signs of abatement, despite the years now in between.
“Professor Buckhannon?” the seaman asked.
“Yes!” Stede and Hailey chimed together, rather pleasurably.
“Err, Professor Stede Buckhannon,” the seaman added.
“If you need to be told which one of us that is, I think you’ve probably gone as far as you can in the Navy,” Stede smirked. “That’s me, what can I do for you?”
“To be frank sir, I don’t know. Your clearance is higher than mine. I’ve just been asked to escort you and your wife to a meeting. I like your boats though.”
Stede glanced at the black, red and silver livery of the Donzi 35 ZR powerboat that sat the other side of the jetty, across from the Le Renard.
“That one’s just a toy,” Stede grinned. “This is a real boat. A Spirit 74.”
“Both are toys compared to what I work with sir,” the seaman replied with a grin.
“We have clearance?” Hailey enquired, pinching Stede to get him out of her way.
“Yes ma’am,” the seaman nodded.
“Give us a few moments to scrub up a little,” Hailey smiled. “We’ll meet you round the front of the house. I presume you brought a car?”
“Yes ma’am. Admiral Reese said he’d give me $50 if I could get you into it.”
“Admiral Reese knows me too well, we’ll be following you down I’m afraid,” Stede said with a smirk.
“In case we need to make a fast getaway?” Hailey asked in a giggled whisper as they stepped onto the jetty and made their way towards the house.
Hailey laughed as they walked out of the house. It was the first time in as long as she could remember that they had both looked so official. She was wearing a soft, white linen full-length skirt with a matching short-sleeved jacket and a rust coloured cotton blouse. Stede had gone for a cream, three-quarter length suit and a white linen shirt. They both wore smart, brown leather sandals. They had both been in Bermuda long enough to have forgotten the last time they had worn socks.
Stede opened the windowless door of the car. The jet black Shelby Cobra 427 sat low to the ground compared to the Jeep the seaman was in, and Stede had to raise his hand high to let him know they were ready to go. Both men started their engines, but the big block V8 of the Cobra drowned out the diesel lump of the Navy runabout. Stede gave Hailey a knowing smile as he slipped on the tawny coloured sunglasses from his jacket pocket.
“Grow up Maverick,” she sighed.
From the remote beach house they made their way over the hill towards the town of Somerset. As they rolled down the road after the Jeep, they could see the mismatch of shanty huts of corrugated steel against the lemon walled, terracotta trimmed villas that rose above them, most of which were in private, gated communities. It reminded Stede why he had wanted to live out of town in the first place. Most of the villas were owned by rich, albeit tasteless couples and families. They had their own schools, stores, bars and restaurants. The irony was that if you wanted to eat well, it was the local markets and street stalls you headed for. The nightlife in that part of town almost always spilled over into the early hours of the morning too without any complaints, but you had to be an islander to know that. And nobody living behind steel gates was really an islander.
Hailey shot Stede an inquisitive glance from the passenger seat as they drove. She knew that the bravado and cocky mocking were all for show, but his quietness betrayed his distraction. He was mulling over the request for their attendance, just as she was. Strands of his thick, blonde hair were ruffled by the wind as it passed over their heads, and she knew that behind the dark lenses, his piercing blue eyes were searching for the sea. They darted to the horizon at every crest. He hated to be out of sight of it, and he became taught and tense whenever it dropped from view. It made sense that they lived on an island less than a mile wide at most points. When they had first moved here, his near lack of tan was illustrative of how much time he spent under the water and with his work. Even she couldn’t help laughing when she learnt the local children’s nickname for him, the paleface professor. She had quickly made it her goal to coax him into the sun long enough to make him look a little more native.
They were soon passing over the bridge that linked Somerset Island to the main island of Bermuda. The nice thing about any car journey on the islands was that it was always short. You could walk the entire length of the chain in four hours. Stede turned both his head and the car sharply as the Annex Naval Air Force Base came into view on the other side of the bridge.
They drew up to a security booth, where they were kept waiting. He sensed Hailey’s alarm when two armed guards walked over and stood in front of the car. He eyed them coolly. Both were young, and his own menacing gaze soon made the man nearest him look away. He leaned over and squeezed Hailey’s hand.
“Don’t worry, I’ve yet to come across a thousand-yard stare that can match the one I gained in the SBS.”
“This is why I hate government work,” she exclaimed. “All the pissing contests.”
The guard was called away to the booth, but quickly returned, brandishing photo I.D cards. Stede looked at them and handed Hailey hers with a knowing smile.
“That’s why we were made to wait,” he explained. Both cards bore their likenesses, clearly taken whilst they had been in the car. He noticed the barcode on the back, suggesting it was also a key-card as well as an I.D. He wondered where they’d need to use it.
They followed the jeep through the security gate and headed straight across the runway, approaching a hangar on the far side of the base. Hailey smirked as she noticed Stede relax and let out an unconscious breath as the ocean came into view again, this time as they overlooked Port Royal Bay. The Jeep stopped outside of the hangar and Stede pulled up alongside.
“If you use your entry card on that entry panel,” the seaman indicated, “you’ll gain access and be received. Good luck.”
“Good luck?” Hailey exclaimed, “why do we need luck?”
“Sorry ma’am,” the seaman exclaimed sheepishly, “I just meant I hope it goes well.”
Hailey shot Stede another glance as they both stepped out of the car. They approached the hangar as the Jeep and driver tore off again across the tarmac. Stede swiped the card through the access panel.
“Good luck professor,” Hailey whispered, as a hiss of gas escaped from a hydraulic hinge on the other side and the door slowly swung open and inwards.
The corridor they found themselves facing was dark, with the only source of light coming from a soft-glowing bulb lantern on the wall much further down. Stede walked quietly forward, with Hailey following behind a little more cautiously. He peered into the darkness, his eyes adapting quickly as they searched for doors and exits as a matter of course. The lingering echo of his footsteps told his ears the real situation just before they were drowned in glaring light from all around. They were in a large and empty hangar. Empty that is, except for a rectangular table where four men sat, all looking at them in silence. Two empty chairs suggested this was the reception they were looking for. Stede didn’t hesitate as he strode towards them and Hailey’s sandals clicked with confident steps from behind. They both knew from working with sharks that it was important not to show fear or hesitancy when in the presence of predators.
As they approached, the four men stood to greet them. Stede noticed that behind the table was a yellow railing that marked a stairway on the other side that led below ground. He knew it almost certainly went to the old WWII sub bays, and he began to ponder why they had been summoned.
“Good to see you Admiral,” Stede grinned with an outstretched hand.
Admiral Reese smiled back and shook his hand warmly, helping Stede feel slightly more at ease.
“Professors, thanks for coming at such short notice. May I introduce Commander Ryan of Naval Intelligence, Commander Gellar of the Marine Mammal Program and Sergeant Phoenix of the Submarine Corps.”
Stede stifled the grin that was about to spread across his face as he considered the similarity of the three men. Whereas the Admiral had short-cropped grey hair and his rather rotund form suggested it had been a while since he had seen anything resembling active duty, the other officers all had cropped black hair, and in their matching sand-coloured uniforms could have been mistaken for brothers. It was one of the reasons why after leaving Z squad of the Special Boat Service and starting Buckhannon Engineering, he had allowed his hair to grow a little long, and was now a little proud of his comparatively unkempt appearance. They all shook hands and took their seats. Commander Ryan was the first to break the silence.
“The famous Bucky Stede,” he grinned. “It’s nice to meet you.”
Admiral Reese shot him a warning glance.
“Apologies,” said Ryan, raising his hands in mock surrender. “But I’m sure the good Professor knows he’s somewhat infamous in the Navy world.”
Stede let the corner of his mouth twist into a soft smile. One that somehow bristled with quiet threat and menace.
“Approximately eighteen hours ago, the U.S.S Desperado, one of our premier subs, sank off the east coast of the island,” explained Sergeant Phoenix. “We need your help in the search and rescue operation. Although we have a team in San Diego en route, we don’t have any mini-subs or suitable craft based here.”
“You want to use the Manta-Wraith?” Hailey asked.
“I know better than to ask to use it,” chimed in the Admiral. “You’d be at the controls, not us.”
“It’s not just that,” added Commander Gellar, “we need both of your expertise.”
“How exactly does the expertise of marine biologists fit into the recovery of a Virginia class nuclear submarine? I presume the Marine Mammal Program isn’t in this room by accident.” Stede remarked coolly.
“You remember your boats,” Reese smiled. “Glad to see your years outside the Navy haven’t slowed you down.”
“Oh it has Admiral, but I’m still fast compared to you American boys,” Stede teased warmly.
“Perhaps we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves.” Ryan interjected. “Frankly, I’m also interested in how the use of some of your equipment, namely the so-called Marine-Mic, might have had a hand in what happened.”
“I see Naval Intelligence is still a contradiction in terms,” Stede stated dryly to the Admiral.
“What are the parameters of the Manta-Wraith’s operation?” Sergeant Phoenix asked.
“You mean beside whether we let it be used or not after that kind of accusation?” Hailey retorted bluntly.
There was an awkward silence or two. Then Admiral Reese sighed.
“My apologies for the lack of information, and our apparent five minute warning, but we only have so much time before this becomes public knowledge, and at the moment I have no answers to give.”
“You mean you don’t know why it sank,” Stede stated in realisation. “But somehow, the Marine Mammal Program was involved in what happened.”
“It’s probably easier if we just show you to be honest,” replied Commander Gellar. “Why don’t you follow me downstairs.”
They all stood up and followed Gellar as he led them to the yellow rail. As they followed it down, Stede and Hailey saw several windows into large enclosed tanks of water. Gellar stopped at the first portal window.
“These are the holding pens we use when we are working with the animals,” he explained. “Perhaps you’d like to take a look?”
Hailey stepped forward immediately and peered through the thick glass. The blue walls of the tank shone in the strong light from the surface above and at the far end she could see the gates that led to the ocean. She could just hear the gentle noise of moving water on the other side of the glass.
She caught the movement out of the corner of her eye, instinctively flinching as the white torpedo-like shape crashed heavily against the glass. The reverberations echoed along the corridor.
“This is Pepper,” explained Commander Gellar. “He’s an eight-year old Beluga whale, whom I have hand fed since he was a calf. I’ve been in the field with him countless times over the last six years and have been involved in every aspect of his training. He’s more loyal to me than a hunting dog but I kid you not, I have no doubt that if I were to jump into the tank with him right now, he’d kill me.”
A second crash against the glass seemed to back up the statement. Admiral Reese stepped up to the glass to peer through, and then turned to look at Stede and Hailey.
“When the Desperado sank, she was taking part in an experimental program with the marine mammals. This behaviour has been evident since that time and we don’t know what to make of it.”
“What on Earth were you doing with them?” Stede exclaimed.
“Nothing that would explain this behaviour, they’re acting on their own instincts somehow. Nothing we’ve seen is anything like what we’ve trained them to do. Just their levels of organisation are staggering.” Gellar explained further.
Stede peered through the glass as he watched the twenty-foot long whale ram the glass again. As he came closer, he noticed the scuffmarks on the other side of the glass from the repeated blows of the animal’s powerful head. He realised the whale was going through this routine every time he saw movement on the other side of the glass.
“How are you feeding them if they’re like this?” Stede pondered aloud.
“That’s what I meant by organisation,” Gellar continued. “We don’t have to. The others are bringing them fish.”
“What?” Stede asked, snapping round.
“We think it’s the dolphins and sea lions that were involved with the Desperado operation. They’re still loose, but they appear to be bringing food to the animals still penned here.”
“That’s remarkable if true,” Hailey exclaimed, a little shocked.
In the next pen, Commander Gellar showed them two Californian sea lions that had struck the hatch door to their enclosure so often, dried blood still stained their muzzle and gums.
“Even they show method in their madness though,” he mused. “Each time, they attack a different part of the door or wall. They’re checking for weaknesses.”
“Let’s return upstairs, now you have more of an idea of the situation,” Reese suggested.
As they all took their places at the table again, Stede and Hailey looked at each other in stunned silence. Hailey was the first one to speak.
“If what you’re saying is true, the behaviour these animals are showing is completely unprecedented.”
“That’s why we need your help,” Reese replied. “We can’t risk one of the loose animals attacking a civilian. It could mean the premature end to the program. We want you to take part in a capture or kill operation with the missing dolphins and sea lions. That’s why we need you and your submersible. We don’t have anything that can match its speed and operation, if what I’m hearing from your father is true.”
“I wondered where you were getting your information from,” Stede realised. “At least he’s still talking to one of us. What did you have in mind?”
“The Desperado is lying in about eight-hundred feet of water,” Ryan stated, rejoining the conversation. “We know from our friends downstairs that the other animals are still in the area. I’m led to believe you have a very accurate dart gun that can be deployed from the Manta-Wraith?”
“That’s right,” Stede grimaced, “it’s an extremely expensive piece of equipment and unique to us.”
“I think our budget might cover it,” Ryan snapped sarcastically.
“Look,” interrupted the Admiral, silencing Ryan with a glance. “We have our own team coming in from San Diego as we say, but we don’t have the equipment or resources to deal with the animals, which is where you come in. Maybe at the same time you can shed some light on this strange behaviour, and reassure Commander Ryan here that none of your equipment could be to blame.”
“It’s a simple communication device, it can’t be,” Hailey replied defensively.
“I’m sure that’s the case, so find me the real answers. As for your compensation, name your price. We need you.”
Stede looked at Hailey for a brief moment, catching her smile.
“When do we start?”
“The San Diego team should be here by this afternoon. Get yourself shipshape,” Reese smiled.
After Stede and Hailey had left, Ryan marched over to the Admiral, a look of angry discontent all too evident on his face.
“I don’t know why you’re pandering to him. Why not take what we need and do it ourselves?”
“Because his father is a Vice-Admiral and Fleet Commander in the British Navy for a start,” explained Reese. “But also out of respect. You’d think twice about messing with a Navy Seal wouldn’t you. Think thrice before messing with Stede Buckhannon, and I’d advise knocking off the Bucky Stede shit if you enjoy breathing without the aid of a ventilator. He was one hell of an officer.” Reese dismissed Ryan and walked away.
“Yeah, which explains the dishonourable discharge and a rap-sheet that reads like a pirate’s résumé,” muttered Ryan to himself in disgust.
Sometimes, it feels like the stuff being stuffed (see what I did there?) through your letter box, has already been given up on. They’ve already accepted that its headed to the recycling box, but for some reason, they felt it deserved a visit to your doormat beforehand. Like it should see more of the world, because damn it, they spent whole minutes putting it together.
So, they spent their valuable marketing budget letting some intern at a print shop get their big break writing and designing their flyer for them. After all, what could possibly go wrong?
Let’s take this amazing piece of work that hit the mat just this morning.
I first wanted to pull this thing apart on the simple fact that, despite 2018 being nearly upon us, there are businesses out there till thinking that marketing yourself as ‘female friendly’ by making material pink and incredibly patronising is going to work. Or should that be patriarch-onising?
Are you a woman? Have you forgotten your MOT date is on the certificate? Do you have no idea that an MOT centre that had a commission based service on MOTs, a dedicated sales team, or middlemen would be really weird, or at the very least overkill? Then come to us! We’ll even tell you to put this reminder on your board or fridge in the kitchen (as that’s where you spend all your time right?). And best write the appointment down – after all, all the space in that pretty little head of yours is taken up by shoes.
Come on guys (I’m presuming they’re guys), let’s raise the game a little here. I mean, some of this is actually quite useful and helpful – but surely regardless of gender? I forget stuff all the time. Ironically, I wish I could forget this flyer, but that doesn’t seem likely now.
It doesn’t matter that there are four stars in front of the words ‘five star rating’ (I know, there is another star on the flyer, but really?), or that there are so many sales messages here, the only thing standing out is the misogyny. Or that there is a completely superfluous dotted green line (am I cutting something out?), or that it looks like they’ve given each individual word its own typeface.
What matters, is that they’ve paid for this junk. Presumably, this met their standards of excellence. It nailed their brief. They were happy to pony up the dough.
Which surely means, under no circumstances, should you ever take your car to them? Honestly, it’d be like going to a doctor who lets their house plants die.
If you’re thinking of putting together marketing material, less is always more. Fewer words. Fewer images. Fewer messages. White space does not have to be filled. You do not have to write war and peace. And you do not have to convey your entire manifesto. Choose one key message and stick to it.
Below is probably the most perfect advert Porsche have ever created.
No images. No need to fill space. And a perfect headline that’s also a punchline. This shows that Porsche not only know their audience, but also how they are perceived as a brand beyond it. And that lets them communicate effectively to both.
So, next time you’re headed to the lowest bidder for all your marketing needs, I ask you to consider one thing. Should you cut out the middle-person and head straight for the recycling centre?
Okay, two things then. Could you spend your money more wisely and make your budget deliver a better ROI by going somewhere else?
The final point? Junk mail is only junk mail if you make it so.
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!
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.