WIP Wednesday – Dark Tides: Chapter Two

gerald-schombs-8DO2XXCoB0Q-unsplashPhoto by Gerald Schömbs on Unsplash

As the ever popular Shark Week returns to Discovery in the US this week, I thought this week’s WIP (Work in Progress) Wednesday should be a follow on from last week’s – in the form of the second chapter of Dark Tides.

If you follow my writing, you’ll know that conservation is integral to my story telling. Real-life issues are focused upon and exposed in both of my books to date, from poaching to the impact of terrorism and the bushmeat trade on animal behaviour. It is therefore important for me to state that I do not see sharks as villains. On average there are 74 shark attacks each year worldwide, with the average number of fatalities being just 4. In contrast, we kill between 75 and 90 million of them for their fins.

In Dark Tides, the strange behaviour of the animals is unnatural and the result of influences unknown…for now! In any case, I hope you enjoy the second chapter

CHAPTER TWO

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 they 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. Minuscule 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, with the help of her blonde friend, who sobbed uncontrollably. 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 them. 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.

 

WIP Wednesday – Rogue: Chapter Four

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Artwork: Stephen Meyer, Yeti concept. Featured in line with fair use.

In last week’s Work-In-Progress Wednesday, you were introduced to a new character who will be appearing in my upcoming book, Phantom Beast. That character was Nina Lee, a Forest Ranger, who will be getting her own spin-off series, the first of which is titled ‘Rogue’.

Rogue is another America-set story with a cryptid at its heart. This time however, it is the legendary sasquatch, aka bigfoot, that will be stalking the forests. I won’t give much else away, but I hope you enjoy this first introduction to both Nina Lee and Rogue

CHAPTER FOUR

Nina Lee took a deep breath, glancing at her cup of coffee that had gone stone cold. She waited for the sobs to reside at the other end of the line. She stared back over the missing persons form. Jake Sutton, nineteen years of age, last heard from three days ago as he hiked south, away from the Pacific Crest Trail and along the eastern border of Mount Rainier National Park. He had abandoned a group of elderly hikers he’d been with, and hadn’t picked up the supply pack waiting for him at the forestry post he’d been scheduled to stop at yesterday. It had now been 24 hours, so he could officially be listed as a missing person. His hysterical mother sounded like she had been counting down the seconds before picking up the phone.

People went missing all the time up here. Some even wanted to. That’s what the families sometimes failed to grasp. After finishing the phone call and completing the report, she filed it and printed out the missing person poster for the board. Whilst there, she took down the outdated ones, the oldest, to make space.

Nina had been with the forestry service for just over five years, joining straight from the University of Washington at Tacoma. Despite majoring in Wildlife Ecology and Management with a minor in Forestry to boot, her aspirations of working with wildlife had quickly been grounded. It was mainly campers, timber firms and water treatment that took up her days. She walked through to the morning briefing. The call had held her up, and she was the last to enter.

“Now that we’re all here,” barked the agent at the front of the room.

The unidentified agent wore darkened glasses and looked like Chuck Norris’s fatter, meaner brother. Nina ignored his stare and took a seat. The guy had already waltzed in like he was the President, not even bothering to tell the lowly rangers which agency he and his suit-clad partner were from. Whoever they were, they seemed to make the chief and the other supervisors nervous. They didn’t seem like the usual Law Enforcement and Investigations Unit types. Although his partner could easily pass for FBI, fat Chuck most certainly couldn’t. With long red hair, a denim sleeveless jacket and a dirty camouflage tee underneath, he looked more like one of the truckers that might occupy any of the local sheriff drunk tanks. He dressed like a hillbilly and spoke like an asshole, that’s all Nina knew.

“Anyway,” stammered Marty Johnson, her boss, standing up as he did so. “North of the Resolute Campsite is currently out of bounds, and will remain so while these men are in the area.”

“I’m still not clear on that,” another ranger spoke up. “Who are these guys and how come they have that kind of authority?”

Travers was young, but spoke his mind. Nina knew everyone else was thinking the same.

“Fuck you, that’s who I am, son,” growled the Chuck Norris wannabe.

Nina glowered in her seat silently. She really didn’t like this guy.

“This grizzly is nothing like you’ve dealt with,” said the agent in the suit, changing tact. “We’re here to help and sort it out. We’re operating a curfew and closing most of the trails for the time being. You’ll also be paired up for the remainder of your patrols until we clear the area, just to be on the safe side.”

“Excuse me,” Nina interjected. “But most of us are hunters, from native backgrounds. We also deal with aggressive bears and other wildlife all the time. Why the extra precautions?”

“He’s a killer,” snapped the Chuck wannabe. “And the reason he’s a killer is because some little sweetheart like you in the Forestry Service took a pot-shot at him. We’re clearing up your mess.”

“And the fact that none of us here have seen neither hair nor hide of this supposed grizzly?” Nina challenged.

“Trust me darlin’, that speaks volumes,” chimed Chuck smugly.

Nina sat back, bristling at the man’s rudeness. She was Skokomish on her mother’s side and Navajo on her father’s. She’d probably known more about tracking and handling wildlife by the time she’d turned five than this guy would ever know. She was certain his attitude stank as much as he did, and looked at Marty for back up. She couldn’t believe he was standing for this. Marty failed to notice, as he was too busy staring at his feet. The meeting appeared to be over.

As the rest of the Forest Service officers got up and began to make their way back to their desks, Nina hung back. She noticed she wasn’t the only one. Scott Travers was too. Concerned his youth and brashness would get the best of him, she was determined to get to Marty and the two agents before him. She walked over, hurriedly.

“The others may be prepared to put up with this anonymous juris-my-dick-tion crap, but I won’t. I want to know who you guys are, I want to see your shields, and I want to see written authority. Until then, you, especially you,” she declared, pointing at fat Chuck, “can check your egos in the parking lot, whilst I run your plates.”

The look of panic Marty fixed her with did little to dissuade her. She couldn’t believe that a few seconds ago she had been worried about Travers being too blunt.

The agent in the suit stood up, a half smile on his face.

“Okay, settle down, I get it. My partner here can be a little forthright. My name is Special Agent Gregory Smith. This is Agent Cordell Jones,” he explained, nodding towards Chuck.

“Agents Smith and Jones…I’m seriously meant to believe that?” Nina exclaimed.

“Believe what you like, it’s the truth. And it’s all you’re getting,” Jones growled in her direction, stepping forward.

“What department are you with?” Nina asked, ignoring him. “You guys aren’t LEI, that’s for sure.”

“We’re…from a branch within the Bureau for Land Management,” Smith replied.

“That’s even harder to believe,” said Travers, who had walked up behind Nina as they were talking. She realised he was making it clear she had back up, but was keeping a respectful distance. He wasn’t stepping in, but he was prepared to. She appreciated the gesture.

“The Bureau for Land Management are investigating a grizzly bear attack?” Nina continued.

“Imagine if you can, there may be shit you don’t know,” Jones grinned.

“What I can imagine,” shrugged Nina, “is that’s a two-way street.”

Marty met her gaze. He seemed more in control now, but his glance still warned her to back off.

“Maybe they can be of help,” Marty suggested to the agents. “You’ve got a lot of ground to cover, a lot of people to talk to. Maybe it’s a case of many hands make light work.”

Smith gave a nod signifying his approval to Jones, who didn’t seem quite as taken with the idea. Then, smiling smugly, he reached behind him and grabbed a large pile of manila files from the table.

“Well, seeing how good you are at running your mouth n’all, maybe you can carry out some interviews,” he sneered. “It’ll keep you out of our hair, and we won’t have to waste our time with a bunch of drunk natives.”

Nina glowered at the man. She was on the brink of losing control of her temper. She imagined darting forwards and slamming her elbow into his face, breaking his nose. It would be easy, and satisfying. But she guessed Marty was nervous for a reason. She clenched her fists, only a little shake in her arms hinting at her pent-up fury. She snatched the files from him.

“Happy to be of help,” she replied, turning her back.

“One more thing,” Marty said, calling her back. “The patrolling in pairs thing is mandatory. Take Travers with you.”

“What?” Nina exclaimed. “Marty, there isn’t a thing in these woods I haven’t come across on my own before. I can handle it. Plus, up on the res, I can’t vouch for his safety, especially among them drunk natives,” she scowled, staring at Jones.

“My partner was out of line before,” Smith offered, “but you’re close to being the same way. It’s our way, or no way. If you want to be involved, this is it.”

Nina looked at Travers. He shrugged. He was trying to look nonchalant, but he clearly wanted in. She sighed. It seemed like a hopeless fight anyway. And Travers wasn’t a terrible choice of partner. Despite his youth, he was tall, well built, and could handle himself. He was a little impetuous and thoughtless, but nothing she couldn’t keep in check. And he knew not to push his luck with her, which was a major plus. As soon as her demeanour softened, his bright blue eyes sparkled mischievously. She often teased him that he had only been recruited because his brown hair matched the uniform, but compared to everyone else, she knew they could at least work together.

“Come on you big lug,” she sighed.

Travers followed her out of the room back to her desk. As she flipped through the files, she saw some familiar names. Some she dismissed, shuffling them to the bottom of the pile. Others she took an interest in and brought them to the top.

“Well, it might not be a dull day after all,” Nina quipped, looking up at Travers. “We’ll head up to the reservation like they want us to, but we’ll do some sightseeing on the way.”

“Where to?” Travers asked.

“First, there’s Lucas Christian,” Nina replied, raising an eyebrow.

“The writer?”

“The very one. Bought a huge piece of land out in the forest and built a luxury house out there. Rumour is that it’s less writing retreat, more fortress. I don’t know about you, but I’d like a look around that place.”

Travers nodded, impressed.

“Then there’s Patwyn Dalton, owner of Dalton logging. He’s been complaining about guys from the res moving stuff around his camp, damaging equipment and such like. And he just happens to have been the guy who sold the land to Lucas Christian.”

“Think that’s just a coincidence?” Travers asked.

“I think it’d be interesting to see how they’re linked to each other, that’s for sure.”

“Isn’t it like you said, guys from the res causing trouble with chunks of the forest being sold off?”

Nina smiled. “No, I don’t think so. But I think you’re right about one thing. I think it’s about territory. Let’s go find out.”

 

WIP Wednesday – Phantom Beast, Chapter Ten!

I’m going to be introducing some new regular posts across my channels, one being WIP (Work In Progress) Wednesday, where I’ll introduce you to some of the stories I am working on. To get things started, here is another new preview chapter from Phantom Beast. I know many of my readers have been waiting patiently for this release, and I am pleased to say that the end is very much in sight. But for now, let’s head to the wilds of Wyoming and a brewing storm!

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CHAPTER TEN

In the time it took Jericho to arrive, Thomas had changed out of his fishing gear into working boots, jeans, and a thick green-check chamois shirt. He hadn’t felt it whilst he’d been walking, but as he paced impatiently up and down along the trail outside of Lodge View, the cold wasn’t improving his mood. Despite being a relatively bright day, a storm was brewing inside him. Jericho had been flippant and dismissive on the phone. And now, he found himself questioning why Jericho would even be in the United States at the same time he was. With everything that happened, it surely couldn’t be a coincidence. A notorious tracker and trapper, with a flexible approach to the law, Jericho’s services were in high demand from a broad range of organisations. From government departments to private collectors, Jericho O’Connell worked with anyone willing to pick up the cheque. In return, problem animals would disappear, or the rarest specimen could be found. But the secrecy was something new. Jericho usually boasted unrelentingly about his exploits.

At the sound of a large vehicle making its way up the trail, Thomas turned to look. A brand new, jet black SUV of enormous size was making its way towards him. Just then, Jesse emerged from the treeline on the other side of the trail. He was clearly as interested in what Jericho had to say as Thomas was. As the car got closer, Thomas could see it was a top-of-the-range GMC Yukon. He was surprised on two accounts. First, a $100,000 vehicle was an unlikely find in a rental lot. Secondly, like himself, Jericho favoured slightly more rugged trucks, at least looks wise. The tinted glass made it hard for Thomas to see inside, but he could make out the white glow of the rancher-style hat Jericho preferred. The truck pulled up on the side of the trail, a little way off. The broad driver’s door opened, and out stepped the Irishman. He was wearing a leather drovers coat on top of his bright orange denim shirt and pale jeans. His sharp blue eyes shone in the shade the rim of his hat provided, and wisps of sun-bleached blonde hair poked out from under it and trailed down towards his shoulders.

“Quite the place you’ve got here,” Jericho nodded to Jesse.

“Want to explain what you’re doing in it?” Thomas accused.

“Now, let’s not forget the pleasantries,” Jericho replied, his eyes narrowing.

“You say you know something we don’t. Figure we skip the time-wasting,” Jesse remarked.

Jericho looked from one to the other and read the looks on both their faces. He quickly realised that tensions were already high.

“Okay,” he sighed. “Remember your cat back in Cannich?”

Thomas nodded silently, his eyes growing wide in alarm.

“Well, he’s a dad, and it’s a beautiful, bouncing baby girl,” Jericho chuckled.

The punch Thomas threw was so quick, Jericho never saw it coming. It connected with the right side of his chin and made him stagger a few steps to his left. For a moment, he was stunned, and he saw the anger burning in Thomas’ eyes.

“How could you?” Thomas roared “you know what we went through. You know it killed people.”

“including my pa,” Jesse growled, stepping forward.

“Now gents, let’s be civilised about this,” Jericho warned. “Besides, I can’t take two of you on. Well actually, what I mean to say is, I don’t want to.”

Jericho shrugged off the leather coat and let it fall to the ground. He raised his arms slightly, tensing the muscles in his forearms as he did and letting his fingers curl halfway into fists.

“You’re an asshole,” Jesse declared, stepping back and shaking his head.

“I’m inclined to agree,” Thomas spat. He walked straight up to Jericho and rammed a finger into his chest. “How could you not tell me?”

Something ignited in Jericho. Maybe it was the long drive. Maybe it was the cold weather. But he’d had enough. He shot his left palm into the centre of Thomas’s chest, pushing him back and out of his face. Almost out of habit, his right fist swung in a roundhouse punch to Thomas’s jaw.

“I owed you that,” Jericho nodded, slightly surprised at his own reaction.

Before he could say anything else, Thomas sprang, connecting in a full charge with the Irishman’s shoulder and knocking him backwards. Thomas kept the momentum going and they collapsed onto the ground. Thomas bent his arm and crossed it against Jericho’s chest, who was lying on his back and trying to get up. Jericho flinched as he saw the pain and rage wash over Thomas’s face. He decided to take what was coming. But he didn’t have to. Thomas staggered back to his feet, distracted by the noise of another truck coming along the track. His eyes were fixed on it.

“Have you quite finished?” Catherine demanded.

Thomas helped Jericho to his feet. They both looked sheepish and avoided her steely gaze. She stood in the doorway, but her attention too was drawn to the oncoming truck.

Thomas could see it was an older truck, black in colour and relatively compact.

“Shit,” sighed Jesse.

That’s when Thomas recognised the car too. It was a 1991 GMC Syclone pick-up truck. In its heyday it had been capable of out accelerating a Ferrari 348. It was fairly pointless as a working vehicle though. It was too light for heavy work and too heavy for light work. All it and its supercharged V6 engine had meant to do, was get from one set of lights to the next quicker than anything else. But Thomas already knew this one had been modified. It sat higher, on stiff, strong suspension and bulky all-terrain tyres. And he could already hear from the exhaust and the whine of the supercharger that they were not factory-issued. But he also knew all this because he knew who was behind the wheel of the truck. It belonged to Nina Lee, Jesse’s former girlfriend. She pulled into the side.

Nina was Native American. Her father was Skokomish and lived in Washington State. But Nina lived with her mother, who was of the Crow nation, and Wyoming born-and-bred. Thomas knew she was a Forest Ranger and an excellent tracker. As she got out of the truck, he could see why Jesse would have taken the breakup hard. She was stunning. Dark brown hair that rolled off her shoulders, hazel coloured eyes that shone with defiance. She was a very attractive woman.

“Look’s like it’s quite the party,” Nina jeered. “Trouble has a habit of following you around Mr. Walker,” she said with a smile.

“Joined at the hip,” Thomas shrugged.

“I’m guessing we’re all here and getting worked up about the same thing. Why don’t we all go inside and talk about this bear and whatever else might be on a killing spree,” Nina suggested.

“Finally, someone talking sense,” Catherine concluded, rolling her eyes but pushing the door wide open to welcome them all in.

Thomas nodded towards the door at Jericho.

“Sorry,” he said.

“Don’t be,” the Irishman replied. “I deserved it; I just didn’t like it.”

They all went inside Lodge View and headed up to the kitchen. They each took a seat around the breakfast bar. Thomas headed over to the coffee pot and began pulling mugs out of a cupboard. After filling each, he passed them over two at a time, then fetched a quart of milk from the fridge and some sugar cubes. He took a handful of spoons from a drawer and left people to adjust their drinks to their own preferences.

“Okay, Jericho, time to fill us in on what we don’t know, but you seem to,” Thomas suggested, softly but firmly.

The Irishman sighed deeply and took a big swig of his coffee, which he’d left black but added plenty of sugar to.

“The Cannich cat,” he said. “One of the highlights of its Highland fling was a visit to a wildlife park, where it killed a number of animals and a keeper. It did so to get access to a female mountain lion they had there. She had come into heat and proved too much of a temptation for the strapping lad. I’m sure you also remember the reported tragedy of how that same mountain lion then mauled the park’s owner to death? Well, that part wasn’t strictly true. It was her cubs.”

“Her cubs?” Catherine asked. She glanced at Thomas, who had gone pale.

“Four in total,” Jericho nodded. “They escaped, but two were killed pretty quickly – not my doing I might add. But as for the other two…”

“One’s made it over here?” Thomas asked, barely getting the words out as his throat clammed up at the mere thought.

“The British government thought it best not to tell you. The one over here is called Tama, and she was sold to a private collector. I arranged her capture and sale a few years ago.”

“So, what is Tama doing out in the wild then?” Catherine demanded.

“Beats me, obviously that was never part of the agreement,” Jericho shrugged.

“Is this why Keelson hasn’t been answering my calls?” Thomas asked. “Because she knows you’re wrapped up in this?”

“When did you speak to Kelly?” Jericho queried, a concerned look on his face.

Kelly Keelson was the TV news reporter who had shot to fame when the Cannich cat’s rampage had caught the headlines. Since then, having started her own production company, she had worked closely with Thomas, documenting how he and Catherine had hunted down the unusual pride of lionesses that had killed his first wife. Set in the same African wilderness that had been plagued by the man-eaters of Tsavo over a century before, it had been picked up worldwide. Since then, Thomas, Catherine and Kelly had become good friends. And Jericho and Kelly had become much more, at least it was rumoured.

“I haven’t, and that’s unusual,” Thomas replied.

Jericho didn’t seem relieved.

“Where’s the other cub?” Jesse asked.

“That we don’t know for sure, although I have a feeling she’s also in the hands of a collector. Not on these shores though, that’s for sure.”

“So, you’re on clean-up duty?” Thomas asked.

Jericho shrugged. “Kind of.”

“The problem is worse than you think,” Nina interjected. “It hasn’t made the news yet, but it’s all over the law enforcement channels. Last night, a dog fighting ring run by a star football player was destroyed. A fire pretty much cleaned up most of the evidence, but one body was found with both burns and bite marks. Big bite marks.”

“It started a fire?” Catherine exclaimed.

“Right now, they think it must have started accidentally,” Nina explained. “But I went and had a looksee. Whoever it was covered their tracks well, but not of their truck. And it was pretty heavily loaded at the rear. Somebody made it out of there. And I think they have this cat.”

“That’s a whole new problem if so,” Jericho added.

“You didn’t sell anyone a big grizzly too?” Nina accused, mockingly.

Unusually, Jericho went quiet, his eyes focusing on the mug of coffee.

“So, Tama,” Thomas said, changing the subject. “How much does she resemble her old man?”

“When I last saw her, she was nearly fully grown,” Jericho replied. “I’ve only seen your cat in the Natural History Museum in London, but I’d guess she’s only a shade smaller by now. She has mountain lion colouring, sort of sandy brown. But she has the bulk, and all the equipment of dear old dad.”

“A sabre-tooth?” Jesse exclaimed incredulously. “There’s a God-damn sabre-tooth loose up here, that’s what you’re telling me?”

Jericho went quiet again. Thomas thought he could see sweat on the Irishman’s brow.

“Tell me more about this buyer,” Thomas demanded.

“He’s not the problem, he’s who I’m working for right now,” Jericho replied. “If somebody is setting this cat loose here and there, it’s not him.”

“I’m guessing that $100,000 status symbol out there is a company car then?” Thomas added, finally making the connection that Jericho was still on the payroll.

Jericho nodded.

“So, are you here to help out, or are you going to get in the way?” Jesse growled.

“Neither,” Jericho shrugged. “My first port of call is to meet the buyer in Denver. I won’t know much more until then. But believe it or not, I’m feeling just as pissy about the whole thing as you are.”

“I doubt that,” Jesse muttered with menace. “But it clears a few things up, least ways.”

“Such as?” Nina enquired, pointedly.

“It’s a hybrid animal,” Jesse said flippantly. “Imported illegally into the United States. I can hunt it and kill it without issue. And that’s all I needed to know.”

“With those things?” Nina accused.

“I don’t remember inviting you to this party anyways,” Jesse retorted back.

“I came here to warn you, not give you a reason to risk your life and let those damn things loose,” Nina scolded. “We already have two potentially killer animals out there. We don’t need a pack more.”

“I can control them,” Jesse said, dismissing her concern.

“Really?” Nina shot back, whipping up the sleeve of her arm and revealing a healed-over scar that ran along her forearm.

The room went quiet.

“I told you, I think it smelt that wolf of yours on you,” Jesse said, quietly.

“But that’s just it, and something you need to consider,” Nina continued. “I can control a 150lb wolf better than you can those animals. He’d never bite me, or anyone. Unless I told him to, that is,” she added, smiling at Thomas.

“I don’t know about the killing part, but it does need hunting down Nina,” Thomas added. “Guess that’s what I’ll be doing too.”

They sat together in silence for a few moments before Nina got up. The rest of them followed suit, following her and Jericho downstairs and out the door.

“Keep in touch from now on, okay?” Thomas said to Jericho as he climbed into the GMC.

The Irishman nodded. He turned the key in the ignition and the big V8 rumbled into life. Thomas stepped back as Jericho turned the truck around. As he was passing Nina, who was making her way towards her own truck, he slowed.

“Ms Lee,” Jericho said, almost under his breath. “I don’t know much about this bear, but the circles I frequent are suggesting something isn’t right about it. Talk about it being dropped here by the government, that it killed people up North or something. All the normal conspiracy stuff, you know. But still, be careful.”

“Not my first rodeo,” Nina smirked. “But thanks for the warning.”

Thomas, Catherine and Jesse watched the two trucks headed back down the trail.

“Did things just get better or worse?” Jesse asked.

“Much, much worse,” Thomas replied.

Happy Halloween – New Chapter Preview

Hello everyone. I know it’s been a little quiet here of late, but, as promised on social media, a sneak peek at a key chapter from the upcoming third book in the “Beast” series is below. No trick, just a treat for Halloween!

In the next few days, The Daughters of the Darkness will be launching on Audible, and Phantom Beast should hit digital bookshelves early next year.

CHAPTER EIGHT

Chayton had been watching from the ridge since dusk. His sharp eyes had studied the ranch house and the big sweeping drive that curved in from the little-used track. But his main focus had been the barn and its out-buildings – the Midnight kennels in all their dishonourable glory. He closed his eyes, remembering the scratch marks on the black-painted boards of the floor and the ramps that led to the central pit. Most dogs, no matter the breed, didn’t want to fight. Chayton had watched the wolves and coyotes he’d encountered and tracked. Canines were one of the few species with highly-developed body language that signalled hierarchy and dominance. They had evolved this effective form of communication to avoid the physical fights that pack life might otherwise encourage. Squabbles over everything from who should be first at the dinner table to where they wanted to sleep, had the potential to escalate into a fight that risked serious injury or death. By showing they were willing to give in to a dominant animal, most confrontations ended quickly and peacefully.

Chayton opened his eyes again and lifted his binoculars. It had been dark for a good few hours now, and the lights were on in the barn. Preparations were under way. Beneath the soft yellow glow of a light at the front of one of the out-buildings, a door opened, and Beau stepped out into the cold night. Chayton could see the gasping puffs of the fat man hanging in the air. In his hand, he held three short leather leads, each of which belonged to a large, powerful dog. The three pit bulls didn’t pull away. They stood to attention, their cropped ears erect on top of their skulls. All of their attention was focused on the barn opposite the out-building. The dogs wagged their tails in anticipation. It made Chayton feel sick.

Midnight’s dogs also showed pack mentality. The three brothers hunted and killed together, working as a cohesive team. To them, the other dogs were outsiders, and just as with wolves, outsiders weren’t tolerated – and no submission or backing down would save them. Atlas stood in front of his two slightly smaller brothers. He was slate grey, with amber coloured eyes. His face was covered in tiny pink blotches, which from afar looked like a natural variation in his colouring, but was in fact old, heeled scar tissue. His chest had a bib of white, making him a strikingly handsome dog. He was the alpha. His brothers, Blitz and Blaze, had been sired by the same father, Midnight’s former champion, to a different bitch. They were black and white in colour, but whereas Blitz was predominantly black, with a white left ear and feet, Blaze was white, with a black eye patch and saddle. Chayton knew that on their own, each of the dogs had pleasant-enough temperaments, and he felt sorry for them in a way. But they were pure gladiators now: trained on treadmills, baited, and given smaller animals to practice on. And together, they were unstoppable killing machines. It ends tonight, he thought.

He waited another five minutes before making his way back down the ridge to where he’d parked the old Dodge, a little way off the same trail that led to the ranch. In the back of the pickup was a large wooden crate, and behind the truck itself, he was towing an old horse box. He checked on both before getting behind the wheel of the truck and heading towards the Midnight ranch.

As Chayton pulled into the drive, Beau stepped out of the main barn, and quickly directed him to the back of the building. Chayton had been counting on this, and he was pleased not to have to alter his plans too much. He parked up, carefully pulling the truck round so that it faced back down the drive. He deliberately and carefully backed the horsebox up so it’s rear-opening door was close to the ramp and double doors that led directly to the pit. He stepped out and walked with Beau into the barn.

“What’s in the crate?” Beau asked, correctly assuming the cat was in the horse box.

“Coyote,” Chayton replied. “Warm-up act.”

Beau nodded approvingly.

The barn had a stink that the other men couldn’t pick up on. Their senses were dulled, even switched off to it, but he could sense it. Ghosts walked here. Dogs that had been dragged down the ramp, terrified. Their claws had gripped the concrete and boards to no avail. He had seen it many times – the dogs hunkering flat and whimpering softly as if to plead with their captors. Thick leather leads, or in most cases, just rope, was used to drag these unwilling combatants to the arena, and ultimately to their demise. Chayton said a prayer for them, and the others that would die tonight. Whatever happened, they would be the last to be sacrificed here for the sportsman’s entertainment.

Chayton knew he would have to be patient, and he had already resolved himself to the possibility of failure. The cat could choose not to respond to his commands when the time came or might panic when he made his move. This would be their first test working together, and quite possibly their last. Chayton studied the interior of the barn. Despite not looking like much from the outside, the building was thoroughly soundproofed, and even shielded from thermal imaging cameras. With only two entrances, it was practically a fortress. And tonight, he and the cat would bring it down.

Beau was grinning at Chayton, dumbly. The man must have weighed 300lbs. His beer-belly spilled over his jeans, which in turn were held up by dirty, tightly-pulled braces. His mop of hair was now shoved under a Jackson Jaguar’s cap. He epitomised everything the modern American stood for: greed, laziness, and apathy. Right there and then, Chayton wanted nothing more than to purge it from the land. But he kept his temper staid, and moved on, looking over the ground with Beau. All seemed in order for the fight, and they walked back to the truck.

As they drew close, Chayton heard the coyote in the crate snap its jaws and yikker in fear. Chayton drew closer and began to whisper to the animal through the wooden slats.

“One last trick to play my friend,” Chayton said.

The coyote quieted at the sound of his voice, and then new, pleading, pup-like murmurings came from the crate instead. Chayton nodded to Beau as he climbed back into the truck to wait. There was nothing else to do now. He put the radio on and drifted off to old country and western tunes. About an hour later, he was woken by Beau knocking on the window. He looked worried. Chayton rolled down the glass.

“That’s one pissed-off mountain lion,” Beau exclaimed. “I ain’t never heard no critter growl like that before.”

“You ain’t seen nothing yet,” Chayton replied.

“Well, I will soon enough, it’s show time,” Beau said. He seemed expectant.

Chayton sighed and stepped out of the truck. He could hear them now. The barn was full of both spectators and animals. It was time. He headed to the crate, speaking again to the coyote inside with soft, comforting tones. In one swift, deft move, he slid open the crate door and grabbed the animal by the ruff of the neck. Within moments, he had slipped a rope noose over its head. Obediently it stepped off the bed of the truck and followed Chayton at a casual trot a little way down the ramp.

As nervous and excited growls began to echo in the darkness, the coyote froze and cowered. As if sensing it, a symphony of barking erupted from the direction of the pit. Through his light touch on the rope, Chayton could feel the coyote trembling. He stooped gently, gathering it into his arms and walking the rest of the way.

As he entered the arena, Chayton took a moment to let his eyes adjust to the darkness. The only lights were positioned at the four corners of the pit, angled downwards at the floor. He walked down the ramp towards the drop off, still carrying the coyote. He could feel it tensing in his arms. His muscles flexed to keep it in place.

“Goodbye brother. I thank you for your honourable sacrifice,” Chayton whispered.

He let his arms fall to his side and dropped the animal into the pit. It screamed in fright, encouraging a round of jeering laughs from the crowd. Chayton couldn’t make out too many faces, which he knew was the idea. Anonymity was good for business. The pit was flanked on three sides by steep banks of basic wooden benches, and they were filled with Midnight’s elite friends and contacts. But the man himself hadn’t arrived yet. He always liked to make a big entrance, and Chayton knew the main man never arrived until the main event.

The coyote scrabbled against the wooden walls and ran its teeth against them to try and get purchase. It jumped and reared up on its hind legs, but the pit had been designed to hold much larger animals with ease. It ran back and forth in panic, then froze. A sound emanated from the back wall, where a partition was beginning to open up. A dark, square hole was left in its place, but from it came the sounds of a frantic pattering of paws and heavy, panting breaths. Two dogs erupted from the hole, one brindle-coloured, the other tan. The two pit bulls skidded to a halt when they saw the coyote and wagged their tails in anticipation. Chayton had seen the dogs before – some of Midnight’s less prominent champions. But no less formidable. Expertly, they flanked the coyote, barking and snapping their teeth to drive it into the far corner of the pit.

The brindle pit bull trotted along the far wall, rubbing up against it. It wagged its tail, moving confidently but not too quickly. It was panting gently and approached the coyote directly from the front. The tan dog had skirted to the back wall and was coming up on the coyote’s rear. It seemed to stop for a microsecond, then jerked forward, bouncing on its front paws and delivering a slashing bite to the coyote’s rear flank. The coyote whipped its head around, snarling viciously, giving the brindle dog to the front its opening. It lunged, grabbing the coyote’s jaws from the side and clamping them closed with its own. The coyote screamed high-pitched growls as it bucked and shook its head back and forth, but the pit bull would not be easily thrown. Then the tan-coloured dog rushed in for its second attack.

The first bite hadn’t really done much damage. The coyote’s coat was well equipped for a rough life, and the pit bull had come away with a mouth of fur. But now, it had the luxury of knowing the coyote couldn’t fight back and looked for a more prominent attack. A glancing blow of its teeth to the flank again bounced the dog’s head downwards, where it found the coyote’s softer underbelly and genitals. It attacked mercilessly, ripping and tearing with violent shakes of its head. The brindle dog began a gruesome tug of war with its tan counterpart. It emerged from underneath the coyote, its jaws bloody. The coyote collapsed, and the tan dog adjusted its grip with a snap of its jaws, gunning for the throat. The brindle pit bull pounced too, tunnelling into the flesh just below the coyote’s front left shoulder. It wouldn’t be quick, but it was over. The coyote wouldn’t get up again.

Over the next five minutes, Chayton felt his nerves become frayed as the dogs occasionally adjusted their grips or tore into a new part of the coyote. It made no sound now, but Chayton could see the chest still moving up and down as it gulped down its last breaths. Finally, a cheer went up from around the pit as the dogs were announced victorious. The barn went quiet again, and suddenly, Chayton knew it was time.

As if to confirm his thoughts, a large door opened on one of the upper levels of the barn, and a huge man stepped out to look down onto the pit. It was their gracious host in the flesh. Aeneas ‘Midnight’ Martin was bald, black, and big even for a quarterback. At six feet and four inches tall, he weighed in at 365lbs. But although undoubtedly a heavyweight on the field, every inch of him was muscle. He was a professional and most-disciplined athlete. And this operation wouldn’t be possible if he didn’t have the smarts to match. As Midnight walked to the rail, he looked down towards the pit and nodded his approval to Beau and Jace, who had joined Chayton.

“Pussy time,” Beau giggled.

Chayton ignored him.

“Just as you asked, the dogs will be waiting,” Jace smirked.

Hearing the pit door open up again, Chayton couldn’t help himself as he took a step forward and stole a quick glance. The three dogs looked up at him expectantly. Atlas, Blitz, and Blaze. The undefeated Midnight champions. Chayton walked back down the ramp towards the rear entrance, ignoring Beau and Jace’s mocking leers.

As soon as he was back out in the open, Chayton made sure he was alone before he skirted around to the front. He checked the door. Locked during a fight, just as it always was. It was now or never. He headed back to the truck. Chayton began to talk gently as he moved along the side of the horse trailer, tapping the sides lightly so that the animal inside would know he was there. He unbolted the ramp at the rear and lowered it to the ground.

~

She anchored herself to the floor of the trailer, her claws extending instinctively as her haunches raised, preparing to launch her forwards and into the air instantly. As the night sky became visible again though, she relaxed, catching the earthy scent of the one that brought her food. She knew by the sweat and pheromones in the scent that this companion of sorts was male. She trusted him. She rose and padded forwards, letting out a deep purr of contentment. The strange contraption, the noise of dogs in the distance, and the scent of strangers had unsettled her. But now, she expected a meal to be provided.

Her mass made the ramp reverberate, but although she had been wary of it on entering the box, she now knew not to fear it. The man stood by the side of the contraption, and she turned around to join him. Her head came roughly to his shoulders as she came to a stop and stood by his side. She could sense from his body language that this pleased him. As he walked towards a dwelling she was unfamiliar with, she followed, only to come to a halt again. She could hear dogs inside, and the scent of others. Ones like him. Until now, he had always turned her away when they came across their scent or heard them in the distance. He took another step towards the dwelling.

~

Chayton was patient, but he couldn’t risk taking too long. If somebody came out to check on him, it would be over. He couldn’t let an alarm go up.

“Come Tama,” he called.

Although it was meant to be a Native American name, Chayton hadn’t christened the cat. It had been named by the person who had brought it into the world. The mother had been a mountain lion, the great cat of the Americas, and they had looked for an appropriate name. In numerous baby books, Tama, or Taima, was often described as a Native American girl’s name that meant thunder or thunderbolt in Blackfoot or Navajo. But it didn’t actually mean anything, in any native language. The closest was a historical chief of the Meskwaki. The English shortening of his name, Tewameha, was Taima, but it still didn’t mean thunder. Chief Tewameha simply belonged to the thunder clan. It equally amused and annoyed Chayton that people couldn’t even get that right.

Chayton stood by the door. Tama lowered her head, inquisitive, but still uncertain.

“Asá,” Chayton commanded, using one of the many Crow words meaning to hunt.

~

She understood the meaning of the command, and instantly dropped to the ground. Her shoulder muscles tensed. Her ears flicked in the direction of the building. She powered forward, rippling over the ground in silence. She kept low as she worked her way to the door. She paused only momentarily as she stared into the darkness. Then she was gone. Tama was inside the barn.

~

Beau Brown looked expectantly towards the entrance ramp. There was very little light, but he had detected the movement. Something stepped forward. Something immense. The man smiled in relief. Damn injun, he did have a bear, he thought. He couldn’t see much more than a silhouette, but the animal was huge. It certainly wasn’t a mountain lion. As he strained his eyes, he was sure he could see the hump on the back. Not just any bear, a grizzly. Worth every buckBeau smiled. But then the bear did a strange thing. It roared. Beau jumped at the deafening sound, and his heartbeat accelerated wildly. Something didn’t feel right. He felt frightened. There was a flash of reddish brown fur, as something dropped into the pit. As it stepped into the light, Beau took a sharp intake of breath. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. It was impossible.

~

Tama tensed the muscles in her forelegs. She purred as she sensed the unease of the dogs. Their scent was flooded with pheromones that indicated fear. The nearest of the three animals was larger and seemed more dominant than the other two. Overconfidently, she turned her head in its direction. That’s when, with a sudden outbreak of furious barking, the other two lunged at her, jaws agape. The mixed dark and light hues of one of the dogs made it easier to see than its counterpart. It also seemed to move quicker. She saw the attack coming, but her long whiskers flexed as they picked up the vibration. The sensed the minute changes in air flow as they moved around the alpha animal, flanking her as the other two distracted her. She reacted out of instinct.

Her left front paw, the size of a dinner plate, smashed down onto the dark-coloured dog’s head almost casually. She turned her head, plucking the alpha dog from its mid-air leap and crushing its skull between her jaws. Its body went limp, hanging from her mouth in a macabre manner. She enjoyed the sensation of the thick hot blood that she could taste. As she felt a struggled movement under her left paw, black, razor-like claws extended and sliced through the dog’s skull. She dropped the dog that she carried in her mouth and stepped over the body of the one under her feet. The remaining dog whimpered at her approach.

~

At first, Beau thought it must be a clever hoax. The native had somehow dressed up the beast with a hump and elongated fangs. But as the creature dispatched the dogs with vicious ease, full panic set in. This thing, whatever it was, was real. And it moved like lightning. Beau rushed forward, but it had already cleared the pit. A blur passed in front of him, racing its way upwards into the benches. He could hear the people shouting, but still couldn’t comprehend what was happening. A bloody, mangled body fell to the ground ahead of him. He recognised Blaze’s blood-stained fur. He stumbled backwards, making his way towards the rear door. Finding it locked didn’t surprise him, but the heat he felt, and the cracking, spitting noise from the timber outside did.

~

Chayton watched bright orange licks of flame spread across the barn. The cold mountain air fed the fire, helping it spread as a breeze whipped at the building’s walls. The dry, warped wood on the outside eagerly embraced the inferno. Smoke began to billow as the black paint melted and stripped, adding to the potent scent of the fire. The outer hull of the barn began to buckle under the onslaught of the flames, the wood popping and exploding with sharp, loud cracks. Chayton readied himself, and reached into the cab for his weapon, but not before he pulled the thin silver whistle from his pocket. He blew on it hard.

~

Tama leapt from the pit with a roar, scrabbling her way up the tightly bunched bench seats. She found soft, wriggling flesh under her feet, and she clawed and bit and bellowed as she sought a way out. The screams of her prey fuelled a frenzy of lunges and swipes, each blow bringing down a new, mangled body. She tore strips of bloody, warm meat from the bodies as she went, eating on the run.

Just like the dogs, she had sensed the fire way before the men had. The smoke within the barn was beginning to subdue them, and they tripped over each other in their panic. There was now no doubt for her that these animals were prey. They reacted like any herd, driven together by fear and her presence. She revelled in it, roaring loudly above the sound of the raging fire. Then she heard the piercing sound that penetrated the dark interior. She leapt into the air back towards the pit, clearing it and barrelling towards the dark, fiery wall ahead of her. Although this was hotter and fiercer, she had been acclimatised to it by the one who fed her. She remembered the burning tree frames he had encouraged her to pass under, with him by her side. He had made the same piercing calls then. He was letting her know that he wasn’t far away and how to escape. She accelerated hard and leapt again with a roar that drowned out her fear and hesitancy. The act filled her bloodstream with adrenaline and fuelled her strength. The wood splintered at her touch, and a vacuum of cold air swept into the space behind her.

She stopped to stand by the male, whose hand patted her hard and reassuringly. She shook a few glowing embers from her fur coat and looked back at the fire. Just like the animals inside, she no longer had to fear it. He had seen to that. They watched it burn for several minutes, until the structure began to collapse in on itself.

~

Chayton was sure nobody was coming out. He walked with Tama round to the back of the trailer and allowed her to take her time to get comfortable. She lay down, seemingly unscathed by the ordeal. He would let her rest as he checked the rest of the property. He couldn’t afford for there to be any stray witnesses.

As he walked back around towards the truck, he caught the movement coming from the shell of the barn and ducked back out of sight. He heard the rapport of the gun, but the shot was in no danger of hitting him. The bullet slammed into a tree about thirty feet to his left. He stepped out again, this time more confidently.

Aeneas Martin had been seriously burnt. How he was even managing to stand somewhat baffled Chayton. Raw, pink flesh hung from his cheeks. Chayton could see where the skin had melted, becoming a thick, tar-like glue that had smeared itself to the quarterback’s cheekbones. A hole had burnt its way through his jaw, and Chayton could see the wrinkled pink gum as drool pooled over the yellowed teeth uncontrollably. Midnight stood about twenty feet from Chayton, and held a large revolver in his right hand, which shook uncontrollably.

Chayton gripped his own weapon a little tighter. It was cumbersome and heavy, but in the right hands, deadly. The buffalo jawbone war club was intricately decorated with inlaid gold thread and emblems of his own design. He had reinforced the raw bone with a natural varnish of honey, salt, and pine sap. And the large teeth set in the curved single edge had been fused into the bone by being dipped in molten steel and sharpened. The weathered leather handle allowed him to throw it with mortal accuracy or wield it up close without slipping from his hand. Until now, it had all been just practice. But now, he realised he would be required to kill, just as Tama had been.

He closed the distance between Midnight and himself with a darting, zigzagged run. The quarterback tried to follow his movements but had no hope of doing so. Chayton suspected the man would soon succumb to his wounds if he left him, but in his heart, he knew he was being tested. He had to show resolve, that he was prepared to make the sacrifices he asked of Tama. He closed in on Midnight from the left, gripping the war club with both hands as he did. He swung it sideways with incredible might, sending the athlete tumbling to the ground. Even here, the heat of the fire had melted the snow, leaving Midnight to crawl through the mud as Chayton circled him. He looked down at the charred, defeated frame of what had been a powerful man. He was both excited and shocked at how the strike from the club had lifted the flesh from the scalp, peeling it back like a clump of grass in the wind. Fresh blood flowed from the wound, trickling down Midnight’s face.

Chayton now felt panicked and upset. He had no interest in being cruel or callous. Midnight was suffering unimaginable horrors. Chayton did not want to take pleasure, or too long, in the man’s death. He spun the club in his hand and raised it above his head, bringing it back down with a decisive strike. Midnight collapsed onto the ground instantly. Life, spirit, and strength left the body all at once, the remaining flesh slapping back into the dirt like a gut pile cut from a strung-up deer. With one hand, Chayton pulled Midnight’s body towards the trailer and the open ramp.

Tama received her gift eagerly, using her teeth to drag the bloodied carcass into the back of the trailer with her. The rough surface of her tongue removed the skin and remaining flesh from the skull, allowing her to savour the sweet, coppery taste of the blood. As Chayton closed up the ramp, she had begun to gorge herself on the chest and legs. He secured the ramp before taking a final walk around the property to make sure no other fight goers, or evidence survived.