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.
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.
Hello everyone. I thought I’d share a new chapter with you, as U have very nearly completed the first draft of Rogue, and am hoping to have it with you in early Spring 2023. In this preview, we meet a young soldier about to take part in his first “wookie patrol”.
There was a southerly breeze that brought hints of the warmth back home to Second-Lieutenant Wade Garric as he looked out at the darkening Washington sky. Over 2,000 miles away in New Orleans, the sky would be painted molten shades of pink, gold and scarlet red. Here though, less than 150 miles from the Canadian border, the sunset was cloaked in mauves, indigo and swirling black, all too ready to descend. He waited at the gate, knowing he was a few minutes early. A foot patrol crossed the yard, the two soldiers moving quickly, purposefully, and silently.
A side door in the gate tower he was standing next to opened, and a figure emerged, the silhouette made visible by the ghostly glow of the halogen wall lamp in the stairwell behind. The man was stocky and well built, and was wearing an army cap. As he stepped towards Wade, he recognised the man as Major Clarke. Clarke was a professional soldier with significant notches from America’s recent military history on his belt, and years of experience under it. He was known for being tough but fair, and Wade felt a slight swell of relief as the Major stopped beside him.
“All ready for tonight?” Clarke asked.
“Yes sir,” Wade snapped in reply, knowing it wasn’t really a question.
“Hope you enjoyed your dinner, as you’re gonna be seeing it again real soon when that smell hits you,” came a cackle from behind.
Wade didn’t need to turn around to know Master-Sergeant Amos Dugas had joined them. The two had been friends since they’d first arrived at Fort Skookum, both being New Orleans born and raised. Despite his loud and unsubtle demeanour, he was glad the skinny blonde Cajun would be on the patrol with him. He was still bothered by Clarke’s presence though. No regular patrol he’d ever been on required a senior officer to tag along. He wondered how true the rumours were, what he might see out there. He tried not to think about it.
Garric turned as he heard the rumbling engine of the approaching vehicle. The Humvee drew up alongside them and stopped. Clarke climbed into the front passenger seat, nodding to the driver as he did so.
“The Second-Lieutenant will take it from here, son,” the Major commanded.
The Private behind the wheel nodded, even seemed relieved as he climbed out and left the door open. As Wade got behind the wheel, he stowed the M4 rifle to his side. This also aroused his suspicions further. As the driver, he would be the last to get to his gun. So, if an initiation or prank of some kind was being planned, the guy with perhaps the only gun clipped with live ammunition wouldn’t accidentally maim or kill anyone else.
“Keep that handy,” Amos chided him. “I guarantee you’ll need it.”
“Up top, Dugas,” Clarke ordered, his impatience showing.
Wade smiled as Amos snapped to and threw open the hatch, giving him access to the Humvee’s Browning M2 50-caliber machine gun. He swivelled it left and right on its mount to check its movement wasn’t restricted in any way. He thumped the roof to signal all was good.
“Sir, if you don’t mind me asking, what exactly are we going to be encountering that requires a 50-cal machine gun?” Wade asked.
“Maybe nothing,” Clarke replied. But I have an OP coming up that might require a few good men, and I’ve had my eye on you two for a while. Let’s just say this is an opportunity for me to see how you cope when things get hairy. As you may have gauged, this isn’t Dugas’s first Wookie patrol. But when I said I was looking for someone else, he mentioned you. Don’t let me, or your friend down son.”
“No, sir,” Wade replied.
He’d heard the others talk about the so-called Wookie patrols. The word Skookum, after which the fort was named, was a Chinook word that meant ‘evil god of the forest’. He knew what to expect. They’d go out, complete their rounds, then at some point, they’d be attacked by a group of Marines in gillie suits, a type of camouflage material that had the appearance of long strands of matted hair. It made anyone wearing it very difficult to see in the undergrowth, and at night, there was almost no chance of detecting them. Wade would go through the motions of being surprised when it happened, at least at first. He knew the drill.
As he pressed down on the gas and passed under the large gate between the two guard towers at the front of the fort, he looked left and right. For some reason, he looked over at the fence that hugged the boundary. 10,000 volts of electricity ran through it, constantly. One click out, another fence, intersected by just the front and rear gates, encompassed the entire fort and surrounding forest. It too was electrified and patrolled under guard. He’d never thought about it before, but tonight, the setup bothered him. He’d never come across anything like it on any base he’d been stationed on previously. As a special forces training facility, it wasn’t unusual for there to be a slightly less orthodox layout. But he still couldn’t help wondering. What are they trying to keep out? He thought.
Clarke indicated for him to turn left, and he found himself driving through a gully bordered by the fort on one side, and the forest on the other. The bushes and underbrush began to intensify, and Wade eased off the gas a little. Clarke’s eyes were fixed on the treeline, and he seemed to be acutely listening to the night’s sounds. A little further on, the gulley swept right, away from the fort. The lights of the buildings and the hum of the fence faded quickly, disappearing altogether within a few seconds.
“I think we’ve got company sir,” Dugas yelled down into the Humvee’s interior.
Wade stifled the grin that wanted to spread across his face. They still weren’t too far from the fort, but were out of sight. This was the perfect place to launch the ambush. He was resolved to play along, even if he did feel slightly disappointed they weren’t going to wait until they were further round to stage the performance.
Clarke banged the dashboard, and Wade instantly brought the vehicle to a stop.
“Whatever you do son, don’t turn the engine off. You just sit here idling, understood?”
“Three bogies, approximately eighty yards to the east,” Dugas whispered.
It was then that Wade heard Dugas pull back the slide of the 50.cal, and he caught the gleam of the brass, chain-linked cartridges in the magazine. The bullets were real. This time, he couldn’t quite repress the shudder that rippled down his spine. If this was a set-up, they were trying real hard to convince him otherwise. Nobody was inclined to take chances with that kind of fire-power. His eyes snapped to the treeline.
For nearly a minute, there was nothing but the sound of boughs and branches creaking gently in the wind. Then, from within the darkness, the booming hoot of a great horned owl pierced the night. Wade was just beginning to feel the edge of the adrenalin wearing off, when a deliberate, decisive crack emanated from nearby. As he peered into the black, he thought he saw movement, a blurred shadow moving between the trees. A second later, a good-sized branch smacked into the side of the Humvee, and dropped to the floor. Wade heard Amos swing the Browning in the same direction.
Wade didn’t know why, but he felt a certain urge to check the rear-view mirror. He glanced up, and froze. Glimpsing past Amos’s legs, out in the gloom, he saw two amber dots low to the ground, and appearing to edge closer. He recognised them instantly as eye-shine.
“Sir, directly behind us, about thirty yards out. Potential tango,” Wade reported, not taking his eyes off the mirror.
“Sneaky sons o’bitches ain’t they,” declared Amos, swivelling the gun around.
With the windows cracked open, there was no escaping the sudden, seeping stink that crept into the cabin. It was like a skunk, rolled in dog shit, had died in the back seat and been left to rot there for a few days. It took all his self-control to force down the vomit that wanted to fly out of his throat as it filled his nostrils.
“Jesus H. Christ, that’s one unhappy monkey,” Amos declared under his breath, wiping at his streaming eyes.
“Throw a flashbang Corporal, let him know we’ve seen him,” Clarke ordered.
Amos picked a canister up from the seat below and pulled the pin, tossing it gently behind the Humvee. Wade instinctively covered his eyes as he saw the others do the same. Above the sound of his thumping heartbeat, he distinctly heard the thuds of heavy steps coming towards the vehicle. Then he heard the fizz, pop, and crack of the flashbang, and the dazzling blaze of light projected onto his closed eyelids. Something behind the truck was screaming in rage and pain, moving away at high speed. Something else on Clarke’s side was roaring, but also moving away. The noise seemed to penetrate every fibre of his being, resonating in his chest. At one point, it was so loud he almost couldn’t hear anything at all. As the glare from the flashbang faded, he opened his eyes wide in terror, unsure of what he would see. In the rear-view mirror, all he could see was Amos’s grin. And to the front, the reach of the headlights showed only the trees.
“They don’t like bright light,” Clarke explained. “You may want to remember that.”
“They sir?” Wade asked.
“I’m not rightly qualified to tell you exactly what they are,” Clarke replied. “But tonight, and on the op, they are your enemy. Let’s move on.”
As Wade shifted the Humvee into gear and pressed down on the gas, he heard something large thrashing its way through the scrub on his right. Through the open window to his left, something there too was mirroring their movement. It agitated him. There was little cover there, he would expect to be able to see it. He kept glancing out into the shadows as he drove, trying to get a fix on what he was listening to.
“Maybe time to roll up the windows, bud,” Amos suggested.
“Not a chance, I want to hear them coming,” Wade replied. “Plus, I’m not sure how much good a pane of glass will do against the thing that threw that tree branch. That pitch must have been from over a hundred feet, and if it hadn’t hit the truck, it would’ve been out of the ball park.”
“Maybe when we catch up, you can try signing them up to the Mariners,” Amos laughed.
“They certainly need all the help they can get this season,” Clarke replied.
Wade wasn’t much of a baseball fan, but the Seattle Mariners were pretty much the only Major League team in Washington state, and they got game tickets every now and again. It was more about hot dogs, beer, and buddies for him though.
Wade felt rather than heard the impact of something hitting the ground, again somewhere to his left. He came off the gas, letting the Humvee roll along as he reached for the M4. Clarke was watching him out of the corner of his eye, but said nothing. The thing, whatever it was, was too close. He didn’t have time to say anything or warn the others. He slammed on the brakes, whipped up the rifle and thrust it out of the open window. He closed his eyes, registering the slight crumple of grass underfoot a few feet away, almost parallel to him. He eased the barrel an inch to the right, slipped the safety, and fired.
There was a sucking sound, like an inhalation of breath taken in surprise. Then a low, guttural, curdle of a growl started somewhere in the darkness. It built in resonance and pitch. The sound exploded into a series of shrieks, whoops and utterances that when heard together, almost had the same rhythm and pace of language. For a moment, he felt like he was being scolded. As he heard Amos swing the big Browning round, Wade caught the flash of something white, loping off into the darkness. He realised it was a set of long, yellowish fangs, being bared in his direction. It barely registered with him that they were eight feet off the ground.
“Well, look at you, shooting down range on your first Wookie-patrol,” Amos declared, grinning.
“Tell me straight sir, I didn’t just shoot a Marine in a gillie suit, did I?” Wade asked, disturbed and confused by what had just happened.
“No son, you didn’t.”
“So, what did I shoot then, and shouldn’t we be going after it?”
“As to what it was, you’ll find out soon enough,” Clarke replied, meeting his gaze. “And in terms of going after it, no point. Even at that range, that rifle’s basically as effective as a pea shooter.”
Clarke shrugged, ending the conversation, but he looked Wade up and down for a moment, as if sizing him up.
“Welcome to the Skookum squad,” he finally said. “Report to the briefing at 07 hundred. But in the meantime, get us the hell out of Dodge.”
Wade felt a chill as they drove back to the safety of the main fort. He looked once again at the perimeter wall and electric fencing, fighting the shudder that came with the realisation that they were designed to keep something in, not out.
So, as I am a little behind where I thought I’d be with Book 3, and some very patient readers have been in touch to ask how things are going, I thought I’d give you a sneak peek at the work in progress.
The opening chapter to the upcoming ‘Phantom Beast’ sees us in the wilds of Wyoming. How did we get here you may ask? Well, here’s a quick recap.
In the first book, Shadow Beast, we meet Thomas Walker, the main character in the ‘Beast’ series. Later on in the story, we learn that somewhere in his past, he spent time with a team of expert trappers and hunters in Wyoming. Here, we meet the son of the leader of that team. The rest, I’l let you figure out for yourselves!
JOHNSON COUNTY, WYOMING
Jesse Logan woke with a start, sitting bolt upright in bed. He was on alert instantly, his eyes darting to the door and then the cracked open windows out of instinct. He knew he still felt uncomfortable sleeping in what had been his father’s room. It was worse now Nina had left – she had brought warmth and life back to the upper floor of the old ranch house. But even before then, the room had never disturbed him this much before. Then he heard it. The horses were whinnying and neighing in anger and panic. Rhythmic thumps sounded out as the stallion kicked at the enclosing walls of the wooden stable. It wanted out, and so did the mare. But it was the heifers that were making the most noise. They were on the move and calling to each other in unbridled fear.
Jesse wiped the sweat from his brow and flung back the covers, dropping his feet to the floor. He moved to the window and peered out. The unforgiving Wyoming landscape, gripped by the icy tendrils of winter, loomed back. The foothills and woodland that bordered the Caterwaul Ranch to the west, eventually gave way to the more impressive Bighorn mountains and forest. A heavy mist was descending from them now, reminding Jesse of the movie ‘The Fog’, or the original version at least. He’d never seen the remake.
The cattle were breaking from one side of the field to the other, constantly on the move and bunched together in a tight herd. He cursed, stuffing his naked feet into his boots and throwing on a thick padded sweater from the drawer. He shuffled downstairs, leaning heavily on the open banister as he went. As he passed the gun cabinet in the hallway, he opened it and pulled out a Winchester 12-gauge shotgun, padding the sweater’s pockets with shells of buckshot at the same time.
He opened the double doors of the ranch house and stepped out onto the deck, which was covered by a veranda. It helped block some of the bright moonlight that was illuminating the yard and meadows beyond. Both the cattle and horses were now quiet, although the livestock were still on the move. He let his gaze wander from right to left before stepping off the porch and making his way across the yard.
He was half way when the sudden silence struck him. Jesse was overcome by a feeling he hadn’t experienced for some time. Somewhere, out in the dark, he knew a big cat was watching him. Most of the county’s mountain lions had learnt a long time ago to avoid the ranch. The efforts of his father and his team of hunters had meant generations of cats now avoided the area. Known as the ‘hole in the wall gang’, they had taken the name from the group of infamous outlaws, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, who in turn had taken the name from the nearby gorge that served as their base of operations. Mountain lion numbers in Wyoming were dropping, to the point where even lion hunters had suggested reducing the availability of permits, after seeing less than ten percent success one season. But if a cat had decided to visit the ranch, that was equally troubling.
Jesse pressed on, now bringing down his feet heavily and making his presence known. Jesse had adopted the same strict protocols as his father and had sworn never to take a life without reason. If the lion hadn’t attacked his animals, he would leave it be. But as he neared the boundary fence of the fields and meadows where the livestock were, he realised that was no longer an option.
He only kept a small herd of Simmental yellow cattle, mainly in remembrance of his father, but he could already see they were scared. The animals were bunched tightly between a stand of Canadian hemlock trees and the back of the stable, where the horses were kept. He could see the heavy breath of the cattle in the cold night air. Their searching eyes bulged in fright and eerily reflected the moonlight.
For many years, the family business had been predator control. Jesse didn’t quite share his father’s tenacity for it. He’d recently spoken out against both wolf and mountain lion hunting in Wyoming. His real passion was in breeding animals for quality and purpose. He had chosen the Simmental cattle for their ability to stand Wyoming winters and the rich marbling their meat offered. But he was also interested in improving the quality further and had recently introduced a new strain in the form of a black American Gelbvieh bull. It was an experiment, and he was keen to see the results. As he climbed the wooden fence, he straddled it and sat with his legs either side, hesitating. He looked towards the upper meadows where he knew the bull and the cows he had selected to breed from were. It was ominously quiet. As he sat there, he considered returning to the barn behind the house for his more recent breeding experiment.
His father’s reputation meant that his services were still in demand. But the dogs Jesse’s dad had employed had proven incapable of saving him. His father had been killed by a mysterious animal, in the Highlands of Scotland and thousands of miles away. Jesse had made it his mission to breed a hunting dog not just capable of tracking a big cat, but taking it on, either alone or by working in a pack. His animals were now second generation, but he wasn’t ready, and neither were they. For now, it was just him.
He swung his legs over the fence and landed with a thud, breaking an ice-laced puddle as he did. He began the long, slow march towards the upper meadows. He swung the shotgun from left to right as he went. Despite his experience as a hunter, he realised he had been holding his breath when he reached the next fence. He let out a stalled, ragged gasp as he listened to the elevated thump of his heartbeat. Fear was taking hold.
A few moments later, it was replaced by anger and shock. The six Simmental heifers he’d put in the top pasture were still there, but there was something very wrong. As his breath left his mouth in visible puffs of water vapour, he noticed no such exhalations came from the cows. Each lay on their sides, some with their rear legs splayed and sticking up in the air. He could smell the blood in the air and he knew they were all dead. He approached the nearest to him slowly and steadily. His eyes flitted to the treeline, now much closer and ominous.
Seeing the six animals strewn around the meadow, seemingly ripped down together, he began to think he had been mistaken about the cat. Only dogs would kill so brazenly, fuelled by frenzy and excitement. But he couldn’t understand why he hadn’t heard anything. A wolf pack would have been in full voice as they hunted, constantly communicating. Coyotes, coy-wolfs or a pack of feral dogs would have been even louder and haphazard in their attack. For a moment, the thought that this was some kind of retaliation for speaking out against predator hunting crossed his mind. But he soon dismissed it when he saw the savagery up close.
As he examined the carcass, any thought of it being dogs or wolves also vanished from his mind. The precision and neatness of the kill affirmed his suspicions. It was undoubtedly a cat. The heifer had been opened along its stomach. The blood loss had been so instant and dramatic it had poured onto the ground like rain. The ribs had been snipped through as if by shears, leaving a neat line of cut-through bone. Splinters and shards around the carcass indicated the ribs had also been broken open to extract the fatty marrow. The heart and liver had been removed, and presumably devoured. It was only when he got to the head that he discovered something that surprised him.
The heifer’s throat had been ripped out completely. A gaping hole, marked by shredded clumps of fur and flesh at its edges, was all that remained. The cow’s eyes had rolled over into the back of its skull. They were lifeless and frosted over. He couldn’t tell if it was due to the temperature or the first signs of rigor mortis. He shuddered, but it wasn’t the cold that made him do so. It was the enormous paw print, etched into the frozen lake of blood. It had to be at least six inches wide, and even more in length. He’d never seen anything like it.
Hell, African lions don’t get that big, let alone cougars, he thought.
He examined the five remaining cows, finding the same results. Then he headed for the top pasture. He was surprised to find the bull standing there, in the middle of the field. It let out strained, icy blasts of breath from its nostrils. Jesse had named the bull Fabian, hinting at its German ancestry. He had often considered ‘Ferdinand’, like the cartoon character, would have been more appropriate, given the animal’s placid and affectionate nature.
As Jesse appeared at the gate, Fabian began to trundle towards him. But immediately, he saw the bull was in trouble. It veered from side to side, unsteady on its feet. It let out a distraught bellow as it tripped and hit the ground. Jesse was up and over the gate and running to the bull’s side before it was down.
Fabian lay where he had fallen but held his head up as Jesse came close.
“Easy big fella,” Jesse exclaimed, patting the bull on his neck and shoulder.
The source of the animal’s distress was obvious. A set of deep claw slashes, starting at the hock of his front left leg and ending on his rump were bleeding freely. The animal was weak and exhausted. Jesse tried to comfort the animal, eyeing the treeline again. As his gaze settled on a patch of darkness between the firs, he thought he glimpsed something. Two green spots of glowing light. As he watched, they would slowly blink in and out of visibility. Finally, they faded away into nothing. He shuddered again, realising they had been the eyes of the predator, reflecting the moonlight.
He backed his way through the pastures, never fully turning around or shifting his line of sight from the trees. The cows in the bottom field watched him all the way to the ranch house. He closed the front door behind him and locked it, noticing the shake in his hands as he did so. He went into the office and picked up the phone. He flipped through the old-fashioned rolodex on the desk and found the number for the veterinarian, a woman named Walke, who like his cows, also had German ancestry. He took out the card, looking at it and turning it over in his fingers as the line rang.
After apologising and explaining the situation to a sleepy Anabel Walke, Jesse went to put the card back in his father’s rolodex. He paused, staring at the next card in the slot behind. He picked it out and lay it on the desk. He reached for the phone again, glancing quickly at the clock. It was a little after three in the morning. He didn’t know how far ahead Scotland was, but he didn’t hesitate to dial the number. He hadn’t spoken to Thomas Walker in five years, but something in his gut told him it was time to talk.
Ruebus sighed. The mountain air chilled him, and he pulled the thick blanket more tightly around him. He had already removed his clothing and placed them in a bag in the back of the pick up. He was miles out of town, and the scent of pine assured him of the closeness of wilderness. Night was falling and a few stars were already peeking out at the retreating day. His heartbeat had slowed and he was comforted by the methodical thud in his chest as he looked up to welcome the night.
He had found it amusing that the full moon had fallen on Halloween this year. Earlier in the day, he had even kidded himself that he would be able to stay in town, as everyone would think he was just wearing a costume. The smile had soon faded though. He could never completely remember the full effect of the transformation, but he was certain that it would be all too convincing. He could never even remember if he walked on two legs, or ran on four. In fact, all he ever remembered was what we saw and felt in his dreams. The chasing down of a deer or the bloodlust thundering through his veins just before terrible jaws snapped shut.
This was his fourth full moon. If he had known that the dog he’d hit that day was a wolf, he probably wouldn’t have even got out of the car. But that was old news now. One of the benefits of being a lycanthrope was a remarkable ability to heal and the scar had disappeared after his first full moon. He had been on the ranch, bringing in the horses when he had begun to change. The horses had been spooked all day. The next morning, he had found what was left of the two that hadn’t fled fast enough. Ever since then, he had made sure he was no-where near a human on the night of the full moon. He was never going to risk that.
The noise of the engine snapped him out of the trance he had slipped into. A car was coming up the road. It was still out of sight, far round the bend. But it was getting closer. His heightened senses took over, his ears, already slightly narrower and more tipped than a few minutes ago, seemed to prick up and follow the sound as it drew nearer. He was poised to run. But something held him there.
The car screamed round the bend, almost out of control. It was a black SUV, with tinted windows, and even his eyes couldn’t see the driver. The popping sound from the wheel arch came unexpectedly. The car was already sideways when the blowout shook the chassis, lifting it into the air as it spun wildly out of control. It crashed down onto its side and slid along the road in a shower of sparks and grinding metal, the sound so loud in his ears that he lifted up his hands to cover them. He could feel his hands and palms tingling as thick fur threatened to sprout from his pores, and his fingernails thickened and hardened as they rested against his skin.
The night descended still, and Ruebus knew that only a few seconds of his humanity remained. He didn’t look behind him as he heard the family scramble from the car. He ran in the opposite direction, driving himself further and further from the sounds and smells of the accident. He began to head for the tree line, hoping the wolf in him would carry on in the same direction. It was not to be.
The snapping sound in his knees drove him to the ground in a crumpled heap. As his leg bones broke, shattered and reformed into a new shape, he let out a blood-curdling scream of agony. It only ended when there was no air left in his chest. His eyes bulged in their sockets as they changed shape and colour, seeping blood as they did. The thick, dark brown fur erupted from every pore in his skin, as steel-like talons, as black as the oncoming night, curled from his fingers and toes. His spine cracked as it curved, sending him into a spasm of renewed agony. The changes hit him in waves, re-shaping his legs into powerful back limbs. His arms bent and buckled as they became heavy and hard. His skull flattened and fractured as long powerful jaws extended into place. As if in triumph of overcoming the frail human form it had been only moments ago, the wolf roared into the night air, and held its head high in a single, chilling howl.
The scents were what came to it first. The leaking oil from the upturned engine; the spilling gasoline, the wisp of perfume from the mother’s neck, the sweat and blood on the hands of the man. They all tempted it back towards the road. It slunk silently towards the brow of the hill where it already knew the car lay. At the ridge, it paused as it saw three people huddled against the underside of the upturned car. The wolf allowed them to see him as it took a few careless steps towards them, sending loose stones down the bank in their direction. It savoured the sounds of the screams and the smell of fear in the air as the two females stood up. It fixed its eyes on the man as it parted its lips and narrowed its eyes as it thought with evil pleasure of the nightmare its human-self would wake from the following night. And then it leapt.
If you like the short stories sometimes featured on this blog, you can find novels by the author here and here.
So, after over two years of waiting (and working hard at the writing desk in my case), I am very pleased to announce that The Daughters of the Darkness is now available to pre-order on Amazon. You can find the details here.
For the moment, only the eBook is available to pre-order, but I am hoping to be able too add the paperback by the weekend, after some formatting issues have been resolved.
It’s also a great time to catch up with the first book in the series – Shadow Beast. As a celebration of the release of Daughters, I’m currently offering it as a free download until Monday. You can get your free copy here, if you haven’t yet had the chance to meet Thomas, Catherine, and of course, the beast.
There’ll be lots more exciting news and updates in the next few days and weeks, but for now, head to Amazon and pre-order your copy of The Daughters of the Darkness today. Content will be delivered automatically to you on Monday.
And one last thing. Thank you. Thank you for reading my books, keeping me going, and for supporting an independent author.
Oh, and one more last thing. Reviews are really important, so please, if you have the time, remember to leave an honest review of what you think. It’s greatly appreciated, and helps get the books even greater levels of exposure. After all, the more books that go out – the quicker I have to write the sequel!
When we begin to look into the possibility of cryptids, the focus is usually on the available evidence and facts that might substantiate the existence of such creatures. Since I was small, it was always the first hand encounters that gripped me with fear or had me reaching for the light switch.
With that in mind, I’ve decided to take some of my favourite encounters, some historic, some more recent, and fictionalise them. I hope you enjoy them. Our first story is about something hairy and homicidal in the woods of Converse, near San Antonio in Texas. Purported to have happened some time in the 1960’s, the exact date is lost to history, and some accounts suggest an origin in the late 1800’s. But the core always remains the same. A retired military man forces his studious son on a hunt that takes place at Skull Crossing. The boy is frightened by something, but still his father makes him go back…
Rites of passage are about tradition and transition. They usually mark the turning from one phase of life to another for instance. For one young man on his first hunt, the transition would be one of being alive to dead.
Major Abraham ‘Bram’ Miller let out a deep and audible sigh. He had waited weeks for this moment, but now it had arrived, the look of confusion and disappointment on Ethan’s face was more than he could bear. The boy was shaking, and the old soldier knew that at any moment the tears would start to flow. Damn it, your first rifle and you act like it’s a turd he thought. As if on cue, Ethan turned to face him, tears streaming down his cheeks.
“I don’t want it,” Ethan sniffed, looking at his feet.
“Son, we talked about this,” Bram said. “We’re going hunting this weekend. You need a gun and I bought this for you.”
“I don’t want a gun, I don’t want to go hunting, and I don’t want to fight,” Ethan replied defiantly and coldly. His gaze returned to his feet. He knew what was coming next.
Bram looked at the Ruger 10/22 rifle sitting on the counter. The stock and barrel had been shortened and the wood grain had been brought out and refinished to his specifications. Frank Merryweather smiled knowingly at the boy and Bram from behind the register.
“It’s a beautiful rifle Ethan,” the shop owner said to the boy kindly. “I’m sure I could find another buyer for it.” He caught Miller’s icy cold stare, but he knew what he was doing. “Of course though, that would mean another boy strutting through town with what was meant to be your rifle. I’m sure you don’t want that. Why not just try it for size for now?”
Ethan looked up and stopped crying. The calm tone had calmed him. He offered up his hands as Merryweather lifted the gun off the counter and handed it to him gently. He was surprised by how light it was. As he ran his finger along the grain and the barrel, he enjoyed the change in texture from warm wood to cold metal. As he slung it over his shoulder, he noticed its length perfectly matched the inside span of his arm. It was then he realised how personal the gift was. He couldn’t help the warm glow inside that formed into a smile.
“What d’ya say Bram?” Merryweather asked. “Ready for the parade ground I’d say.”
“Well a weekend in the woods at least,” Bram replied, but Ethan still picked up the hint of admiration in his father’s voice. “Look’s like we’re all done here, thanks Frank.”
When they were outside, Bram placed his hand on his son’s shoulder. “I’m real impressed Ethan, and I know this ain’t easy for you. Maybe you don’t have to hunt today, but if we’re in the woods, you need to be armed. After all, I might need you to protect me from your mother if we get back too late.”
Ethan smiled, comforted and reassured as they turned and walked back to the aqua-green Chevy pick-up Bram called the General, gleaming as if it had just come from the showroom, despite being two years old now. More of Bran’s military leanings in evidence. The tires churned the dust on the road as they headed out of the town of Converse.
Bran couldn’t help the sigh of relief once they cleared the town. The trail to the hunting ground was just north of Skull’s Crossing, and there was no turning back as they passed it. Ethan appeared to have accepted his lot for the weekend, occasionally making furtive glances at the rifle case in the back.
“So you’re going to be my spotter today, letting me and the other fellas know when there is game coming our way. If you want to bag something yourself you can, but there’s no pressure,” Bran stated.
“I only want to spot. We should eat what we kill and yours will be enough,” Ethan replied.
Bram was somewhat taken aback. This was the first time Ethan had explained his reluctance to hunt so poignantly, and Bram had to admit he was a little impressed.
“So is it trophy hunting your against?” Bram enquired.
“Yes!” Ethan exclaimed. “I’m not a vegetarian Dad, I just don’t like shooting things for fun. That’s how you identify serial killers you know?”
“Your books tell you that?” Bram exclaimed with a smile.
“No, just watching you and your friends,” Ethan laughed.
“Well I have to admit I’m a little impressed and relieved,” Bram replied. “I think that’s a pretty admirable attitude.”
He sat back and they both enjoyed the mutual silence until they rolled up to the hunting ground. Bram’s usual hunting buddies and their dogs were already there and waiting for them. The hounds barked eagerly as they got out of the truck and walked over. They all walked together a little way into the woods, stopping every now and then to note the deer tracks. The others made admiring glances to Ethan’s new rifle and he showed it off with pride whenever asked. Soon they came to a deer stand at the edge of a clearing that bordered the woods. Bram checked the radio worked whilst Ethan climbed the ladder and got into position, then he followed him up.
“All set Ethan?” Bram asked.
“Yeah Dad. I can’t see the next stand where you guys’ll be though.”
“That’s what the radio’s for. Let us know if anything is heading our way.”
Ethan watched his Dad wave back at him before he and the others disappeared along the trail. He waited for some time before pulling out the book he had smuggled in his bag. ‘Anti-intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter. It was brand new. He settled into the seat and began to read.
After about an hour, he looked up. He felt cold and tense. He put the book down and pulled out a pair of binoculars from the bag instead. It was then he realised what was making him so uncomfortable. The woods were completely silent. He lifted the binoculars to his eyes and began to scan the tree line. The snap of a twig to his far right made him spin round to find its source. As he adjusted the focus, he found something crouched there. A dark form, with fierce amber eyes. He couldn’t help the shudder he felt as the thing stood up on two legs that curved backwards at the knee like a dog’s. As it took three fast steps towards him and the deer stand, it’s long snout quivered and its lips curled back to reveal gleaming white fangs. Ethan was in no doubt it was looking right at him. He fumbled for the radio in a panic.
“Dad, Dad, come in! It’s Ethan. There’s something here, something horrible. It looks like a wolf, but…”
“Ethan calm down!” came Bram’s booming reply. Ethan could tell immediately his father was embarrassed by his panicked voice. “It’s probably just a coyote. Might explain why it’s been so quiet this morning.”
“No Dad, this isn’t a coyote. I don’t know what it is. Oh God, it’s moving closer. Dad, it’s coming, it’s…”
Bram stared at the radio in his hand, his son’s voice replaced by high pitched static. He was startled by the sound of a gunshot that came from the direction of Ethan’s deer stand. There was another, then another. Then silence. Nothing stirred.
Bram bolted, grabbing his rifle and running down the trail. He only looked back when his companions found their dogs unwilling to follow, digging their heels into the ground and baying mournfully as the angry hunters pulled with all their might on their leashes. He didn’t wait for them.
He came to a sudden halt as he turned the corner. He could see the stand was empty. Ethan’s rifle lay abandoned on the ground close by. The empty brass shell casings were scattered in the leafy brush. He dashed past the stand into the clearing and stopped. Only the heavy thud of his heart sounded in his chest as he met the gaze of the creature in the tree line. It’s wolf-like ears were held high, pricked and pointed in his direction. Fiery eyes watched him with unblinking tenacity. But it was the snout that made him recoil in horror. A wicked, twisted thing that seemed to form a sneer. The creature was semi-crouched, shrouded by the shadow of the trees, but he could still make out what it held in its arms. Ethan, pale and bloodied, eyes closed. The creature took a single step backwards and disappeared into the maze of brush.
The dogs could not be forced back down the trail, and it was only the press of night and the threat of darkness that eventually encouraged them to break for the cars. The men returned with flashlights and searched the forest, but to no avail. Police and forest rangers arrived, but their dogs and horses also refused to enter the trees. Throughout the night, the woods remained silent under the gaze of a full moon.
It was the following day that Bram stumbled upon the creek. The mist of the early morning had not yet lifted, but he still noticed the colour. Blood red. As he knelt down beside the water, he wept, knowing Ethan was lost to him. He jumped to his feet as he heard a whispered message, the voice of his dead son, coming from the creek.
“Eat what you kill,” it said.
I hope you liked this little fictionalised adventure into a famous cryptid encounter. If you like unknown creatures and scary stories, and fancy something a little longer, I write novels too. You can find a link to my book Shadow Beast below.
The sepia hued haze of dusk was setting in as Joanna made herself comfortable in the hide. The golden glowing disc that had brought little warmth to the winter’s day had slipped below the bank on the horizon, but its reach still reflected off the cloud bank above. It gave the water the look of pale honey. The surface of the lake was perfectly still and the mirror images of the greenish grey trunks of the ash trees that lined the bank, slowly stretched out across the water to her. She sighed as she looked out through the long, thin viewing window. The light was soothing and silken at this time of day. It was as if God had etched the world around her onto copper sheeting.
She watched the slow swirl of water around the submerged branches of a long dead tree in the centre of the lake. This was a favoured perch for the halcyon bird. She waited for the flash of brilliant turquoise and flame that would signal the kingfisher’s arrival. She so badly wanted to see it one last time. But it was close to six and it still had not come. She wanted to die in the light.
She poured the coffee from the silver and black tartan Thermos flask into its cup shaped lid and took a sip. It wouldn’t be long now. She went back to her silent vigil. She was confident she wouldn’t be disturbed on a cold winter’s night.
The little grey cygnet had grown into the awkward shape of adolescence over the last few months. Not a perfect white yet, his grey feathers and black beak made him look as if he had been dusted all over with powdered charcoal. His bent head was held in the classic pose of his kind as he drifted in reverent like grace across the water, emerging from the shadow of the bank and into the glorious light. She wondered if that was what Heaven was like.
The young swan slowed as he neared the centre of the lake. With his wings folded against his back, his motionless upper body appeared as a boat under sail. She took another sip of the coffee.
Something about the slow movement of the water around the branches of the tree changed. The water swirled gently in the direction of the swan. There was a slight ripple, which dissipated almost as soon as it had swelled, then nothing. The mirror-like calm returned to the water.
The swan headed out towards the eastern edge of the lake, seeking shadow once more and the succulent, ozone tasting plants that swayed beneath the surface in the current that paced the shallows. It seemed to tilt its head slightly towards her but for a moment, and she could just make out the beady black eye.
Suddenly the majestic bird called out in violent alarm. It was more like an animal than a bird, similar to the shrill and rasping cry of a fox cub. And it was a cry. All majesty and grace was lost in violent panic as the hulking bird tried to heave itself from the water. Its wings crashed against the surface as it upended and tried to break away. There was a spasm of movement and then the swan began to be dragged backwards through the water, back towards the tree. The swan cried again, its water logged wings now spread uselessly across the surface. It writhed and jerked, this time its torso disappearing. Now only its back and neck remained above water. She had never heard the wail of a dying swan before, but now it lifted its head into the air and sang of its death in a haunting single plea to the sky, as it sank down into the darkening water.
Joanna felt her breath catching. She felt light headed and dizzy. A haze of wonder filled her head and for the first time in weeks her skin felt warm to the touch. She swayed back and forth on the bench in the hide. Death was coming.
There was a shadow in the water close to the tree. It sat fatly in the water, but it thinned and tapered towards one end. It began to move, edging towards the hide. Joanna watched it take form as it rolled into the shallows like an inevitable tide.
It was a great fish. Its broad and dappled grey head sat just below the surface of the water. Two flat eyes the shade of river clay stared up at her. Great, sweeping, moustache like barbells spread out from its top and bottom lip. A vast chasm of a mouth opened to reveal a fleshy pink throat. Beyond the massive and disproportioned head, a long and muscular tail stretched away into the depths, a dark and marbled bluish grey in colour.
The slime covered brow of the fish breached the water in a slow, deliberate ascent. Joanna’s eyes fixed on the round, soulless depressions that seemed to emit a gaze equally fixed on her.
I am death Joanna heard. She stopped swaying. There was a chill to the voice that beckoned her. It was distant. She looked towards the dying light of the day against the far bank and thought she understood. As the light faded, so did the voice. It was time to leave.
The old park keeper found the hide door open as he did his rounds in the first light of the dawn. It was there that he found Joanna’s body. In the amber glow of morning, within the cedar boarded hut, the woman’s scarlet shaded cheeks seemed at odds to her porcelain skin and bald scalp. She sat huddled on the bench, a dark brown quilted jacket wrapped around her, her thin legs tucked up beneath and her dead eyes set on the surface of the water. Her mouth was set in a soft smile and her gaze was fixed and far away. The cold and biting air did nothing to erode the look of cosy warmth she radiated.
The old park keeper reached over for the cup of coffee and the flask sitting on the ledge of the open window. The liquid inside was quite cold by now, but there was a warmth to the thick scent that wafted up to him. There was a vanilla like note of sweetness and for a moment he tried to place its familiarity. He sighed as he poured the contents out onto the ground, careful to avoid the water. It was the unmistakable and bitter, coffee tainted smell of burnt almonds.
Although I have shot for the pot and may have tickled the odd trout or two, I have never understood the barbaric practice of hunting for sport. With the tenth anniversary of the hunting ban currently in the news and even repeals and amendments being discussed, I thought I’d share the story of Archie Campbell from Shadow Beast. Just as Thomas Walker believes, I see no discernible difference between sport and trophy hunting and the identifying tells of serial killers. It really is the arrogance of man to believe that we are in control of nature and not the other way round. This time nature fights back!
Archie Campbell had lived with the hunting ban as long as he could. He had become the youngest leader of the Mullardoch hunt at thirty-five years old, and enjoyed one glorious season at its head before the hunting act of 2004 came into effect. His accomplishment had not been easy or quick, and he heavily resented the unfair timing of the ban. The Campbell name in the Scottish Highlands still came with negative connotations that did not match the prestige of their wealth and land ownership. Older Highlanders still instinctively mistrusted the Campbell name and he had fought hard for the appointment.
Archie’s father had always enjoyed telling him the family history, chequered as it was. Their support of Robert the Bruce saw the family rewarded with land, titles and marriages into the Royal family itself. Clan Campbell rose to become the controlling power of the Highlands, taking over weak districts with stealthy precision and gaining further titles as they spread west. They manipulated the clan system by joining forces with those with strength and power whilst exterminating the weak. In 1490, Clans Campbell and Drummond joined against Clan Murray at the Battle of Knockmary. It would become known as the Massacre of Monzievaird. The Campbells met the Murrays as they retreated from an overwhelming force of Clan Drummond, and hunted them down until only one man remained, who was saved by a family member. Duncan Campbell was hung for his involvement as an example, but the family gained allies in Clan Drummond and further land and titles in their name.
From there on in, history repeated itself. The Campbell family continued to support the Royal family and were rewarded for it. They fought beside King James IV of Scotland and Mary Queen of Scots, and there were many oil paintings and tapestries around the grand house depicting these historic alliances and battles. In the early 17th century, MacDonald lands were given over to the Campbell family in recognition of their loyalty. When the Clan Lamont tried to take these lands back, Clan Campbell fought them off. A year later, they hunted the Lamonts down and exacted their vengeance at the Dunoon Massacre. When death and debt allowed Clan Campbell to seize Sinclair lands, the remaining Sinclairs disputed the claim and tried to take back their birthright. The resulting Battle of Altimarlech gave rise to the legend that so many Sinclairs were killed, the Campbells could cross the river where the battle was fought without getting their feet wet.
Archie’s 10th great grandfather, the 9th Earl of Argyll, was involved in the Monmouth rebellion and had tried to depose James II. Although they were not successful, his 9th great grandfather, Archibald Campbell 1st Duke of Argyll, was rewarded with the surrender of Clan Maclean, their lands and home – Duart Castle on the Isle of Mull.
There was no sacrifice a Campbell wasn’t prepared to pay in return for power, and at no point in history did this become more evident than at the infamous Glencoe Massacre. When bad weather delayed clan leaders taking an oath of allegiance to the English King, an opportunity was seen by two Campbell cousins. With help of an accomplice, they coerced the King into signing an order to extirpate the MacDonalds of Glen Coe, whom they described as a den of livestock thieves. As the snows of February were on the mountain now, so were they then in 1692. Robert Campbell of Glenlyon and over a hundred men of his command were greeted with the traditional hospitality of the Highlands by his relation in marriage, Alexander MacDonald. For two weeks they enjoyed his protection, and dispelled the suspicions of the MacDonalds by suggesting they were collecting tax. One evening, orders were received and confirmed by Robert. He bid his hosts goodnight over cards and accepted an invitation to dine with the clan chief, Alasdair Maclain, the next day. Maclain was killed as he rose from his bed the next morning. Thirty eight others were slain in their homes or as they tried to flee. Their wives and children died of exposure as the village was burned. Nine of the commanding officers involved bore the Campbell name.
Clan Campbell were seen to be guilty of murder under trust, a heinous crime under Scots Law, and their name had been associated with the acts of traitors ever since. The centuries old feud between the Campbells and MacDonalds became glorified in popular films and works of fiction, helping the further staining of the Campbell name in modern times. Archie was aware that even now, the Clachaig Inn of Glencoe, a popular bar and hotel with climbers, bore a sign advertising ‘No hawkers or Campbells’. Archie had been brought up to expect the malcontent, and had also been taught by his father that despite the scapegoating and occasional reprisals, the Campbells had gained lands and furthered Scotland’s borders to their credit. He viewed his family’s villainy with shrewd scepticism, but not everyone had been quite so level-headed.
Archie had hosted cocktail parties and dinners for years before his approval in the hunt had been gained. His rise through the ranks had been uncharted, to the point where he had even provided the land for the new stables, along with kennels for the hounds. Slowly but surely he had brought them under his wing, until total control was inevitable. He gained it just in time to be threatened with being shut down completely.
Like some of his descendants before him, he was a gifted archer, and he had turned to hunting deer with a crossbow whilst the fate of the hunt had been decided. He took some satisfaction from this activity, and wondered how people who had never known the exhilaration that came from hunting and making a kill could make comment on it. Within a few months of the ban becoming effective, both he and the committee for the hunt had decided to focus on trail hunting. Bags of aniseed would be dragged before the dogs to scent and trail. Archie found it ironic that the very thing that so many protestors had used to sabotage hunts in the past was now being used to keep his going.
When the new season had started, things began well. The hunt would meet as usual and follow the trail. Almost every aspect of the previous hunts was the same, only their lack of quarry had changed. But Archie had noticed the apathy of the other riders from the very first day. There was no thrill of the chase when you were hunting a grubby brown sack. At the end of the trail, the pack hounds would look round in bewilderment. It pained Archie to have spent so much time and money on preparing events that were becoming more and more seemingly futile.
Then one day, quite unexpectedly, as they were following the pre-laid trail as usual, a fox had bolted out from the cover of some bracken in front of the pack. A large foxhound named Hamilton had let out a deep long howl that alerted the rest of the pack to the fox’s presence, and suddenly the entire hunt was on the trail. As the hounds led off, Archie caught the wry smile of some of his fellow riders. He looked around him. The hunt was well within Campbell lands and there was no way anyone would know. He had slipped the small hunting trumpet from his waist and let out a quick burst of tally ho. The hunt was on, for the first time in months it had really been on.
Archie contemplated all of this as he walked towards the feed barn. His gamekeeper Bill Fowler had asked him to meet him somewhere they wouldn’t be seen, and had suggested here. He was impatient to get the hunt underway and didn’t like the idea, but Bill had pressed it was necessary. He glanced quickly behind him to check nobody had seen him slip off as he passed through the large double doors of the barn.
The sight he was met with wasn’t anything he had expected. Sitting on the floor was a grubby young man with greasy looking hair. He looked somewhat dishevelled and was shaking slightly. His jeans and dark green anorak were torn and tattered, and then Archie noticed the blood on his right hand. Bill stood over him, his shotgun resting over his arm. He met Archie’s gaze with a smug smile. Licking his muzzle and sitting a few feet from both of them was Bill’s Dogue De Bordeaux, a rust-red coloured French mastiff named Rochefort.
“So I’m guessing this is the problem you wanted to talk to me about?” Archie asked, a look of smug disgust creeping over his features as he addressed Bill.
“Aye. Came across him trailing the back meadow as I made my rounds,” Bill answered, his eyes darting to the torn sack of aniseed a few feet away.
“Unfortunately, he ran. Rochefort saw to that. Poor wee bugger dropped his phone though,” Bill smiled smugly, handing over the smashed remains of a smart phone. Archie could see the battery and SIM card were missing.
“What a shame,” he replied, this time smiling at the hunt saboteur directly. He let out a sigh. “In a way you’re lucky. We used to have the power to deal with trespassers privately. All I’ll do today is have you arrested. Its tomorrow you should be worried about. I don’t know where you live or work, if indeed you have a job, but I will find out, and I’ll do my best to have you removed from both. There aren’t many landlords or employers around here I can’t influence,” he sneered. “And as you’ve done your best to ruin my afternoon, allow me to show you the same courtesy. We will be calling the police as I say, but I am not disrupting my schedule to do so, so you’ll have to be patient.” Archie nodded to Bill and began to walk out.
“I need medical attention!” the man blurted out. “I’ll have that bloody dog destroyed too.”
Archie stopped and turned back towards the man, his eyes narrowing with contempt.
“What’s your name?” Archie asked with a whisper of a threat.
The man went silent.
“The dog was doing his job and if you hadn’t trespassed, he wouldn’t have had to. Believe me, we will be making a very good case as to how we couldn’t possibly know your intentions or what you were carrying. You may be a poacher. You might well be a terrorist. I haven’t decided yet. You’re lucky he’s so well trained he didn’t do anything but hang on to you. Frankly, I miss the old days.”
With that, Archie beckoned Bill over.
“I’m not worried about this little fool, but I am worried he might not be alone,” he whispered. “What do you think?”
“We can’t use the back meadows now, the trails will be ruined,” Bill replied. “If he’s not alone though, they could only have come from the farm road. It would be a slight risk, but you could take the hunt towards the forest. You’re miles from any trails, and with dark approaching you should be safe from prying eyes I’d say.”
“That might make things interesting,” smiled Archie, liking the idea. He looked back at the young man. “Call the police and give my solicitor a heads up about him will you. In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy myself,” he snorted, and strode out of the feed barn.
The creature paused a few feet from the trees. It cocked its head ever so slightly to taste the scent on the breeze that teased and distracted it from its intended path. The strong yet sensitive leathery pads of its paws felt the distant vibrations in the ground, telling it of prey on the move. The rich honey sweet aroma was intermingled with two distinct and stronger smells, both of which it recognised. The creature turned and began to prowl the perimeter of the forest, each silent step taking it towards the prey it could sense but not yet see. It stopped to scent the air repeatedly as it went, flexing its muscles each time it did so in preparation, warming and stretching its body into readiness. It began to hunt.
Thomas and Catherine checked the rest of the clearing. They found a few more dismembered parts of the wild cat, as well as some hair and dried blood.
“What do you think happened?” asked Catherine, staring at the head on the forest floor.
“Territoriality,” answered Thomas. “Whenever cats meet, regardless of species, there will be a fight to claim the territory. Big cats especially show a very low tolerance for other cats in their territory. I would guess that old one-eye found himself outsized for once”
“That’s awful,” exclaimed Catherine. “Do you think the same thing has happened to the rest of them?”
“It’s hard to say, but the fact that you couldn’t find any signatures from the radio collars hopefully means they have moved on, rather than anything else.” He held up the broken radio collar he had found to show Catherine, just as the distinct blast of a hunting horn floated across the tops of the trees. “The Mullardoch hunt is out tonight,” said Thomas, a look of total disgust forming on his face. Just as quickly though, a wry smile became visible. “Want to get a closer look?” he asked.
Catherine smiled in turn and patted the digital camera in her pocket. They had both long suspected the hunt was still fully active. They had found a number of dug out fox earths, but they had never been able to prove it was the hunt. Catherine realised this might just be the opportunity they needed.
Thomas was pretty sure he could creep up on Archie Campbell without him knowing. He had plenty of practice, tracking and ambushing the illegal bush and trophy hunters he had encountered in Kenya and Tanzania, and he doubted Archie would be much of a challenge. He especially hated sport and trophy hunters. He understood and recognised the skill, nobility and respect needed to make use of an animal for food and other practicalities, but to kill an animal just because it gave you pleasure was no different to how you identified serial killers as far as he was concerned. More than that though, trophy hunting had changed and become something very ugly in the 21st century. People hunted polar bears from helicopters and stalked tame lions in tiny enclosures and called it sport. There was no skill or risk in what they did. He had stared down charging man-eaters in the wild and taken out marauding elephants. There had been plenty of risk and certainly a very real elation in survival, but no pleasure there. In any case, it was simply now illegal to hunt with dogs for sport and he needed no further justification.
Archie sat upon Saracen, his 16-hand grey gelding thoroughbred/Belgian-draft cross, a fast and formidable jumper with strength and stamina to spare. He picked out Hamilton and watched the old dog expectantly. The large hound moved methodically from one side of the track to the other in a soft and lumbering gate, taking his time to check each and every scent he found. The hunt moved forward as one, almost silent in their anticipation to find their quarry. As if on cue, Hamilton suddenly lifted his head and let out a deep, long howl as the familiar musky scent hit his nostrils. Archie spurred Saracen on and quickly started moving up through the other hunters. He knew to stay close to Hamilton no matter what.
Thomas was lying flat on the ground. He and Catherine had reached the edge of the forest, and from their position could just see the hunt as it edged towards them. Thomas took out a small leather pouch from one of his jacket pockets and popped the button holding it shut. He removed the small pair of binoculars and held them up to his eyes.
“Are you sure you were never a spy?” Catherine whispered.
Thomas smiled without taking the binoculars away from his eyes. The Sony DEV50 digital binoculars had a 12x zoom and a 20.4 megapixel camera that was capable of full HD video. They were a relatively new purchase for Thomas, and he had been desperate for a chance to try them out.
“Archie Campbell is leading the pack,” he told Catherine. “They’re heading this way, so they could be heading towards any of the dens on this side of the forest,” he continued, still looking through the binoculars. “Looks like they have a scent, they’re changing direction slightly, moving towards that clump of gorse on the right.” He pointed so Catherine could see where he meant. Sure enough the hunt was arching round and were beginning to pick up their pace. They could hear the hounds baying now, as they moved along the track.
Archie knew that any moment now the quarry would break from its cover. He could somehow always sense when the quarry was near, picking up on the dog’s excitement instinctively before anyone else. The dogs were almost skipping now, as the slower hounds in front stopped the more eager and younger dogs at the back from surging forwards. Instinctively, Hamilton broke from the pack with three other hounds following him, heading to the left of a patch of gorse in front of them. As soon as he did, there was a blur of red-brown fur as a small fox bolted from its thorny refuge and sprinted across the open field towards the cover of the trees.
The creature accelerated forward. Its whiskers flicked back and forth and it moved with maximum alertness, ears pricked and eyes scanning forwards. It sensed the prey had turned and was moving towards it. It gambolled forward and left the ground silently in order to clear the chicken-wire fence in front of it. It used the thicker cover of the inner-forest trees to break its outline and shield its silhouette. The sweet honey-like scent was closer now, and it detected the underlying odours of the leather saddles and the hay the horses had lain in. The putrid, smoky scent of the dogs it knew and recognised, as well as the pungent, prickly equine musk. It followed its instinct and crept closer.
“Right,” declared Thomas. “Let’s see if we can keep up with them. I need to try and get as much of this on video as possible.”
Catherine hesitated, a slight sense of anguish becoming clear on her face.
”Tom,” she asked softly. “Are we going to let them make the kill?”
“Not if I can help it,” he replied quickly, glancing back at her and registering the anxiety in her voice. He put his arm round her. “We’re in the conservation business, I do remember you know?” He smiled kindly.
Catherine returned the smile and felt better. In her time as an RSPCA officer, she had once nursed and raised a fox cub, which she named Bold after a popular children’s novel. She had always been fond of them and knew she wouldn’t be able to watch one get killed, even if it meant securing a conviction against Archie Campbell. Thomas turned and started making his way through the undergrowth again, and Catherine followed.
The fox was streaking away over the brush, nature making it far better adapted for cross-country dashes than the heavy hounds and horses that followed it. Archie had been pleased that they had found the fox out in the open, as entering the trees was always risky, albeit necessary to hide a kill effectively. Killing a fox in the nature reserve meant there was always a risk that some naturalist could be in there at just the wrong time, and they would be discovered. Even if they claimed they were trail hunting, they definitely didn’t have permission to enter the forest and they would be in serious breach of the agreement that still allowed them to hunt.
Archie had already seen by the bulge in her stomach that she was a vixen carrying cubs. This was good, as it meant the extra weight would slow her down. It also meant she was much more likely to rest up or go to ground sooner, her exploits exhausting her far quicker than a younger or less burdened animal. Archie followed Hamilton as the hound instinctively broke away from the other dogs, his three loyal followers sticking with him. Archie smiled as he saw the hound’s cunning at play. Whilst the younger dogs dashed across the field, enjoying the run as much as the pursuit, Hamilton was cutting across the field to intercept the fox at the forest’s edge, where a chicken-wire fence with a stile marked the far boundary of the Campbell estate. He spurred Saracen on, hoping the vixen wouldn’t make the trees. As Hamilton banked towards the fox he broke into a gallop, but Archie could already see the vixen was just enough ahead of them. With a final burst of speed she squeezed under the fence and Archie caught the white wisp of her tail as it disappeared from sight.
Hamilton stood with his forefeet on the stile and he bayed with the forlorn voice of his kind.
“Go on Hamilton,” yelled Archie, thundering towards him on Saracen.
The dog needed no further persuasion and bounded over the fence. His three companions skidded after him and moments later, Saracen cleared the fence and thundered into the forest. Hamilton and his followers pushed past the thick brush quicker and easier than Archie did, but their furious barks and baying howls let him know exactly which path to take through the trees. The branches were thickly entwined, which he was glad for, as it meant they were far from any of the forest paths and were less likely to be discovered. He was keen to make the kill soon though, as the sun was beginning to dip below the trees and in about fifteen minutes there wouldn’t be enough light to see. The less experienced and more hesitant riders soon got left far behind in the maze of tree trunks, thorny gorse and brush. Hamilton led his small band and Archie further and further ahead into the darkening trees.
The creature crouched in anticipation. It could hear and feel the approach of hooves and sensed the dogs getting closer in their reckless charge through the brush. It had killed dogs in self defence before, as well as hunted and eaten them with ease. It wasn’t concerned by their presence. The muscles in its shoulders coiled like wound springs and its eyes widened in anticipation. It licked its muzzle, wetting its nose to help intercept the exact direction and strength of the scents. As a gorse bush shivered, it twitched slightly, but let the fox bolt past as instinct held it in position. It knew that better prey followed.
Damn, thought Thomas. Even though he could hear the dogs and thought he had seen the flash of a red hunting jacket, he wasn’t close enough to catch any of it on film or clearly prove they were hunting in the nature reserve. He had though managed to get one very clear shot as the fox had sprinted towards them, obviously pursued by the hunt in the background. Now what he wanted to do was surprise the hunt, make them aware of his presence and hope that they would withdraw. He knew that there might be a confrontation, but he doubted they would recognise the binoculars as a camera, and they would probably presume he was out bird watching. Thomas could easily justify his presence, which he knew the hunt could not. He had always told Catherine that lying was a matter of confidence, and he had plenty at the moment.
Archie gunned Saracen over a bank of gorse and found himself in a small clearing. The horse came to a lurching halt and bellowed a fearful whinny, stamping its front feet and trying to turn away. Archie hung to the reigns as Saracen bucked and stamped in fright. The hounds were whimpering in terror and desperately turned back to the thorny gorse, finding their way blocked by branches they had passed through just moments ago. Archie glanced to the trees but saw nothing. Saracen dashed sideways and bucked again as he clung on for dear life. Even the dogs were backing away from the horse that was now whinnying in what could only be madness or terror.
The deafening roar that filled Archie’s ears made him turn and face the trees in front of him. He tried to scream as something immense burst from the shadows and leapt towards him, but no sound came from his throat. He felt the molten touch of outstretched claws, as they swiped downwards across his face and chest and reached for their target on the far side of the horse’s neck. He was flung backwards as he slipped from the saddle and both he and Saracen crumpled to the ground. His eyes glazed, the brain not yet giving in to death as the overpowered horse fell on top of his body. The creature that had killed both of them gutted the three dogs with casual flicks of its claws, as they leapt upon it in a futile attempt to protect their master. He watched as it padded over, its great head blocking out the last of the light as it paused above him. The last thing he saw, although his body no longer registered the pain, was the gleaming flash of its teeth as the creature bit down into his chest and tore his rib cage open.
The creature lapped at the hot blood, enjoying the slightly metallic and salty taste. The skin was easy to puncture and it yowled quietly as it sucked and tore at the body beneath it. There was little taste of fat on the meat, but it was soft and tender and smelt clean. The organs spilled freely from the cavity it had made and it enjoyed these the most, finding their taste and smell unusually rich. It had found the animal easy to kill and it savoured the meal. It had learnt to trust its instincts from its earlier experiences and now knew that the strange scent was that of prey, and no longer had to be avoided. It had feasted on man flesh for the first time and it would remember the satisfying taste from now on.
If you like what you’ve read, Shadow Beast is available on Kindle and in paperback.