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.
Book 3 in the Beast Series, Phantom Beast, is a little behind. However, if all goes according to plan, there should be not one, but two books to launch in fairly quick succession. Not only will you get Phantom Beast, but hot on its heels will be Rogue, which is a spin-off featuring a character you’ll meet in Book 3.
However, here is Chapter Two of Phantom Beast to whet your appetite, where we meet the latest addition to the Walker family, three-year old Cassie. Check out the previous post to catch up with Chapter One.
Thomas Walker eyed the cat with an unblinking stare. Its own gold-green iris met his gaze with equal confidence. The long black tufts at the end of each of its ears flicked once as it raised a paw to step forward. Thomas matched the movement, pushing his chest out as a sign of dominance. The cat was silent but dropped its chin and bobbed its head from side to side as it sized him up. He wondered if this was perhaps why its smaller cousin was called the bobcat. This cat, a northern lynx, was a fine specimen. Male, fully grown at nearly three years old, weighing close to 110lbs, and nearly four feet in length. Thomas had given the cat the name Loki, befitting both its temperament and its Norwegian ancestry.
As the cat pounced, so did Thomas, whisking the little three-year-old girl up into his arms, feeling the thud of her heavy outdoor clothes against his chest as he clutched her tightly. Loki rose onto his hind legs, reaching out with his front paws towards Thomas and the girl. The pads of the cat’s paws met the wire-mesh fence harmlessly, which flexed a little under his weight. Thomas met the stare of the cat with a smug look of his own as he dropped the girl back to her feet.
“Cassie Walker, what have we said about going near the enclosure?” Thomas demanded, gently.
“Loki wants me to be friends with him, daddy,” the girl answered adamantly.
Thomas smiled, brushing away her red curls and meeting her vivid green eyes, which burned with resolve.
“Loki wants you for lunch, munchkin,” Thomas sighed.
“No claws daddy, no claws!” Cassie replied, thumping him on his calf with a scowl.
Thomas looked at the cat. He could see his daughter was right. Loki had not extended his claws. But it was no reassurance its predatory instinct hadn’t kicked in.
“I was going to accuse you of having your mother’s good looks and my brains, but it seems you’re using your head. It’s still my job to make sure it stays attached to you though, okay.”
“Silly daddy,” Cassie sighed.
Thomas took his daughter’s hand and led her back to the house. Named Sàsadh, an old Gaelic word meaning a place of comfort, it was now homelier than ever. The grand old farmhouse had changed rather dramatically over the last few years. First had come an impressive extension, incorporating a bedroom, bathroom and play room for Cassie on the ground floor. Then had come the further addition to the grounds, with enclosures for the lynx. Part of a reintroduction programme, the Mullardoch forest on their doorstep was one of three test sites where the cats were being released as part of the pilot scheme. Thomas’s wife Catherine, and the Highland Wildlife Research Centre that they ran together, were overseeing the reintroduction.
He walked in with Cassie through the back, into the boot room, where both he and Cassie removed their shoes and left them by the door. He again whisked Cassie up into his arms, lifting her up from behind and making her giggle. A good-natured bark sounded from the hallway as two dogs trotted down the corridor to greet them. Meg, Thomas’s three-legged chocolate merle Border collie, and Arturo, a slate grey cane corso mastiff he and Catherine had adopted. Cassie began to squirm, signifying her want to get down to greet the dogs. Meg eyed Thomas sheepishly as Cassie’s feet hit the floor and she rushed forward, licking and yipping at the little girl with loving affection.
“Traitor,” Thomas sighed.
Meg instantly came to his side and leaned into him. He lent down and patted her side tenderly.
“Daddy, I want a doggy,” Cassie declared.
“Looks like you’ve got two already greedy-guts,” Thomas replied.
“No,” Cassie shrugged, as if tired at having to explain. “Meg your dog, Atty mummy’s.”
“Well, they’re ourdogs really Cassie,” Thomas explained. “They’re as much yours as mine and mum’s.”
Cassie seemed to think about it for a moment, then stomped off down the corridor.
“Mummy, want a doggy,” he heard Cassie whine to Catherine, who was in the kitchen.
“That’s a kind offer darling, but I’ve got two already,” he heard his wife reply snappily.
Thomas couldn’t help but smile as he saw Cassie storm out of the kitchen towards her room, scowling, and with both dogs in tow.
“Don’t think she liked either of our answers,” Thomas said, raising an eyebrow as he lent up against the kitchen doorframe.
“That’s the price she pays for having parents with over-developed sarcasm glands,” Catherine laughed.
Thomas admired his wife from the doorway. There was no doubt where Cassie got her red hair and striking turquoise eyes from. Whereas Catherine’s hair was short and gave her something of an elfin look, Cassie’s was longer with a curl. Catherine often remarked Thomas’s black hair and pale blue eyes had been traded for his stubbornness. Her temper was all redhead though, something he could again blame Catherine for.
“By the way,” Catherine remarked, closing the fridge door slowly. “With everything that’s been going on at work, and with Loki’s arrival, we plain forgot to do any shopping. There isn’t any food in the house.”
“That’s alright, I’ll take Cassie out for a ride and we can go to the farm shop. I spoke to Annie during the week about keeping the cat’s diets varied, and she thinks she can help out.”
Annie Patterson ran a farm shop in the nearby village of Cannich. It specialised in the high-end produce of the local area and its farms. Thomas had always preferred to get his groceries there as it was, but now, Annie also served as a conduit of communication between the farmers and Thomas and Catherine. Not everyone was thrilled by the idea of having large cats reintroduced into the area. For many, it was a very sensitive subject. The potential killing of livestock by the lynx was one aspect of the residual resistance. But as Thomas well knew, the events of his past had also dramatically impacted the Highland hamlet. A big cat had been here before. Its existence was denied by the government, and it had killed over a dozen people before he had stopped its rampage. Although the lynx was considerably smaller, he empathised with the local community’s hesitance in welcoming the species
“Settled then,” Catherine smirked. “But hurry up, I’m hungry,” she thumped him playfully on the arm.
“What is it with you two hitting me?” Thomas grumbled playfully.
Thomas walked to Cassie’s room and pushed open the door. Arturo was laid out on the white rug that covered the floor, with Meg by his side. Cassie was slumped on top of the big grey dog, her arms trailing either side of his rib cage, her eyes firmly fixed on the expansive picture window opposite. Thomas went and sat on her bed, shaking his head but smiling.
“Come on kiddo, we’re going into town to do some shopping. We need to feed mummy, and then we need to feed Loki. Wanna help?”
“Wanna dog,” Cassie said quietly and sulkily.
“There’s one underneath you, hon,” Thomas pointed out helpfully.
Cassie tried to stop herself smiling but couldn’t quite help the corners of her mouth turning up. With a sigh, she picked herself up and walked over to Thomas, leaning into him. He put an arm around her shoulders and scooped her up again, brushing away some of her curls. He carried her back through to the hallway, where they grabbed fresh coats and shoes. Cassie took his hand as she impatiently dragged him out through the front door.
Thomas walked across the gravel drive to the converted stables that were now a garage and workshop. He clicked the remote from inside his Barbour jacket, and the double-fronted, fire-station style doors began to open. Inside was another reminder that Sàsadh was now a family home. The Land Rovers he favoured had proven a little impractical, and Catherine had put her foot down about a replacement. Inside sat a more modern and conventional Jaguar F-Pace SVR SUV. But, with a penchant for more unique vehicles, he hadn’t been able to quite leave it at that. A German tuning company had upgraded its performance and looks to his approval. It now boasted nearly 650hp, as well as a racing tuned exhaust and brakes. Its 22-inch wheels were clad in heavy-duty tyres capable of high speed off-road and on road performance. And a wide body kit matched to the electric blue paintwork made it look more aggressive and muscular. There were days though when he still missed the ruggedness and rawness of the Land Rovers, even if they had been luxuriously appointed like the Jaguar. Catherine had joked it was still a big cat at least – a nickname given to his modified Defender pick-up with a supercharged Jaguar engine. He opened one of the rear doors and lifted Cassie into her seat.
As they drove towards the village, Thomas pointed at birds in the sky and asked Cassie to name them. It was one of her favourite games, and she participated eagerly. As they wove through the wooded lanes that surrounded Sàsadh, she picked out the flocks of siskin and chaffinches. As they got nearer to the village and the forest gave way to arable fields, she called out the lapwings and hooded crows with pride. As they passed the sign that indicated the village boundary, she shrugged and sat back in her chair, declaring all they would see now were sparrows. Thomas smiled at both her intelligence and stubbornness.
Patterson’s Farm Shop was close to the village border, making it logistically convenient for the local producers. Most of the groceries had food-miles less than what he’d just driven to get there. He pulled in to the gravel parking area to the side of the wooden barn-like building and stopped the car. Cassie was pushing against the restraints of her car seat by the time Thomas opened the rear door. He unbuckled her and tried to control her hasty descent to the ground.
Thomas often thought the inside of the store was probably what markets used to look like. Annie was strict about only stocking seasonal produce that met her high standards for quality. Today, the steeply angled displays were filled with cauliflower, purple-sprouting broccoli, leeks, rhubarb, and cabbages. Thomas knew he would also find cockles, clams, mussels, and oysters on the fish counter, taken from the Beauly and Moray Firths, and the cold, clear waters of the Scottish east coast. But today, it was the meat counter, or even the cold-store that he was interested in. Cassie dragged him impatiently towards a room to their left, which was home to popular pets like rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, as well as kittens and puppies from the local area looking for homes. But he pulled her back as he caught the eye of Annie, who was watching him make his way over. She smiled when she saw him coming.
“You’ve got a lot of nerve showing your face around these parts,” Annie joked.
A few of the customers looked around to see the object of her mirth. Some smiled as they recognised him. But at least one studied him with a cold, stern gaze.
“Hello Cassie, how are you today?” Annie asked.
Cassie swayed to and fro in silence but beamed a brilliant smile back.
“Why don’t I ask my friend Alex here to take you to the pet section?” Annie asked, nodding at one of the store assistants, who was unpacking some boxes behind her. “I think the rabbits need feeding.”
Cassie nodded her head enthusiastically and looked up at Thomas for permission. He laughed and let go of her hand. She immediately dashed over to the surprised Alex and took his, dragging him off in the direction of the animal room.
“Speaking of feeding, I’ve come to take you up on your kind offer of helping out with supplying my charges with their meals,” Thomas said.
“Aye, I guessed as much,” Annie smiled. “Better follow me.”
Thomas followed her through to a room filled with cold cabinets and steel counter tops. She opened one of the largest fridges, a big industrial metal one.
“I’ll need a hand,” she indicated.
Thomas stepped over and helped her haul out a large sackcloth bag. It was long and thin, reminding him a little of a body bag. He realised that was pretty much what it was as Annie opened it. Inside, was a pristine rib cage from a red deer, and some meaty lower leg bones. It was much more than he had expected.
“Loki will love them,” Thomas exclaimed.
“It makes me happy to see them not go to waste,” Annie replied. “We could also look at the heads, offal, and other bits that don’t get used. And of course, there’s also pork, mutton, lamb, and beef carcasses to make the most of.”
“That’d be great,” Thomas said. “Although I’d prefer if we stuck to their more natural prey items as much as possible. I don’t want him getting a taste for livestock.” He appreciated the support and was determined to make it go as far as he could. “And I want to make sure we pay a more than fair market price. I want the suppliers to know my animals, and theirs, are going to contribute positively to the local economy.”
“You’ll need to do more than that,” Annie shrugged, “but it’s a start.”
“How bad is it, is it even worth trying?” Thomas asked. His concern was all too evident in his voice.
“Of course it’s worth trying,” Annie replied. “I’d say you have as much support as you do resistance. Most people know you understand the community. To a certain extent it’s not even you they don’t trust.”
“It’s the government,” Thomas added.
Annie nodded. “If the last few years has shown us anything, governments and leaders come and go at a fair rate of knots these days. This scheme could lose official support as quickly as it got it. And it has only been five years since…”
“Since a big cat killed a dozen people here,” Thomas nodded, finishing her sentence.
“I don’t think you’ve even seen the start of that part of the uproar,” Annie sighed. “We’re a small village Thomas, but we’ve got a big grudge there. And long memories.”
“I know,” Thomas said. “I once hunted every big cat I could. I was motivated by vengeance and hurt. I was a force of destruction.” Thomas paused as he remembered his time in the Mato Grosso of Brazil, hunting jaguars and pumas in the wake of his first wife’s death. She had been killed by an unusual pride of lions, descendants of the infamous man-eaters of Tsavo. It had taken him seven years to settle the score and steer himself right with Catherine’s help. He now knew more than ever that big cats needed human protection. It was something he had learnt in Wyoming, under the mentorship of a skilled hunter and trapper named Lee Logan, who had also been one of those killed by the Cannich cat.
Annie seemed to be able to read his thoughts through his distracted look.
“People know you lost someone too,” she offered. “We know you’re not an outsider on this, and that makes a big difference.”
“Hopefully, so will this,” Thomas nodded, pulling out his wallet.
After grabbing some venison, mushrooms, kale, and potatoes for their own dinner, he went to find Cassie. She was still with Alex. He reported that Cassie had helped him feed the fish, and the rabbits, but had become immovable from a pen that held a new batch of puppies. There were four of them, leftovers from the unplanned mating of a farm collie and terrier. The black and white, wire-haired bundles were lapping up the attention Cassie was lavishing them with. Thomas guessed they were about fourteen weeks old.
“I’ve already told her they’re all reserved,” Alex explained, reading Thomas’s worried expression. “We only take the ones the owners can’t find homes for, and word gets out pretty fast.”
“Come on munchkin, you can help me feed Loki if you’re good,” Thomas suggested, hoping it would be a strong enough pull to draw her away from the overload of cuteness.
“Bye boys,” Cassie chirped, getting up from the straw-covered floor of the pen.
Despite having been born in the local village of Drumnadrochit, Thomas had lost his natural accent after moving to England whilst still young. It had been the same for Catherine. So, it gave him great delight to hear Cassie’s soft Highland lilt well and truly established. He lifted her up and over the wooden rail of the pen, rubbing noses with her as he drew her close to his face. She laughed as he dropped her down to the floor in a fast swing. By the time they got back to the car, Annie was waiting for them with the big sackcloth bag on a trolley.
Annie crouched down and began to frisk Cassie. “Just need to make sure you’re not smuggling any puppies out,” she joked, gently tickling Cassie under her arms. The little girl laughed shrilly and uncontrollably.
Thomas loaded the deer meat into the back of the car, thanking Annie for her help again. As they drove back, Cassie explained to Thomas that they hadn’t been the right puppies for her anyway, but she was going to keep looking. Thomas was in no doubt she would.
When they arrived back at Sàsadh, Thomas dragged the sackcloth bag over to Loki’s pen with Cassie’s help. The lynx bounded over to the fence with eager interest. It didn’t escape Thomas’s attention that the cat rubbed the side of its head and chin against the mesh close to where Cassie stood. In fact, Loki seemed to follow Cassie rather than Thomas as they headed to the gated door of the enclosure. Thomas went in first. Loki retreated to the rear of the pen, watching intently as Thomas pulled out the rib cage from the bag. He kept an eye on Loki as he hid it in a log pile and covered it with some brush. He then closed the sackcloth bag and headed back to the gated door. He picked Cassie up and took her into the enclosure with him. From a distance, they watched Loki dig through the rocks and scrub of his pen until he found the meat.
Having seemingly not noticed them whilst he ate, Loki lifted his head as Thomas and Cassie went to leave. He made a short, fox-like yowl as they headed to the door. The cat took two swift bounds towards them, putting Thomas on alert. When it was just him in the enclosure, Thomas let Loki be quite playful, but he was wary, having Cassie with him. Loki was watching him now, still as a statue.
“Don’t get any ideas,” Thomas warned the cat. He moved to Cassie’s right, getting between her and the lynx. He could see Loki wasn’t hunting from his upright stance. But being Labrador-sized, he wasn’t an insignificant animal, and was not to be underestimated. Loki bounded forward again, flanking Thomas as if trying to approach from the front. Thomas was a little amused as he watched Cassie instinctively pick up a good-sized rock.
“No need for that, look at his behaviour. What’s he trying to tell us?” Thomas asked Cassie.
“He wants to play,” Cassie remarked.
“Exactly. He’s approaching from the front. He’s had a good meal. But, he’s lonely.”
Thomas knew it was a slight risk, but he decided to crouch down and see how Loki reacted. The lynx seemed to relax and walked casually over to him. Thomas kept Cassie to his side, still separating her from the cat. But Loki was in a good mood. He greeted Thomas as he had a few times before, butting his chest with his head and pushing it under his arms. The cat slumped down onto the ground, and Thomas carefully began to stroke the cat, bringing Cassie in closer.
“We’re trying to get Loki used to us, so that when the time comes, it will be a little easier to put a radio collar on him. That way, we’ll know where he is when we let him out,” Thomas explained.
Cassie nodded, her eyes wide in wonder as Thomas took her hand and ran her fingers through Loki’s belly fur.
“Better than a doggy, huh?” Thomas asked,
Cassie nodded slowly, then caught herself, suddenly vigorously shaking her head, thrashing her curls from side to side. Thomas laughed. Having had enough attention, Loki jumped up and retreated to a favourite rock, which he sprang to the top of to watch them leave.
Thomas went to a small shed on the other side of the enclosure and put the rest of the deer meat into a chest freezer inside. As he came back out, he heard Catherine calling him. She had a concerned expression on her face as he walked up.
“You have a phone call,” she explained. “He says his name is Jesse Logan.”
This is the first in a new series of blogs, where I’ll be introducing you to some of the characters you’ll (hopefully) meet in my books. I’ll be giving you some insights into their background, my inspirations, and even my thoughts on their personalities. Perhaps I’ll even do some imaginary casting for when that film deal breaks! As always, it’d be great to hear readers thoughts too!
It makes sense to start with the main man himself, so without further ado, lets find out a little more about Thomas Walker.
So, first off, how do I picture Thomas? Thomas is in his early forties. He’s six foot two, and he’s well-built, and of course, handsome, with dark hair (some signs of grey now too), and very deep blue eyes. His skin is a little weathered, but not damaged, and he never lets his facial hair get beyond a rugged yet short crop of stubble.
Thomas hates suits, and his clothes are usually a blend of luxury, comfort, and practicality.
Perhaps readers might be surprised to learn that I never depicted Thomas with a Scottish accent. Although he was born in the Highlands, he has travelled all over the world, and was educated in England. He spent years in both America (Wyoming) and Africa (Kenya and Tanzania), so is certainly a well-travelled man. But as with any true Highlander, a trace of an accent will always make itself known.
Although we’ve never really met them in the books (yet), Thomas has a sister, and his parents own a small vineyard in France, which is famous for a rare, boutique wine matured in whisky barrels (of course!). As we learn in the first book, Shadow Beast, Thomas’s father is a skilled carpenter, who has passed on some of his knowledge to his son. He put it to good use in the renovations of an old deer farm, which he named Sasadh – Gaelic for a place of comfort.
In both of the books he appears in to date, his tragic past, in particular the death of his first wife, Amanda, affects him deeply. He keeps people at a distance, and suffers from night terrors. He doesn’t really have any close friends, except for his dog, Meg. He tends to bury himself in his work, whether building the house, or working as a wildlife biologist.
But, as anyone who’s read the books will know, he doesn’t work alone. Thomas works with Catherine Tyler, and his attraction to her (and strong, intelligent, independent women in general), is apparent pretty much from the off. I’ll let you find out how things develop there for yourself if you don’t already know!
Thomas is a Cambridge zoology graduate, conservationist, and wildlife researcher. But he has also been a hunter, a safari guide, and a professional tracker. He has always been involved in the control, management, or protection of wildlife one way or another. He is strongly against trophy hunting though, as we again find out in Shadow Beast.
Thomas lived in Africa for a long time with Amanda. Amanda was a zoologist and Thomas was a game guide and hunter. On a safari where Thomas had to help hunt down a man-eating leopard, one of the guests, who was an American TV producer, saw the potential in a show and they soon shot to fame hunting man-eating animals all over the world. In the fourth season of the show, tragedy struck whilst returning to Africa, and Amanda was attacked and killed by a lion.
Following the death of his wife, Thomas drank heavily and lived in the United States where he hunted mountain lions and other problem animals with tenacity. This is where he met Lee Logan, who helped turn his life around. Lee Logan and his team of expert trappers are important characters in Shadow Beast, and Lee’s son will make an appearance in the upcoming third instalment, Phantom Beast.
His charm usually hides his accidental arrogance, but not always. He is gently spoken, but quite forceful in getting his own way and he is approachable and understanding to a point, but when that point is reached, he has little tolerance beyond it. He has a cutting sense of humour best employed on those he knows well, but suffers guilt and upset if he thinks he crosses the line. His temper is rarely seen, but is usually provoked by injustice to others. When he is personally attacked, he is much more likely to retreat and retaliate when he is in a better position to do so. In many ways, he reacts like a predator by responding when he has carefully considered all of the options, but does so instinctively and by producing the most damage with the smallest of input. He is very considerate to those he is close to, but possibly accidentally dismissive to those he isn’t.
Thomas is clearly respected and liked in his local community. Outsiders might feel slightly threatened by him. He is confident and content with himself, but also very aware of his short-comings and is his own worst critic.
Some friends have commented how they thought Thomas was somebody I’d like to be. But, whereas I certainly share his petrolhead tendencies – and I’d certainly like his money, I actually probably wouldn’t get on brilliantly with him. He’s a little too arrogant and cocky for me I’d say. Maybe we’d meet for the occasional drink and catchup though.
When it came to my inspiration for the character, there’s no definitive singular source. For sure, there’s a little of Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt about him (although they admittedly wouldn’t look much alike). Perhaps more than a trace of Bond’s wit and appreciation of the finer things is in there too. And maybe, just maybe, there’s a little bit of the Preacher’s charm, empathy, and sense of justice from Pale Rider. You’ll have to wait until Phantom Beast until this particular cowboy gets a horse though.
And…who should play him in that yet to come movie deal? Perhaps a rugged-looking Henry Cavill? One of the two Toms (Hiddleston or Hardy)? Ben Barnes or Richard Madden might be interesting choices too. Guess we’ll have to wait and see!
I often have my most profound thoughts and reflections at the oddest of times. There’s the cliched ‘eureka’ moment in the bath of shower of course, but for me, nothing beats the good old commute. Whether on a train, in a car, or on the bus, you can be surrounded by other people yet lost in thought. And as this year trundles to its final stop, it seems a perfect opportunity to reflect on the journey I’ve taken as a writer this year.
My second novel, The Daughters of the Darkness, came out in June. It continues the adventures of Thomas Walker, the wildlife biologist turned monster hunter, whom we met in Shadow Beast. The book is getting some lovely reviews from readers, and is slowly making itself known among the Amazon charts.
A few readers were surprised to find Thomas facing his past rather than picking up exactly where the first story ended. However, there is method in my madness. Firstly, given that Thomas is a hunter of man-eaters, I couldn’t resist pitting him against what are arguably the most famous duo to have ever developed a palette for people: the Tsavo lions. The legend and historic record of the man-eaters features strongly in the narrative, and as we learn in the first book, Thomas has unfinished business with a pride possibly made up of their descendants. There is of course something a little more cryptic (or perhaps cryptid), to their nature too. But, secondly, I also needed some time for things to…shall we say grow? Without giving any spoilers away, Phantom Beast, the third instalment, will see a return to the animals we met in Shadow Beast, and things have certainly…developed!
So, obviously Phantom Beast will be a major project for 2018, but getting stuck into my third novel was also a major part of this year.
But, there are a few other things on the go too. I’ve made progress with a science fiction story, and some headway with a rampaging bigfoot as well. And a recent achievement to my 2017 was mapping out what I see as my “novel universe”. Connecting characters, books, and storylines proved a really interesting exercise and gave me considerable clarity on where to take the stories. It also gave me a considerable to-do-list, so 2018 will be a busy year! Like many writers, I collect notebooks and journals, jotting down everything from vague thoughts to one-liners I’m yet to fit to a character, plot, or storyline!
One of the funnest experiences in 2017 was joining Shannon Legro of Into the Fray Radio for an episode of her excellent podcast. If you’re interested in the paranormal, strange goings-on, cryptids, serial killers, UFOs, and other worldly things, you should definitely check it out. You can find my episode here, and you can find Into the Fray on all good pod catchers.
Another lovely aspect of 2017 was receiving reader mail from all over the world. From a gentleman in Florida, to a horror fan in Germany, I have been amazed and touched to find my books have spread so far, and pleased so many. If you’d like to get in touch, you can drop me a line via email@example.com.
So, 2018 beckons, and of course, there’s plenty of things I didn’t get round to doing. I still haven’t set up a website, or started a mailing list. I don’t promote my books enough. Writing and a full-time job do take their toll, but I’m going into the next twelve months a little more prepared and determined. Christmas has seen aids, such as a social media planner from the brilliant Lucy Hall added to my resources, so I’ll hopefully be a little more proactive and less reactionary on my channels.
And along with everything else, I’ll keep writing too. Here’s to 2018!
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!
With the release of The Daughters of the Darkness now only weeks away, it’s time to introduce you to one of the key new characters, Kanu Sultan.
Kanu Sultan stepped out into the courtyard of his compound. The sun was all but gone and he let the warmth of the last few rays linger on his skin as night crept slowly from the east. He had chosen his new home well; a dense marshland nestled between the three national parks of Tsavo East, Tsavo West and Chyulu Hills. Several other smaller wildlife conservancies were on his doorstep but like the one he now occupied, they had been abandoned following his arrival in the territory. It was a hunter’s paradise, benefiting from the movement of animals between the parks and being close to water. At thirteen miles to the nearest road, the remote location gave him privacy and security but was still central enough for him to have a wide influence over much of the area. Roughly equal distance from his native Mombasa to the east and the more tourist-friendly Nairobi to the west, much of southern Kenya was within his reach, as was the border of Tanzania.
Kanu walked past one of his men, a former Kenyan Army Paratrooper who remained statuesque at his post as he went by. Kanu hand-picked most of his men from either the paratroopers or the Presidential Escort Regiment, Kenya’s best. He also made up their number with some local Maasai, and he paid all of them well. Although relatively small, the force was elite enough to make his reputation formidable and kept his activities safe from government interference. Out here, he was the authority. And it was that authority he was about to exercise now.
At the far left corner of the courtyard he turned, making his way down a flight of stone steps that led to a makeshift prison block. Weeks before, it had held expensive wines and brandies for the paying guests of the game lodge, now serving as his personal quarters. He walked down the dimly lit corridor to the end cell, the only one occupied. He stared in, the flash of his white teeth against his dark face alerting the dishevelled man on the other side of the iron bars to his presence.
“I respect a man who takes risks in business,” said Kanu. “It’s why I asked you, with respect, to go elsewhere. Unfortunately, like most Afrikaans, your greed and disrespect have brought an end to your good fortune.”
“Stepped on your toes did I, kaffa?” the man leered, easing himself up onto his feet from the floor, using the wall to support his weight.
Kanu stiffened slightly at the insult, glancing down the corridor as he heard the hurried footsteps of one of his men. His eyes told the young Maasai to stop where he was, only momentarily glancing at the sack the warrior held out in front of him, its heavily twisted top held firmly between both hands.
“Racism is born of fear Mr. Van Zyl, and fear is natural when facing death. Did you know the kingdom of Kaffa was once a state of what is now Ethiopia? Its first capital was named Bonga, as was the district around it. It was one of the prime trade routes for slaves, which is why both Kaffa and the term Bonga Bonga land came to be used by the whites in such a derogatory way. It was where the slaves came from.”
“Getting back at the whites is it then?” Van Zyl sneered. “Bit late don’t you think?”
“Hardly. You are a dealer of drugs. Instead of plying your trade to wealthy visitors in Nairobi as I suggested, you targeted the poor and vulnerable on the streets of Mombasa. The same streets where I grew up and watched men like you destroy whole families and neighbourhoods. You did not do as I asked Mr. Van Zyl, and that situation demands nothing short of my full attention,” Kanu replied.
“You’re a fucking hypocrite Kanu. You’re a dealer too. Admit it, this is about shutting out the competition,” sneered Van Zyl.
Kanu stepped closer to the bars, his eyes fixed on his captive.
“I don’t mind you selling drugs Mr. Van Zyl,” he said in barely a whisper. “But I do mind who to. And you are wrong, I am not a dealer like you, I am a trafficker. I organise, sell and allow safe passage of product, be it arms or narcotics, through the territory. What I don’t allow is for those items to be used against my people. There are plenty of opportunities outside of Kenya, and even a few within its borders. You were urged to explore them. Now you must face the consequences of not doing so.”
Kanu carefully stepped back, taking a large iron key from his pocket. Van Zyl watched him as he slowly placed it in the lock of the door and turned it. As a heavy sounding clunk signalled the release of the door, Van Zyl shot forwards and pulled it open as he attempted to dart between the two men in his way. Kanu was ready for him, pouncing forward and punching him in the chest with both fists, his forearms straight as spears. Van Zyl was knocked head over heels backwards. He crumpled onto the floor by the back wall.
Before Van Zyl could get up, Kanu quickly took the sack from the Maasai. In one flowing movement, he took the corner in one hand and pinched the top open in the other as he upended it and flung it forward. Van Zyl screamed as an enraged snake leapt towards him, its open mouth and two inch long fangs all he saw before he instinctively raised his arms to shield his face. He was surprised at the heavy impact he felt as the snake hit him. He panicked and threw the snake aside, but not before its teeth sank into the bicep of his right arm. The snake hit the floor with a thud and immediately made for the darkness underneath the cot bed. Once there, it coiled and lay with its eyes fixed on Van Zyl. It made no noise, but its forked tongue tasted the air every few seconds.
“My apologies for the theatrics Mr. Van Zyl,” Kanu said. “The gaboon viper has to be somewhat provoked into delivering an envenomed bite. They’re actually quite docile. But I find them hard to resist being the largest of their kind. The fellow who just bit you weighs 20lbs.”
Van Zyl spat. His mouth tasted dry and his tongue felt heavy and swollen.
“Not exactly common in this part of Kenya, people might get suspicious don’t you think?” he said, beginning to feel slightly faint.
Kanu smiled. “Oh we’re not quite finished yet Mr. Van Zyl. When you’re found, I doubt they’ll think to check for a snake bite. I just needed to slow you down.”
Kanu nodded to the Maasai, who had been joined by another of his men. They both stepped into the cell and picked up Van Zyl, dragging him out and back along the hall towards the stairs. Kanu slipped into the empty room behind them and picked up the snake with ease by the tail. It sought out the open sack as soon as he offered it, and he knotted the top as he walked out. At the top of the stairs, he handed the Maasai the sack.
Van Zyl was thrown across the flatbed of a large green Toyota Land Cruiser truck. Kanu climbed into the open back with him. He looked the man over as the truck pulled off, passing quickly through a large archway made up of the black volcanic stone of the region. The truck ploughed forward into the African night.
Kanu smiled down at the pale sweat strewn face that looked back up at him from the bed of the truck, the eyes bulging and bloodshot.
“I would have allowed you a slightly more luxurious last ride Mr. Van Zyl. I personally would have preferred the air conditioning. But your body is no longer in control, and I couldn’t have you shitting and pissing yourself over my leather seats,” Kanu explained.
He brushed aside the dying man’s shirt. The welted, swollen purple flesh of his shoulder and neck were already beginning to blister. The man could no longer talk from his enlarged tongue. Soon his eyelids would also be too heavy to keep open. Kanu knew the man’s pulse would be racing and slowing with complete irregularity. If simply left, his death could still take up to an hour. He looked up and began to peer into the darkness.
After driving for nearly thirty minutes, Kanu finally thumped on the cabin roof of the old Land Cruiser, giving the signal to stop. The driver pulled over into the long tussock grass.
“My pets are close Mr. Van Zyl, you will not suffer much longer,” Kanu laughed, towering over him.
Van Zyl barely felt the rough grasp of the two men who picked him out of the flatbed and threw him to the ground. The impact of the dry, rock strewn earth on his blistered and swollen flesh sent a wave of agonising pain through his body. He continued to writhe and struggle as he heard the truck pull away, but he no longer had the strength to stand. The sound of the engine dulled, faded and then disappeared altogether.
He lay stricken. His arms and chest felt like they were on fire, and his skin felt tight, like it was too small for him. With great effort he opened his bruised and tumid eyelids and gazed at his hand. His arm had ballooned. Its purple and yellow colouring was punctured by burst cracks that streamed with thin, cherry red blood. He knew he would not stop bleeding now. He closed his eyes, knowing he would not be able to open them again. He gagged and choked on the froth filling his throat, turning his head to the side to try and vent it. His strength left him and he waited for death. Just as his thoughts threatened to fade, a sound piercing the night stabbed him with a momentary surge of adrenalin and renewed panic.
The diabolical laughter crept closer on swift, padded feet. It made the animal sound nervous, but it was a sign of pure confidence. Van Zyl convulsed involuntarily as the hyena sniffed at his head. The animal let out a yip of excitement, leaning in closer to lick the man’s forehead and scalp.
Another sound penetrated the night. A low, deep rumble of warning. The hyena gave a scream of fright, only pausing to snap off one of Van Zyl’s ears as it loped away. Blind and half deaf, his body shutting down in shock as his flesh was putrefied by the snake venom, Van Zyl still had time to sense the presence of the large heavy animal as it came closer. The press of its paw on his chest was the last thing he felt as he slipped into unconsciousness. Moments later, a pair of five and a half inch fangs smashed through his temples.
She dragged the body further into the grass, seeking the cover of scrub and thorn. Deep in a thicket, she lifted her head and let out a thunderous roar, calling in the rest of the pride. She listened to them slink closer as she began to feast on the body.
A breath of wind carried the whisper of the roar to Kanu’s ears as the truck rolled through the night back towards the compound. He smiled.
As the author of a book named Shadow Beast with a marauding big cat at its heart, I couldn’t really resist the ten day ‘Indie Roar’ challenge set by The Notebook Blogairy. Today’s challenge (Day 9) is to champion five favourite independently published books. Although I am still relatively new to both independent publishing and reading, I can already thoroughly recommend it. You will find stories you never knew were out there, and writing as good as anywhere. The true strength of the indie writer is being able to write what they want – so there are no limits. Whatever you are looking for, its almost certainly out there. And if it isn’t…maybe you should write it! These guys did!
1. Dead Men Should Know Better by Dominic Canty
This is the debut novel of my friend Dominic Canty, and as a truly rip-roaring read, it thoroughly deserves its place on this list. The narrative follows Bristo Trabant, a geek from MI6’s IT department, as he is catapulted into the world of international espionage, armed only with the trusty ‘Beginner’s Guide to being a Secret Agent’ for comfort.
Along the way we meet talking sharks, life-saving water pistols and encounter funny takes on the cliched staples of deadly card games and car chases.
Although not widely available at the moment, it’s worth tracking down and waiting for. Book two is currently being researched and written as we speak! You can find out more about Dominic and the book here.
2. The Miryan Heir: Journey of the Marked by Rebecca P. McCray
This is my current read, but I am already hooked! This brilliant Young Adult fantasy boasts wonderfully colourful characters, all with their own intriguing back story and background. As they and the rest of the story comes together, you realise you are on a blade and ray-gun wielding thrill ride.
The visual depictions alone would make this a wonderful mini-series or movie. The vivid accounts of the different alien races, the blue, werewolf-like graelith henchmen and the even darker villains are all too easily etched into the imagination with each turn of the page.
Again, book two is on its way. You can find out more about Rebecca and the book here.
I discovered this book after watching the moving documentary Blackfish. Neal unashamedly put the positive campaigning of the Blackfish brigade to good use, and was clearly inspired by a love of the ocean and its creatures.
Invoking native American legends, up to date scientific research and delivering a real sense of just desserts on the corporate bad guys, it is the embodiment of wish fulfillment for many animal advocates.
As an author who also picked a fiery, green-eyed redhead for his heroine, I can say I genuinely enjoyed this ocean going, legend seeking adventure.
4. Cryptid by Eric Penz
This book is vividly written, with gripping narratives and characters alike. It is well named too, as it explores the legend behind what is arguably the world’s most notorious cryptid, or as-yet-undiscovered creature. Penz has clearly done his research, and as somebody with a similarly themed story up his sleeve, I am glad to say the direction he takes the story is new and refreshing, and luckily different from what I have planned!
We find strong female characters, conspiracy and of course a cryptid in the new author’s edition of the book. Another great read!
This tale again centres on cryptids, but this time they are even more fantastical than our legends. As we track down the terrifying creatures through the eyes of a tracker and hunter building the world’s strangest zoo, dealing with problem creatures all over the world, we also encounter activism and good intentions that spell disaster for a small town that really harbours monsters.
I really loved this book, my only gripe being that with the world of cryptozoology so rich in imaginative inspiration, I would have loved to read about some of the great monsters of myth rather than the fictional fantasies here. But at the end of the day, the monsters are no less real or scary!
And okay, last but not least, I have to mention my own book. I am really proud of Shadow Beast. It represents years of hard work, and good and bad times gotten through whilst I wrote it. I am humbled and chuffed by the lovely reviews it is getting and the success it is having. I have fabulous support from friends and family, who have been there from the beginning. But I have also had amazing support from a huge community of independent authors like those above who have helped promote and praise the book further. And this is what Indie Roar is all about, championing the amazing efforts of indie authors everywhere! So if you have a book in you, join us. If you want to read ‘off the reservation’ then find us. Either way, you won’t be disappointed!