Meet the Family – Exclusive Chapter Preview

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.

CHAPTER TWO

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.”