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.”

The Daughters of the Darkness – Pre-order Now!

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!

The Daughters of the Darkness – a villain’s tale

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.

A Place for Product Placement

I’ve been quite lucky that in the twelve months Shadow Beast has been out, the worst review it has received has been three stars, with comments varying from a simple ‘okay read’ to another which gave away the twist and ending. 76% of the reviews give it a five star rating, with another 18% giving it the four star treatment.

Any author should be pleased with that kind of impact and feedback from readers who have put their money down, especially after nearly a year on the market.

However, a latest comment in a review did at least make me chuckle, and I took a little time to consider it. They weren’t very happy with the product placement in the writing. I also suspect he may have been a Land Rover enthusiast, as he took some umbrage that I referred to Thomas’s modified Defender as an Overfinch rather than a ‘Rover’ or ‘Landie’.

It is of course impossible to please all of the people all of the time, and I don’t intend to try, but I thought I would take a little time to talk about product naming and usage in writing generally, and in my own.

First of all, when a self-published author like myself names or uses real life brands and products in their books, it is very unlikely to actually be product placement, where a company has paid for its inclusion. That said, should Rolex be wondering which of their watches Thomas wears, and if they would like me to wear it as an endorsement, it’s this one, but with a leather strap.

Naming a product can have several purposes and uses to a writer. I use it specifically in three ways in the most part. Firstly, I use it to tell the reader something about the character. By associating a character with certain brands, I can provide you with an essence of their personal tastes, financial status, and even possibly things like age, gender and background, and normally in under three words. It can be very useful to set a scene, especially at the beginning of a story.

This is something that one of my favourite authors, Ian Fleming, constantly did. From providing his hero with a shiny Aston Martin DB4 in Goldfinger (you read that correctly, it was in the film that it became the eponymous DB5 we all know and love), to his Rolex (now Omega), the purpose was always to suggest Bond’s swagger by way of his swag.

Secondly, a specific piece of equipment is usually most easily described by its brand and model. I agree that you probably don’t need to know the serial number, but by letting you know that Thomas is using Leica binoculars or shoots a Holland & Holland .465 bolt action rifle, it should help the reader visualise it easier – or in the case of the gun, give you an idea of its power. I don’t see much point in going to great lengths descriptively when naming the product does everything I need it to do.

Another of my favourite authors, Michael Crichton, used this in his writing often. He would always go to great lengths to describe scientific apparatus, surveillance equipment and other items down to the model number. Sometimes I would look them up, sometimes I knew what they were, but I always had the visual reference. Clive Cussler is somebody else who is very fond of mentioning the exact make and model of cars, planes and weapon favoured by Dirk Pitt, his own hero.

Thirdly, by using a real product or brand, it can help reduce word repeats. It provides another option descriptively on top of common adjectives.

There is of course the obvious reason too. It’s always a little bit of wish fulfilment. Authors tend to give their characters the things they’d like to have, from simple attributes to sharp suits and expensive cars.

I know it isn’t always to everyone’s taste, but product naming and use does have a place. In the case of at least a few, it was my editor who asked my to specify brands for the reasons above.

Feedback also has its place, and I’ll certainly keep all of the kind comments and constructive criticism Shadow Beast has attracted as I prepare the sequel, The Daughters of the Darkness. Some, like my recent reviewer may be pleased to hear he’s ditched the Overfinch. I’ve given him a Twisted tuned Defender pick-up instead!

Starbucks

Remember the Self in Self Publishing

There is an awful lot of advice out there in the world of self-publishing. Facebook forums, blogs (erm…like this one), e-zine articles, you name it, some self-proclaimed, self-published guru will have called shotgun on the advice column. Some of course is legitimately helpful. But elsewhere, things can get a little out of hand and over analytical. It’s perfectly acceptable to have discussions about which font to use for your paperback, (something from the Helvetica family, or in my case Palatino Linotype), or your ebook (Georgia, but don’t beat yourself up too much as readers can select their preferred font and size anyway), but if you’re hung up on say whether to put the ISBN-10 or 13 first in the layout, we need to talk.

I’ll give you a recent example from a Facebook forum I’m part of. A well-meaning contributor did a little bashing into those who, in her opinion, mistakenly put their acknowledgements at the beginning of their books. Poor old readers just don’t have the time to read acknowledgements, and they are unwelcome as the personal ego trip they clearly are. I’m just going to come out and say it. Poppycock. Acknowledgements are traditionally found at the front of a book. I can go to any on my shelf, flip through the first front pages and you know what I’ll find. Acknowledgements. I’d think it rather odd to discover them at the back. And let’s face it. If you’ve self-published, many friends and family will have probably helped and contributed in their own way somehow. Do they deserve to be slotted into the back like an afterthought? No. And they’re probably going to be the first people to read your book too. But that’s not to say it’s fine to do the full Gwyneth Paltrow. Keep it short and sweet. Like most things in this post, you’ll be fine if you apply healthy doses of common sense and scepticism.

There are things you need to do. Your book will be remarkably better off having been professionally edited and designed. I completely understand that cost is the biggest issue you probably face as a self-published author, but your book will do better if it has benefited from a good structural edit, a copy edit, proof-read and the bonus of an expertly designed cover. I will go into more detail about the whole process in a future post, but the point I want to get across today is that ultimately, it is your choice.

Let’s face it, if you’ve gone down the self-publishing route, it’s probably because you were struggling to get noticed by a traditional publisher or agent in the first place. I’m no exception. My book, Shadow Beast, sat on the ‘maybe’ pile for two well known agencies for so long that in the end I gave up and did it myself. I am very proud of it, and I think it’s a great story. More to the point, so do the many readers who have left five star reviews and compared it to Jurassic Park, and demanded it be made into a film to boot. I’m very lucky that the book has been so well received that within six months of pressing the big red button, I can now say it is my main source of income. But it wasn’t guaranteed.

You are completely free to give up the day job and commit to being a self-published author, but I wouldn’t recommend it. You may have noticed quite an uproar of late over the changes to how Amazon pays authors for their ‘unlimited’ service. This premium library allows paying subscribers to borrow your book, but whereas until recently you were paid a set fee for each download, authors are now paid on the number of pages read. Suddenly, many saw a drop in their payments from Amazon and cried foul. But lets be clear, actual sales were completely unaffected! The unlimited service was meant to be an add on, not your main source of income. But the problem is…there’s an awful lot of dross out there. Certain genres, such as erotica for instance, are flooded by poorly written, novella length guff. And the problem for Amazon was that most readers, quite rightly, were giving up after a few pages. If you’re work was short and…well, shite, you were reaping a reward regardless. But that’s not how the world works honey.

Most people who write, do so because it is something they love and ultimately, need, to do. And this should always be your starting point. Self publishing opens up a world that allows you to hold a book you have written in your hand, or can download to your Kindle. It gives you massive creative freedom, putting you in charge of what you write and how you present it. But you’re not guaranteed an income, a new life as an author or ultimately, any success at all. You need to be happy with that as a possibility, and be happy to just write for yourself. I still wish you every success though of course! And the thing is, if you write for yourself…it becomes less important what others say, and you become less inhibited by their barrages of advice and what they think.

There are lots of things you can do to aid your book, and there is good advice out there. Price it competitively, and be realistic for instance. I don’t care if your opus is over 800 pages long and it took you a decade to write, I don’t know you and I am not going to pay book store prices for it. When you have Stephen King’s loyal following and captive audience, you can get away with it perhaps, but until then, I’ll pay via check, made out to reality thanks very much.

On the flip side of the coin advice wise though, be aware that sometimes people just want you to pay for stuff. Again as an example, I recently took a ‘free’ review of my book’s Amazon profile from the forum I mentioned. When I initially joined, I was praised for the professional cover of my book, which they said they loved. Six months later though, things had changed and a new cover was recommended, and they just happened to offer such a service! As I browsed the examples, I noticed the large type stating ‘images courtesy of Shutterstock’ on virtually every single one, and on checking the covers on Amazon, found it wasn’t just due to being a mock-up. Needless to say, I much preferred what I already had and thought it far better conceived too.

The point is, I was able to make that decision. It’s my baby and I’m in charge. It’s all down to me. There will be pros and cons to everything I decide, and the repercussions and rewards are equally felt by me. Self publishing is one of the few worlds where it really can be all about you. But if you don’t cater for readers at all, don’t give it your best, and don’t do your work justice, then you might not get a great deal out of it. My advice when it comes to advice is the same I give for writing generally. Find balance, find confidence and find your own voice, and you’re off to a good start.

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