Happy Halloween – New Chapter Preview

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

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

CHAPTER EIGHT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beau nodded approvingly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pussy time,” Beau giggled.

Chayton ignored him.

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

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

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

~

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

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

~

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

“Come Tama,” he called.

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

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

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

~

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

~

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

~

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

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

~

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

~

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

~

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

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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