WIP Wednesday – Phantom Beast, Chapter Ten!

I’m going to be introducing some new regular posts across my channels, one being WIP (Work In Progress) Wednesday, where I’ll introduce you to some of the stories I am working on. To get things started, here is another new preview chapter from Phantom Beast. I know many of my readers have been waiting patiently for this release, and I am pleased to say that the end is very much in sight. But for now, let’s head to the wilds of Wyoming and a brewing storm!

janko-ferlic-ypS9j3UzqLk-unsplash

CHAPTER TEN

In the time it took Jericho to arrive, Thomas had changed out of his fishing gear into working boots, jeans, and a thick green-check chamois shirt. He hadn’t felt it whilst he’d been walking, but as he paced impatiently up and down along the trail outside of Lodge View, the cold wasn’t improving his mood. Despite being a relatively bright day, a storm was brewing inside him. Jericho had been flippant and dismissive on the phone. And now, he found himself questioning why Jericho would even be in the United States at the same time he was. With everything that happened, it surely couldn’t be a coincidence. A notorious tracker and trapper, with a flexible approach to the law, Jericho’s services were in high demand from a broad range of organisations. From government departments to private collectors, Jericho O’Connell worked with anyone willing to pick up the cheque. In return, problem animals would disappear, or the rarest specimen could be found. But the secrecy was something new. Jericho usually boasted unrelentingly about his exploits.

At the sound of a large vehicle making its way up the trail, Thomas turned to look. A brand new, jet black SUV of enormous size was making its way towards him. Just then, Jesse emerged from the treeline on the other side of the trail. He was clearly as interested in what Jericho had to say as Thomas was. As the car got closer, Thomas could see it was a top-of-the-range GMC Yukon. He was surprised on two accounts. First, a $100,000 vehicle was an unlikely find in a rental lot. Secondly, like himself, Jericho favoured slightly more rugged trucks, at least looks wise. The tinted glass made it hard for Thomas to see inside, but he could make out the white glow of the rancher-style hat Jericho preferred. The truck pulled up on the side of the trail, a little way off. The broad driver’s door opened, and out stepped the Irishman. He was wearing a leather drovers coat on top of his bright orange denim shirt and pale jeans. His sharp blue eyes shone in the shade the rim of his hat provided, and wisps of sun-bleached blonde hair poked out from under it and trailed down towards his shoulders.

“Quite the place you’ve got here,” Jericho nodded to Jesse.

“Want to explain what you’re doing in it?” Thomas accused.

“Now, let’s not forget the pleasantries,” Jericho replied, his eyes narrowing.

“You say you know something we don’t. Figure we skip the time-wasting,” Jesse remarked.

Jericho looked from one to the other and read the looks on both their faces. He quickly realised that tensions were already high.

“Okay,” he sighed. “Remember your cat back in Cannich?”

Thomas nodded silently, his eyes growing wide in alarm.

“Well, he’s a dad, and it’s a beautiful, bouncing baby girl,” Jericho chuckled.

The punch Thomas threw was so quick, Jericho never saw it coming. It connected with the right side of his chin and made him stagger a few steps to his left. For a moment, he was stunned, and he saw the anger burning in Thomas’ eyes.

“How could you?” Thomas roared “you know what we went through. You know it killed people.”

“including my pa,” Jesse growled, stepping forward.

“Now gents, let’s be civilised about this,” Jericho warned. “Besides, I can’t take two of you on. Well actually, what I mean to say is, I don’t want to.”

Jericho shrugged off the leather coat and let it fall to the ground. He raised his arms slightly, tensing the muscles in his forearms as he did and letting his fingers curl halfway into fists.

“You’re an asshole,” Jesse declared, stepping back and shaking his head.

“I’m inclined to agree,” Thomas spat. He walked straight up to Jericho and rammed a finger into his chest. “How could you not tell me?”

Something ignited in Jericho. Maybe it was the long drive. Maybe it was the cold weather. But he’d had enough. He shot his left palm into the centre of Thomas’s chest, pushing him back and out of his face. Almost out of habit, his right fist swung in a roundhouse punch to Thomas’s jaw.

“I owed you that,” Jericho nodded, slightly surprised at his own reaction.

Before he could say anything else, Thomas sprang, connecting in a full charge with the Irishman’s shoulder and knocking him backwards. Thomas kept the momentum going and they collapsed onto the ground. Thomas bent his arm and crossed it against Jericho’s chest, who was lying on his back and trying to get up. Jericho flinched as he saw the pain and rage wash over Thomas’s face. He decided to take what was coming. But he didn’t have to. Thomas staggered back to his feet, distracted by the noise of another truck coming along the track. His eyes were fixed on it.

“Have you quite finished?” Catherine demanded.

Thomas helped Jericho to his feet. They both looked sheepish and avoided her steely gaze. She stood in the doorway, but her attention too was drawn to the oncoming truck.

Thomas could see it was an older truck, black in colour and relatively compact.

“Shit,” sighed Jesse.

That’s when Thomas recognised the car too. It was a 1991 GMC Syclone pick-up truck. In its heyday it had been capable of out accelerating a Ferrari 348. It was fairly pointless as a working vehicle though. It was too light for heavy work and too heavy for light work. All it and its supercharged V6 engine had meant to do, was get from one set of lights to the next quicker than anything else. But Thomas already knew this one had been modified. It sat higher, on stiff, strong suspension and bulky all-terrain tyres. And he could already hear from the exhaust and the whine of the supercharger that they were not factory-issued. But he also knew all this because he knew who was behind the wheel of the truck. It belonged to Nina Lee, Jesse’s former girlfriend. She pulled into the side.

Nina was Native American. Her father was Skokomish and lived in Washington State. But Nina lived with her mother, who was of the Crow nation, and Wyoming born-and-bred. Thomas knew she was a Forest Ranger and an excellent tracker. As she got out of the truck, he could see why Jesse would have taken the breakup hard. She was stunning. Dark brown hair that rolled off her shoulders, hazel coloured eyes that shone with defiance. She was a very attractive woman.

“Look’s like it’s quite the party,” Nina jeered. “Trouble has a habit of following you around Mr. Walker,” she said with a smile.

“Joined at the hip,” Thomas shrugged.

“I’m guessing we’re all here and getting worked up about the same thing. Why don’t we all go inside and talk about this bear and whatever else might be on a killing spree,” Nina suggested.

“Finally, someone talking sense,” Catherine concluded, rolling her eyes but pushing the door wide open to welcome them all in.

Thomas nodded towards the door at Jericho.

“Sorry,” he said.

“Don’t be,” the Irishman replied. “I deserved it; I just didn’t like it.”

They all went inside Lodge View and headed up to the kitchen. They each took a seat around the breakfast bar. Thomas headed over to the coffee pot and began pulling mugs out of a cupboard. After filling each, he passed them over two at a time, then fetched a quart of milk from the fridge and some sugar cubes. He took a handful of spoons from a drawer and left people to adjust their drinks to their own preferences.

“Okay, Jericho, time to fill us in on what we don’t know, but you seem to,” Thomas suggested, softly but firmly.

The Irishman sighed deeply and took a big swig of his coffee, which he’d left black but added plenty of sugar to.

“The Cannich cat,” he said. “One of the highlights of its Highland fling was a visit to a wildlife park, where it killed a number of animals and a keeper. It did so to get access to a female mountain lion they had there. She had come into heat and proved too much of a temptation for the strapping lad. I’m sure you also remember the reported tragedy of how that same mountain lion then mauled the park’s owner to death? Well, that part wasn’t strictly true. It was her cubs.”

“Her cubs?” Catherine asked. She glanced at Thomas, who had gone pale.

“Four in total,” Jericho nodded. “They escaped, but two were killed pretty quickly – not my doing I might add. But as for the other two…”

“One’s made it over here?” Thomas asked, barely getting the words out as his throat clammed up at the mere thought.

“The British government thought it best not to tell you. The one over here is called Tama, and she was sold to a private collector. I arranged her capture and sale a few years ago.”

“So, what is Tama doing out in the wild then?” Catherine demanded.

“Beats me, obviously that was never part of the agreement,” Jericho shrugged.

“Is this why Keelson hasn’t been answering my calls?” Thomas asked. “Because she knows you’re wrapped up in this?”

“When did you speak to Kelly?” Jericho queried, a concerned look on his face.

Kelly Keelson was the TV news reporter who had shot to fame when the Cannich cat’s rampage had caught the headlines. Since then, having started her own production company, she had worked closely with Thomas, documenting how he and Catherine had hunted down the unusual pride of lionesses that had killed his first wife. Set in the same African wilderness that had been plagued by the man-eaters of Tsavo over a century before, it had been picked up worldwide. Since then, Thomas, Catherine and Kelly had become good friends. And Jericho and Kelly had become much more, at least it was rumoured.

“I haven’t, and that’s unusual,” Thomas replied.

Jericho didn’t seem relieved.

“Where’s the other cub?” Jesse asked.

“That we don’t know for sure, although I have a feeling she’s also in the hands of a collector. Not on these shores though, that’s for sure.”

“So, you’re on clean-up duty?” Thomas asked.

Jericho shrugged. “Kind of.”

“The problem is worse than you think,” Nina interjected. “It hasn’t made the news yet, but it’s all over the law enforcement channels. Last night, a dog fighting ring run by a star football player was destroyed. A fire pretty much cleaned up most of the evidence, but one body was found with both burns and bite marks. Big bite marks.”

“It started a fire?” Catherine exclaimed.

“Right now, they think it must have started accidentally,” Nina explained. “But I went and had a looksee. Whoever it was covered their tracks well, but not of their truck. And it was pretty heavily loaded at the rear. Somebody made it out of there. And I think they have this cat.”

“That’s a whole new problem if so,” Jericho added.

“You didn’t sell anyone a big grizzly too?” Nina accused, mockingly.

Unusually, Jericho went quiet, his eyes focusing on the mug of coffee.

“So, Tama,” Thomas said, changing the subject. “How much does she resemble her old man?”

“When I last saw her, she was nearly fully grown,” Jericho replied. “I’ve only seen your cat in the Natural History Museum in London, but I’d guess she’s only a shade smaller by now. She has mountain lion colouring, sort of sandy brown. But she has the bulk, and all the equipment of dear old dad.”

“A sabre-tooth?” Jesse exclaimed incredulously. “There’s a God-damn sabre-tooth loose up here, that’s what you’re telling me?”

Jericho went quiet again. Thomas thought he could see sweat on the Irishman’s brow.

“Tell me more about this buyer,” Thomas demanded.

“He’s not the problem, he’s who I’m working for right now,” Jericho replied. “If somebody is setting this cat loose here and there, it’s not him.”

“I’m guessing that $100,000 status symbol out there is a company car then?” Thomas added, finally making the connection that Jericho was still on the payroll.

Jericho nodded.

“So, are you here to help out, or are you going to get in the way?” Jesse growled.

“Neither,” Jericho shrugged. “My first port of call is to meet the buyer in Denver. I won’t know much more until then. But believe it or not, I’m feeling just as pissy about the whole thing as you are.”

“I doubt that,” Jesse muttered with menace. “But it clears a few things up, least ways.”

“Such as?” Nina enquired, pointedly.

“It’s a hybrid animal,” Jesse said flippantly. “Imported illegally into the United States. I can hunt it and kill it without issue. And that’s all I needed to know.”

“With those things?” Nina accused.

“I don’t remember inviting you to this party anyways,” Jesse retorted back.

“I came here to warn you, not give you a reason to risk your life and let those damn things loose,” Nina scolded. “We already have two potentially killer animals out there. We don’t need a pack more.”

“I can control them,” Jesse said, dismissing her concern.

“Really?” Nina shot back, whipping up the sleeve of her arm and revealing a healed-over scar that ran along her forearm.

The room went quiet.

“I told you, I think it smelt that wolf of yours on you,” Jesse said, quietly.

“But that’s just it, and something you need to consider,” Nina continued. “I can control a 150lb wolf better than you can those animals. He’d never bite me, or anyone. Unless I told him to, that is,” she added, smiling at Thomas.

“I don’t know about the killing part, but it does need hunting down Nina,” Thomas added. “Guess that’s what I’ll be doing too.”

They sat together in silence for a few moments before Nina got up. The rest of them followed suit, following her and Jericho downstairs and out the door.

“Keep in touch from now on, okay?” Thomas said to Jericho as he climbed into the GMC.

The Irishman nodded. He turned the key in the ignition and the big V8 rumbled into life. Thomas stepped back as Jericho turned the truck around. As he was passing Nina, who was making her way towards her own truck, he slowed.

“Ms Lee,” Jericho said, almost under his breath. “I don’t know much about this bear, but the circles I frequent are suggesting something isn’t right about it. Talk about it being dropped here by the government, that it killed people up North or something. All the normal conspiracy stuff, you know. But still, be careful.”

“Not my first rodeo,” Nina smirked. “But thanks for the warning.”

Thomas, Catherine and Jesse watched the two trucks headed back down the trail.

“Did things just get better or worse?” Jesse asked.

“Much, much worse,” Thomas replied.

Phantom Beast – A preview to the first chapter!

 

So, as I am a little behind where I thought I’d be with Book 3, and some very patient readers have been in touch to ask how things are going, I thought I’d give you a sneak peek at the work in progress.

The opening chapter to the upcoming ‘Phantom Beast’ sees us in the wilds of Wyoming. How did we get here you may ask? Well, here’s a quick recap.

In the first book, Shadow Beast, we meet Thomas Walker, the main character in the ‘Beast’ series. Later on in the story, we learn that somewhere in his past, he spent time with a team of expert trappers and hunters in Wyoming. Here, we meet the son of the leader of that team. The rest, I’l let you figure out for yourselves!

CHAPTER ONE

JOHNSON COUNTY, WYOMING

Jesse Logan woke with a start, sitting bolt upright in bed. He was on alert instantly, his eyes darting to the door and then the cracked open windows out of instinct. He knew he still felt uncomfortable sleeping in what had been his father’s room. It was worse now Nina had left – she had brought warmth and life back to the upper floor of the old ranch house. But even before then, the room had never disturbed him this much before. Then he heard it. The horses were whinnying and neighing in anger and panic. Rhythmic thumps sounded out as the stallion kicked at the enclosing walls of the wooden stable. It wanted out, and so did the mare. But it was the heifers that were making the most noise. They were on the move and calling to each other in unbridled fear.

Jesse wiped the sweat from his brow and flung back the covers, dropping his feet to the floor. He moved to the window and peered out. The unforgiving Wyoming landscape, gripped by the icy tendrils of winter, loomed back. The foothills and woodland that bordered the Caterwaul Ranch to the west, eventually gave way to the more impressive Bighorn mountains and forest. A heavy mist was descending from them now, reminding Jesse of the movie ‘The Fog’, or the original version at least. He’d never seen the remake.

The cattle were breaking from one side of the field to the other, constantly on the move and bunched together in a tight herd. He cursed, stuffing his naked feet into his boots and throwing on a thick padded sweater from the drawer. He shuffled downstairs, leaning heavily on the open banister as he went. As he passed the gun cabinet in the hallway, he opened it and pulled out a Winchester 12-gauge shotgun, padding the sweater’s pockets with shells of buckshot at the same time.

He opened the double doors of the ranch house and stepped out onto the deck, which was covered by a veranda. It helped block some of the bright moonlight that was illuminating the yard and meadows beyond. Both the cattle and horses were now quiet, although the livestock were still on the move. He let his gaze wander from right to left before stepping off the porch and making his way across the yard.

He was half way when the sudden silence struck him. Jesse was overcome by a feeling he hadn’t experienced for some time. Somewhere, out in the dark, he knew a big cat was watching him. Most of the county’s mountain lions had learnt a long time ago to avoid the ranch. The efforts of his father and his team of hunters had meant generations of cats now avoided the area. Known as the ‘hole in the wall gang’, they had taken the name from the group of infamous outlaws, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, who in turn had taken the name from the nearby gorge that served as their base of operations. Mountain lion numbers in Wyoming were dropping, to the point where even lion hunters had suggested reducing the availability of permits, after seeing less than ten percent success one season. But if a cat had decided to visit the ranch, that was equally troubling.

Jesse pressed on, now bringing down his feet heavily and making his presence known. Jesse had adopted the same strict protocols as his father and had sworn never to take a life without reason. If the lion hadn’t attacked his animals, he would leave it be. But as he neared the boundary fence of the fields and meadows where the livestock were, he realised that was no longer an option.

He only kept a small herd of Simmental yellow cattle, mainly in remembrance of his father, but he could already see they were scared. The animals were bunched tightly between a stand of Canadian hemlock trees and the back of the stable, where the horses were kept. He could see the heavy breath of the cattle in the cold night air. Their searching eyes bulged in fright and eerily reflected the moonlight.

For many years, the family business had been predator control. Jesse didn’t quite share his father’s tenacity for it. He’d recently spoken out against both wolf and mountain lion hunting in Wyoming. His real passion was in breeding animals for quality and purpose. He had chosen the Simmental cattle for their ability to stand Wyoming winters and the rich marbling their meat offered. But he was also interested in improving the quality further and had recently introduced a new strain in the form of a black American Gelbvieh bull. It was an experiment, and he was keen to see the results. As he climbed the wooden fence, he straddled it and sat with his legs either side, hesitating. He looked towards the upper meadows where he knew the bull and the cows he had selected to breed from were. It was ominously quiet. As he sat there, he considered returning to the barn behind the house for his more recent breeding experiment.

His father’s reputation meant that his services were still in demand. But the dogs Jesse’s dad had employed had proven incapable of saving him. His father had been killed by a mysterious animal, in the Highlands of Scotland and thousands of miles away. Jesse had made it his mission to breed a hunting dog not just capable of tracking a big cat, but taking it on, either alone or by working in a pack. His animals were now second generation, but he wasn’t ready, and neither were they. For now, it was just him.

He swung his legs over the fence and landed with a thud, breaking an ice-laced puddle as he did. He began the long, slow march towards the upper meadows. He swung the shotgun from left to right as he went. Despite his experience as a hunter, he realised he had been holding his breath when he reached the next fence. He let out a stalled, ragged gasp as he listened to the elevated thump of his heartbeat. Fear was taking hold.

A few moments later, it was replaced by anger and shock. The six Simmental heifers he’d put in the top pasture were still there, but there was something very wrong. As his breath left his mouth in visible puffs of water vapour, he noticed no such exhalations came from the cows. Each lay on their sides, some with their rear legs splayed and sticking up in the air. He could smell the blood in the air and he knew they were all dead. He approached the nearest to him slowly and steadily. His eyes flitted to the treeline, now much closer and ominous.

Seeing the six animals strewn around the meadow, seemingly ripped down together, he began to think he had been mistaken about the cat. Only dogs would kill so brazenly, fuelled by frenzy and excitement. But he couldn’t understand why he hadn’t heard anything. A wolf pack would have been in full voice as they hunted, constantly communicating. Coyotes, coy-wolfs or a pack of feral dogs would have been even louder and haphazard in their attack. For a moment, the thought that this was some kind of retaliation for speaking out against predator hunting crossed his mind. But he soon dismissed it when he saw the savagery up close.

As he examined the carcass, any thought of it being dogs or wolves also vanished from his mind. The precision and neatness of the kill affirmed his suspicions. It was undoubtedly a cat. The heifer had been opened along its stomach. The blood loss had been so instant and dramatic it had poured onto the ground like rain. The ribs had been snipped through as if by shears, leaving a neat line of cut-through bone. Splinters and shards around the carcass indicated the ribs had also been broken open to extract the fatty marrow. The heart and liver had been removed, and presumably devoured. It was only when he got to the head that he discovered something that surprised him.

The heifer’s throat had been ripped out completely. A gaping hole, marked by shredded clumps of fur and flesh at its edges, was all that remained. The cow’s eyes had rolled over into the back of its skull. They were lifeless and frosted over. He couldn’t tell if it was due to the temperature or the first signs of rigor mortis. He shuddered, but it wasn’t the cold that made him do so. It was the enormous paw print, etched into the frozen lake of blood. It had to be at least six inches wide, and even more in length. He’d never seen anything like it.

Hell, African lions don’t get that big, let alone cougars, he thought.

He examined the five remaining cows, finding the same results. Then he headed for the top pasture. He was surprised to find the bull standing there, in the middle of the field. It let out strained, icy blasts of breath from its nostrils. Jesse had named the bull Fabian, hinting at its German ancestry. He had often considered ‘Ferdinand’, like the cartoon character, would have been more appropriate, given the animal’s placid and affectionate nature.

As Jesse appeared at the gate, Fabian began to trundle towards him. But immediately, he saw the bull was in trouble. It veered from side to side, unsteady on its feet. It let out a distraught bellow as it tripped and hit the ground. Jesse was up and over the gate and running to the bull’s side before it was down.

Fabian lay where he had fallen but held his head up as Jesse came close.

“Easy big fella,” Jesse exclaimed, patting the bull on his neck and shoulder.

The source of the animal’s distress was obvious. A set of deep claw slashes, starting at the hock of his front left leg and ending on his rump were bleeding freely. The animal was weak and exhausted. Jesse tried to comfort the animal, eyeing the treeline again. As his gaze settled on a patch of darkness between the firs, he thought he glimpsed something. Two green spots of glowing light. As he watched, they would slowly blink in and out of visibility. Finally, they faded away into nothing. He shuddered again, realising they had been the eyes of the predator, reflecting the moonlight.

He backed his way through the pastures, never fully turning around or shifting his line of sight from the trees. The cows in the bottom field watched him all the way to the ranch house. He closed the front door behind him and locked it, noticing the shake in his hands as he did so. He went into the office and picked up the phone. He flipped through the old-fashioned rolodex on the desk and found the number for the veterinarian, a woman named Walke, who like his cows, also had German ancestry. He took out the card, looking at it and turning it over in his fingers as the line rang.

After apologising and explaining the situation to a sleepy Anabel Walke, Jesse went to put the card back in his father’s rolodex. He paused, staring at the next card in the slot behind. He picked it out and lay it on the desk. He reached for the phone again, glancing quickly at the clock. It was a little after three in the morning. He didn’t know how far ahead Scotland was, but he didn’t hesitate to dial the number. He hadn’t spoken to Thomas Walker in five years, but something in his gut told him it was time to talk.