WIP Wednesday – Dark Tides: Chapter One

For this Work In Progress Wednesday, I’m introducing you to a science fiction story I’ve had on the back burner for some time. Set in the oceans, it explores the backlash of nature against humans, driven by an unseen, unknown force.

CHAPTER ONE

A shuddering, violent exhale of breath burst from the blow hole of the bull, as his great back breached the surface and rolled under again. Close to exhaustion, he drifted a few yards and stilled his tired body. The water around him was colder, darker, and much shallower than his usual paths and harbours. The pain in his head had driven him far beyond his familiar haunts, into dark lonely seas.

The sound of the small boats above and behind him stirred him into laboured movement again. He slowly arched his back and raised his tail into the air, smashing it down onto the water’s surface to vent his frustration at their presence and efforts. Although the pulse in his head was much more subdued in these colder, eastern waters, he still had to fight the aggressive urges that swept over him. In the sixty-five years he had lived, he had been lucky to have never been hunted, although he had witnessed the pursuit once as a calf. His memories of the water turning red, his father’s screams as his side had exploded, and the thrashing slaps of his flippers as he writhed in agony had long been buried. But recently, they had surfaced again, tearing through his consciousness with renewed intensity and purpose.

Since the death of his father, whenever he had heard the mournful, grieving song his mother and aunts had sung that day, he had known to turn away and seek new seas. His new memories of humans had been good ones. They were of small boats like the ones surrounding him now, filled with people that coaxed him closer with gentle sounds, or divers drifting with him in warm blue water. He bore them no grudge.

The bull rolled onto his side, letting his flipper tower out of the water. Residual streams ran down its surface before it splashed back down. He righted himself and moved off again with deliberate flicks of his flukes. He ignored the purr from the boat motors, his echolocation telling him he was unable to go much further now. Although invisible to him in the dark murky water, he could sense the banks of the river rising out of the bed of the estuary and closing in on him. He could taste the mixture of salt and fresh water, the salinity dwindling with every move forward. The physical toll of his journey, and the extra effort needed to keep his mass buoyant in the waters of the river was draining the last of his strength. He knew he wouldn’t live much longer. He hadn’t fed during his lonely swim to the east and south.

~

Sergeant John Mitchell of the Metropolitan River Policing Unit circled the immense whale again, frustrated by its stubborn passage along the Thames. The small boats he had commandeered to try and force the animal back were not having the desired effect, and as he looked up, he saw that several recognisable silhouettes of the London skyline were coming into view. Largest and closest was the London Eye, the giant Catherine-wheeled tourist attraction whose elevated pods gave views stretching across the capital. But today, all eyes were looking down.

The tide was at its highest right now, but in five hours’ time, the mighty Thames would be at its lowest point. The whale would be in serious danger of becoming stranded in the shallows or even on the banks.

He glanced at the helicopters beginning to gather in the sky. The stubborn cetacean was the only news story for Londoners today. Humpback whales followed strict migration routes between the polar seas and the Caribbean. Although they were known to spend several months off the coast of southern Ireland and even western Scotland, it was a very rare and strange occurrence to see them in the North Sea or English Channel. One had never been reported in the Thames before.

The whole spectacle sickened Mitchell. If the whale was to die, which he now suspected was its reason for wandering into the estuary in the first place, the city would be able to watch it on the breakfast news, just another momentary spectacle in an otherwise boring and stagnant world. He grabbed the radio.

“Is the net ready? Over.” He spoke so quietly it was as if he was asking only himself.

There was only a second’s pause before the crackled reply came.

“Yes sir, it won’t get beyond Waterloo Bridge. We’re all set here. Over”

He replaced the radio back on the wheel column of the Targa 31 Fast Patrol Vessel he was piloting. He wondered what the whale would do when it reached the dead end. He knew his commanders were talking to authorities around the world as to why this creature was even here, in his river. Some were saying climate change. Others were saying illegal whalers had chased him there. The only thing that seemed clear was that nobody really knew.

~

The bull now knew his purpose. At first, it had been to simply keep moving, hoping the pain in his head would dull. His enormous brain, the size of a small car, had recognised the link between his aggressive desires and the pulsing agony. It was as he had prepared to attack and sink a small vessel in sheltered waters that he had noticed the sudden subduing of the pain. He had turned away from the boat in angry confusion, driving himself away. He was used to parasites – the crustaceans that clung to his flippers and flukes, or the remoras that sucked onto his belly. He now recognised the violent urges that swelled up in him as the alien intrusions of such organisms. He fought the unnatural desires with his wavering will-power, seeking out and trying to communicate to the animals he felt compelled to destroy. Now stripped of his strength, there was little more he could do. It was then that he began to sense the net.

~

Sergeant Mitchell felt the swell underneath as the whale’s giant tail rose out of the water in front of the boat. The animal was putting on a sudden burst of speed, heading straight down the middle of the river. Waterloo Bridge was in full view to the small boats following in its wake, and as Mitchell looked to his left, he could see large crowds gathering on the embankment.

The enormous rippled spine broke the surface of the water. There were cheers and shouts from both sides of the river. The great black head surged through the froth, creating a bow wave as the whale put on more speed. Whistles and camera flashes began to ripple along the banks of the river on both sides. Fathers held their children on their shoulders, pointing and smiling. The cheer rose as one, as an enormous snort thundered out of the blowhole, followed by a jet of mist that rose seven feet into the air. Then it disappeared below the water’s surface.

~

The bull spread out its flippers wide as it tilted its body and glided into a graceful turn. He sang a last and pitiful song knowing there would be no answer. The very edge of one fin gently stroked against the muddy bottom of the river as he propelled himself upwards with powerful thrusts of his tail. With a final and well-timed flick of his flukes, he shot into the air. His head burst from the water, his body rigid and working hard to gain height and momentum. Then gravity turned against him and his mass, slowing his ascent to the point he seemed to hang in mid-air. He began to twist and fall backwards.

~

The crowd had little time to react to the enormous creature as its shadow fell across them. They hadn’t expected it to breach so close to the embankment. They watched, unable to move as its great eye moved over the crowd. Those closest felt a wave of sadness sweep over them as they understood its action. The whale crashed down over the concrete rail, rolling forward through the snack and souvenir stand at the entrance to the London Eye. Water streamed down the sides of its body. Its own weight was already killing it, crushing the heart and lungs that would usually be protected from its bulk suspended in water.

~

As Sergeant Mitchell circled close to the bank, children on the shoulders of their fathers cried. The crowd surged backwards as wonder turned to horror. They turned away from the spectacle they had turned out to see, hurt and embittered by an event they could have never imagined. As families comforted each other, little did they know it would be a poignant yet unheeded warning.

WIP Wednesday – Blues Hound

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I got to keep moving….and the day keeps on remindin’ me, there’s a hellhound on my trail…

 Robert Johnson, 1937

The above lyrics were written by Robert Johnson, an American blues guitarist, singer and songwriter. He was known for being somewhat ordinary in most regards, except for his musical talent. His undeterred commitment to the road – travelling in all seasons and weathers saw him travel all over the Mississippi delta, playing in Memphis, Helena and smaller towns across the region. He died at the age of 27, of unknown causes. But legend tells of a deal done with the devil at the crossroads, perhaps explaining both his seemingly supernatural skill, and need to keep moving on.

This popular, enduring legend has sat with me for some time, and today’s ‘Work in Progress Wednesday’ is Blues Hound – a story that I hope you find devilishly good!

CHAPTER ONE

Isaac sighed as he placed the trumpet back inside its battered case. The red velvet lining was beginning to look worn and had torn in a few places. He once imagined it covered in stickers of exotic locations and visa tags, but now, the only thing it was coated in was the beer some drunk had knocked over as he passed by. He cleaned and buffed away until the liquid and the smell had gone. He sighed again as he shut the case and locked it.

Three of the bulbs around his dressing room mirror had blown and never been replaced. It made his strong, dark face look drawn – grey almost. Strange shadows fell down from his brow. His salt and pepper stubble and matching buzz crop hair made him look younger than he was, but the crows-feet and eyes themselves never lied. He was old and tired.

He took his old trilby hat from the stand and placed it on his head. He looked in the mirror and let out a third and final deep sigh. At least black never went out of fashion. The hat, shirt and suit were the only clothes he owned, but he had never needed more. He opened the door of the dressing room and turned out the lights as he left.

He crossed the dark bar in silence, giving a simple nod of the head to Bubba – the big, mean looking, but actually kindly owner who was stacking the tables and chairs. In a few short steps he was out into the early morning air.

Honestly, what do I expect? he thought. He looked around. He was playing in a swamp, on the outskirts of a town even Louisiana considered distinctly back-water. This is how he would end his days, playing in an out-of-town bar surrounded by nothing but swamp, gators and cottonmouths. He shuffled along the dirt track to the crossroads where he would wait for his grandson. He set down the trumpet case, disturbing the dust a little so that it was picked up and carried a little in the wind.

It wasn’t cold out, but he felt a sudden chill in the air. As he looked up, he watched as the stars seemed to go out one by one. He checked his watch to see if he was early, only to notice the second hand slowly shudder and then stop. He heard the wind pick up, then suddenly, it was rushing along the road, howling like an express train, and, as he looked, he caught the thick tendrils of a twister as it touched down a little way from the crossroads. As his breath caught in his chest, it seemed to suddenly change size and velocity, passing him by in a cyclone of brown tainted air and tumbleweed. He realised it was just a dust devil, but he felt unnerved and on edge.

He looked back up the road and saw a pair of headlights steadily approaching him. He smiled with relief, grateful for his grandson’s timely appearance. But as the car drew near, he realised it wasn’t his grandson in his dishevelled Volkswagen bus. It was a sleek, black, 1955 Cadillac Coupe de Ville in immaculate condition. It looked like it had just driven off the production line. It slowly trundled to a halt beside him, the big V8 four-stroke engine burbling and rumbling its displeasure of the low spluttered revs as it idled. The blacked-out window now opposite him slithered downwards with an electric hum. A silver-haired, handsome – but older white man, met his gaze with steely blue eyes and a smile that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a crocodile.

“You must be the Isaac I’ve heard so much about,” grinned the man.

At that, the driver’s door opened and a very large black man, wearing an expensive and tight fitting pinstripe suit stepped out. He had a huge barrel chest and he seemed to ripple as he walked. Isaac had seen Cassius Clay and Doug Jones fight at Madison Square Gardens in 1963, and he felt sure this man would have been able to hold his own against either of them, or perhaps even both at the same time. As it was, he appeared to be the man in the car’s valet, as he opened the door for him.

The man wore a perfectly tailored, dark grey pinstripe suit, with a claret red tie and a white silk shirt underneath. As he stepped from the car, he put on a matching grey pinstripe fedora with a claret silk band. Isaac had always liked the look and feel of a hat and found himself warming to the man unintentionally.

“Who have you heard about me from?” Isaac asked, wondering if he could be a talent scout maybe.

“Oh word gets around,” smiled the man. “Smokey Bo Benson mentioned you, wanted me to check you out.”

“Really? Thought that boy died a long time ago,” Isaac smiled.

“Bluesmen don’t die, they just improvise,” grinned the man.

“You play?” Isaac asked.

“I’ve been known to play a mean fiddle from time to time,” the man quipped with a grin. “Why don’t we talk about getting you out of this dump and into the limelight Isaac? Come sit with me whilst you wait for your grandson.”

Isaac took a step towards the car. After all, what do I have to lose he thought.

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!

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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.