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    Chapter 1

     

    Scottish Highlands, Northwest of Inverness, November 2nd, 2017

     

    Jericho Mathers rolled out the crick in his neck and shifted the ladders to the rear of the house. No matter how tired he felt, the last of the rotten timber had to be replaced before the onset of winter. In the remote Highlands, arctic weather could arrive any time.

    I’m getting too old for this.

    He squinted up at the black weatherboarding. The setting sun buttered it with a soft yellow glow as he adjusted the rake of the ladder against the wall. Normally a job for two, he’d mastered the art of replacing the longer lengths single-handed. One more to go. He climbed the rungs to measure the topmost section.

    Jericho glanced over his shoulder at the woods behind him.

    Crows going to roost squabbled as they fought over the uppermost perches of a dead tree. The waning sun capped the victor’s head with a crown of gold. The bird seemed to glare at him.

    Something wet and cold dropped onto the back of his hand. Snow. A dream broke from his subconscious. Jericho froze at its unravelling…

     

    His wife played swing ball in the garden with their children as he dug the vegetable patch. He smiled. Carefree laughter on Indian Summer days reminded him of a youth beyond this youth.

    ‘Come on, Jericho,’ Anita yelled. ‘Leave those. Jack’s just beaten Emily and me. He wants to play you before it gets too dark.’

    Jericho plucked pieces of root from the soil and threw them into a wheelbarrow. ‘An adult and a nine-year-old defeated by him?’ He scrubbed his hands on the thighs of his overalls. ‘He’s only seven. How does he do it?’

    Dark clouds rolled in. Shadows lengthened on the grass at the periphery of Jericho’s vision, and though Anita stood forty yards away, he registered her consternation. He followed the direction of her gaze and turned swiftly. A dishevelled man clad in traditional Highlander clothes strode towards him.

    Mesmerised by the pendulous action of the stranger’s sporran, Jericho thought he recognised the faded green and black tartan. ‘Can I help you?’ he said.

    ‘It’s getting late,’ the man announced in Gaelic. He pointed to the western sky. ‘See when the sun dips low like that, and the first snow of the year falls on All Souls Day, you cannot be outside.’

    Bemused at the stranger’s dialect, Jericho spoke his own version of the tongue slowly. ‘And you might be?’

    The Highlander tossed his hair and ran a filthy hand through his long grey beard.  ‘Some call me Fillan.’

    Suspicion darkened Jericho’s brow. ‘Why are you here?’

    The man scratched his cheekbone. ‘To warn you. When snow falls on the Day of the Dead, He will come.’

    ‘Who?’

    ‘The last wolf.’

    Jericho searched Fillan’s weathered features.

    ‘Oh, I know what you’re thinking, Laddie. They're all supposed to be gone from Scotland. Well, they said that in 1700 and then found another in 1743.’ The stranger glanced about him and lowered his voice, ‘Watch for the snow.’

    Anita approached the two men, her hand held out, keeping the children behind her.

    Jericho raised an eyebrow. ‘What nonsense is this? Can’t you see I’ve got young kids?’

    The Highlander nodded. ‘That’s why I came. This is no snaw ghast. When dusk falls, get inside. Shut the doors and windows. Lock them. If you don't, He'll consider it an invitation, and enter He will.’

    Anita drew closer to Jericho, her arms around the children.

    The stranger lowered his eyes. ‘Mark you, Laddie.’

    Jericho watched him march from his property and onto the path skirting the woods a hundred yards away.

    ‘Who was that?’

    ‘I don’t know, but I can’t shake the feeling I’ve seen him before.’

    ‘What did he want?’

    ‘He was eccentric. It doesn’t matter.’

    ‘It does. He frightened the kids and me.’ Anita laid a hand on his shoulder. ‘Are you okay?’

    ‘Of course.’ He forced a smile.

    Above them, the last leaves rattled like castanets. Turbulence parted the clouds. A sliver of moon appeared. The temperature dropped. A flurry of snow whipped through the air driven by a cold breeze and with it, a mournful howl.

    Anita gripped Jericho’s arm. He scanned the dusky treeline. A shadowy creature emerged.

    ‘Quick. Run for the house!’

    ‘Whatever’s wrong?’ Anita cried.

    ‘Don’t ask questions,’ Jericho shouted. ‘Run!’

    Long fur rippling, a black wolf hurtled out of the woods towards them.

    They ran, dragging the children along. As they stumbled over the uneven ground to their cottage, Jericho yelled at his wife, ‘Tell me you didn’t lock the house!’

    ‘I can’t remember!’

    He slowed. His hands ran over his pockets patting for keys. Shit!

    Panting vaporous clouds, the beast closed in.

    Jericho cursed himself for leaving the spade and scanned his immediate vicinity for anything to use as a weapon. Nothing.

    Anita raced to the front door and turned the handle. It opened. They hurried inside.

    Emily screamed. ‘Daddy. Quick. It’s behind you!’

    Arms and legs pumping, Jericho sprinted for his life.

    With only a second to spare, he swung the door shut. The house shook as the wolf slammed into it. Fingers frantic, Jericho secured the lock. He propped his back against the ledged and braced construction while he caught his breath.

    Wide-eyed, struck dumb by fear, Jack shivered, a pool of urine surrounding his shoes. ‘Was that the big bad wolf, mummy?’

    ‘We’re safe now, boy.’ Emily wrapped her arms around him. Tears pooled in her eyes.

    Jack began to cry.

    ‘Hey, hey,’ Anita pulled her children close. ‘It’s all right. Daddy’s going to call the police, and they’ll come and catch it.’ She frowned at her husband guarding the door. ‘Was that a wolf? How is it even possible?’

    ‘Shit! The French doors.’ The Highlander said to shut everything! Jericho leapt into action. ‘They’re still open! Get the kids upstairs now!’ At the sound of his family thundering up the steps, Jericho dashed the length of the hallway, skidding on the polished floor as he sped around the corner and through the opening into the back room. He slid to a halt.

    White teeth bared, mucus dripping from its jaws, the monster slunk through the aperture. Head lowered, death gleaming from cold eyes, it paused and sniffed. Hind legs gathered beneath it, the beast sprang.

    Jericho side-stepped. He slipped. A hand down to break his fall, he pitched sideways. The wolf snapped at empty air as he barrelled under its trajectory and rolled clear, scrambling first on all fours and then onto his feet. He shot through the doorway into the hall.

    The animal snarled and gave chase, its claws raking the floorboards.

    Jericho kept tight to the wall as he sprinted back the way he’d come. The speeding animal, paws scrabbling, went wide.

    The front door. Lure it outside! Jericho bolted through the hallway. In the straight, teeth gnashing, the wolf closed in. It’s too fast. I won’t make it. The stairs! His right hand gripping the newel post, he whipped around the corner in a tight arc.

    Unable to take the turn at speed, the wolf overshot the stairway.

    Silence followed.

    Halfway up the stairs, Jericho sensed something about to happen. He glanced over his shoulder.

    At the base of the staircase, the beast crouched, ready to leap.

    Christ! Thighs burning,Jericho clambered on. He’d almost made it to the landing when, three steps from it, sharp claws raking his back, the monster slammed into him. He fell.

    The wolf’s rancid breath, reeking of blood and decaying flesh, blew on his neck. Jericho tensed. Death beckoned him. Play possum! There’s no other choice. He flopped, forcing his muscles to relax – and immediately changed his mind. Right elbow crooked, he stabbed it into the creature’s belly and twisted onto his back. Teeth snapped at his face. Heart racing, Jericho drove his hands up, grabbing the thick fur beneath the animal’s jaws. Frenzied, it shook its head.

    I can’t hold on! Bucking at the hips, he fought unsuccessfully to free his legs.He prayed Anita had called the police; that they’d save her and the kids. Cruel grey eyes fixed him, looming ever closer. Jericho’s arms trembled with the effort, his strength failing. The creature opened its mouth. The defeated man closed his eyes and turned away.

    ‘Get off him!’ Anita yelled, as she brought down the brass stem of a table lamp, again and again, smashing it over the wolf’s skull.

    Jericho felt instant relief. The weight pinning him lifted. Stunned, he reacted, grabbing at its tail as it pounced on his wife. Too late. The wolf seized her windpipe and with a swift left and right shake, ripped out her throat.

     

    Jericho’s head swam as he emerged from the fog of suppressed memory. He gripped hard onto the stiles at the top of the ladder. The sun dipped into the horizon. A light bending trick. In reality, it had already gone.

    It all came together.

    Ten years earlier, he’d woken from a nightmare to Anita screaming.

    ‘Get off him!’ she’d cried.

    Powerless, he’d witnessed his wife clutch at her chest, before she’d stretched out rigid, eyes bulging. Frozen in disbelief at her last words, he sensed they’d shared the same nightmarish ordeal.

    Why remember it today? He glanced at the date in the bubbled window of his wristwatch. 2 Nov. The anniversary of the day she’d died. The day of the dead?

    Cold rushed into him as if through an open door. Caught in the gap between truth and illusion, the pain of old wounds called to him. Jericho snapped his attention back to the present.

    Snowfall. The Highlander’s warning echoed in his mind. He descended the ladder as fast as he could.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Chapter 2

     

    Jericho checked the doors and windows were locked with more diligence than usual. A low moan piped down the chimney. The wind whistled through gaps in the window frames, chilling him. His face pressed to the glass, he squinted through the driving snow, dismissing a myriad of shape-shifting forms as no threat. Focused on the deeper darkness in the direction of the woods, he listened attentively.

    Nothing.

    He crossed the room to the fireplace. A match lit, Jericho bent and held the flame to the kindling he’d prepared earlier, dropping it only when it burned the tips of his fingers. He took another and struck it. The woodchips flared and a fiery glow licking at the bigger pieces of timber; he sighed relief and watched it grow. Satisfied it wouldn’t go out, he placed an iron guard on the hearth to catch any sparks spat from the crackling wood. He straightened and caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror hanging over the mantle. A year since he’d last had a haircut or trimmed his beard, it occurred to him that he now resembled the highlander from his nightmare. Jericho ran his hand over the tangled salt and pepper thicket hiding his chin, then poured himself a whisky, and raising it to each of the four compass points toasted, ‘Absent friends.’ The amber liquid taken in a single gulp, he made his way upstairs to bathe and change his clothes.

    In the beginnings of an alcoholic daze, he eased himself into a hot bath he couldn’t recall running and turned off the taps. Engulfed in steam, he laid back and drifted.

    Anita walked the bright galleries of his mind, her beauty ageless, forever preserved in her prime. Lulled by the warmth, consciousness abandoned him. His knees came up. He sank further into the water. The image he’d held on to slipped away. Darkness invaded his delusions. Warm liquid entered his mouth. He woke up coughing. The outcome never changed. Only allowed to follow her so far.

    Jericho pulled himself upright. Emptiness swallowed him. His tongue thick with whisky, he whispered, ‘It hurts to think of you, but you’re always with me.’ Cold leached into his exposed skin, akin to the chill he’d felt when they’d lowered her coffin into the ground. He wriggled into a seated position and placed his head between his knees.

    The telephone rang. He ignored it.

    The intrusive jangling would stop once the person on the other end realised he was either not in, or not going to answer. The ringing stopped. Then started again.

    It’s one of the kids. Jericho hauled himself out of the water, snatched a towel and wrapping it around him, padded barefoot to pick it up in the upstairs hall.

    ‘Hello?’

    ‘Dad?’

    ‘Jack! How are you, boy?’

    ‘I’m fine. You took your time answering.’

    ‘I was in the bath. The truth is, I almost didn’t bother.’

    ‘Why?’

    ‘It’s snowing. I had some whisky.’

    ‘What kind of answer is that, Dad? When we last spoke, you promised.’

    ‘I had a rough day.’

    ‘Want to talk about it?’

    Jericho sucked in a breath. ‘It’s nothing.’

    ‘You finish repairing the house?’

    ‘Today.’

    Jack’s tone brightened. ‘That’s great. Although, next year, you should get someone else.’

    ‘No, I can still do it; keeps my mind off things.’

    ‘Look, Dad, I phoned to invite you for Christmas.’

    ‘That’s good of you, boy, but Canada mid-winter? It’s even colder than here. No thanks. No offence.’

    ‘You could go to Emily.’

    ‘Australia? All that way? No, son. I stay here; you know that.’

    ‘Is something wrong?’

    Jericho hesitated. He’d never spoken about the vivid nightmare he’d experienced the morning Anita died. All thought of it smothered for years; he wondered if she’d really shared the horror which played out and if it had truly killed her. The kids, they’d been in it, too, but neither one had ever talked about it. Had they suppressed the nightmare, the same as me? This is crazy. How can I raise it as a premonition only now?

    ‘Dad? You still there?’

    ‘I’ve been thinking about your mum.’

    ‘She wouldn’t want you drinking.’

    ‘That isn’t it. Not even close,’ Jericho said with unnecessary venom. ‘What do you know, anyway?’

    Jack kept his voice even. ‘When mum died, you isolated yourself.’

    ‘You don’t understand. Too many things in the old house reminded me of her and what happened. To move on, I had to get away.’

    ‘But so far from anywhere? You’ve made it hard for Emily and me. It costs so much for us to visit you.’

    Jericho picked at his memory. Had he come to a conscious decision to keep them away? He thought of the times he’d opted out of family activities, preferring his own company. Once, he’d overheard Anita telling the children; It’s because he doesn’t mix well with other people. He wondered if he’d been a drinker even then. ‘I’ve always stood on my own two feet. I need solitude. Not sure I ever should have settled down. I’m a loner, son. Always have been.’

    ‘Nice. What are you saying, you regret having Emily and me?’

    Jericho’s voice softened. ‘That’s not what I meant. Wait a second. Let me get some clothes on.’

    Moments came and went. Jericho wandered into his bedroom, the cordless phone to his ear. From the top drawer of his bedside cabinet, he took out a hip flask. A chasm yawned. The distance between him and Jack stretched taut as he opened the lid and swigged. Finally, he spoke. ‘The night your mother died...’

     

    Inwardly cursing at the hash he’d made of explaining himself to Jack, Jericho returned downstairs and poured a drink. The boy probably thinks I’m crazier than he did before. He placed the tumbler on the small table by his favourite armchair and approached the fire, removing the guard. His cheeks already flushed from whisky, grew hotter as he stoked half-charred logs with a poker. Flames, freed to roam over newly turned unburnt surfaces, licked the soot-stained back of the fireplace. He replaced the iron guard and backed into his chair. His glass, half-filled with golden liquid, conjured dancing images from the firelight.

    Jericho stared, mesmerised. Although tempted by the alcohol before him, he abstained. He’d seen himself in the future, viewed it from the past. After all, wasn’t that what the dream portrayed? He was living in the house he’d moved to after his wife’s demise, and she was here, so were the kids.

    Jack didn’t get it. Jericho knew what he was trying to say, but he couldn’t articulate it. The problem, is I haven’t quite figured it out myself. There’s a piece missing from the puzzle. What is it? Unable to hold a sequence of thoughts for any length of time, he reached into the rack adjacent to his chair. His fingers raked the bottom among the crossword magazines until he found a pen and then withdrew it along with an old publication. He leafed through the pages of incomplete puzzles looking for a blank space to write in. When did you last finish one of these?

    Jericho scratched at the base of a half-empty page. The ballpoint had dried up.  Too weary to bother finding another, he closed his eyes.

    The wind howled. Jericho snatched himself from the brink of slumber.

    Blizzard-driven snow blew into the windows, sticking to the glass. An uneasy feeling crept over him.He walked to the gun cabinet and unlocking it, lifted out his shotgun. Ammunition shaken from its box onto the shelf, he scooped a handful of cartridges into his cardigan pocket. Running his fingers over the cold metal, he checked the breach was loaded and carried it with him to the lounge. At the window facing the woods, he leaned forwards, craned his head left and then right, before moving to the French doors which were uncannily like those of his nightmare, where the wolf had gained entry.

    The weapon felt good in his hands. He stared at his reflection in the glass as he swung the barrel of the gun up and took aim.

    If the dream had been a kind of premonition, he hoped it would come true.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Chapter 3

     

    With a plume of smoke billowing into her face from the barbeque, Emily Mathers stepped back. She strode around to the opposite side, but the breeze seemed intent on smoking her out. Tongs in hand, she turned kebabs before switching tools and flipping burgers. Shit, they’re overdone. She half-smiled, recalling a time when she’d got it right. The food cooked to perfection, her best friend Celine had remarked, “There’s something wrong with this. It’s not burnt!”

    Her fiancé Kurt and his friends wouldn’t even notice. She grinned in his direction. He raised a can of beer as if to toast her.

    Australia. It had seemed such a big step at the time, now Emily couldn’t envisage being anywhere else. She thought of her dad living in the wilds of Scotland. When he moved there, she’d googled it and discovered he lived in an area once plagued by Sawney Bean and his fifty-strong family of cannibals. Shocked, she took a moment to realise they’d existed almost five hundred years ago. She shuddered.

    And Jack in Canada. Why on earth would anyone want to live in the cold? If Mum were still alive, she didn’t think her, or Jack would have left England. Dad had encouraged it, given them wings to fly and, she conceded, he’d steered her into a happiness beyond her dreams.

    ‘Babe,’ Kurt yelled. ‘You’re burning the barbie!’

    Emily waved away the fumes obscuring her face and hurriedly flipped the food on the grill. ‘Just making sure it’s cooked through.’

    The external telephone bell clunked as if made of heavy plastic.

    ‘Phone, babe,’ Kurt shouted.

    Emily pointed up at the casing of the metal ringer fixed to the whitewashed wall. ‘Something’s built a nest in there.’ She wiped her hands on a tea cloth and reaching inside the open patio doors, lifted the handset from its wall-mounted cradle.

    She looked at the number displayed and grinned. ‘Hi, you’re through to Emily. I can’t take your call right now,’ she said in an answerphone voice. ‘But if—’

    ‘Hey! You had me going for a second.’ Jack paused. ‘Sounds like you’re having a party.’

    ‘Just cooking alfresco for a few friends.’ Raucous laughter erupted behind her. Emily slid the door closed. ‘You okay, little brother?’

    ‘I’m fine.’ He cleared his throat. ‘I phoned Dad today.’

    ‘How was he?’

    ‘I’m not sure,’ Jack said. ‘I’m worried about him.’

    ‘He can take care of himself.’

    ‘I know that. It’s just – he was a bit drunk. Told me he’d been thinking about Mum.’

    Emily sighed. ‘I’ll call him later.’

    ‘Has he ever spoken to you about the night she died?’

    ‘Only that she had a heart attack and he couldn’t do a thing to save her.’

    ‘Well, he wanted to talk about it.’

    ‘What did he say?’

    ‘It was strange. He wasn’t making sense. Something about a wolf they both dreamed about.’ Jack hesitated. ‘According to him, that’s what really caused her heart attack. Do you remember how old we were when Mum passed?’

    ‘Are you serious? I was twenty-seven.’

    ‘Exactly. Dad couldn’t recall. When I told him, he started doing mental arithmetic and rattling on about how we’d been at his house in Scotland ten years ago and running through this nightmare. He wanted to know if I remembered being there or if you’d ever mentioned it. In short, he thinks he had a premonition. It’s the first I’ve heard of any of this.’

    ‘Same here,’ Emily said. ‘It was the drink talking; you know how he gets.’

    ‘I’m not sure I do anymore.’ Jack fell silent. ‘Listen. What do you imagine?’

    ‘You’ve lost me.’

    ‘We’re thousands of miles apart. You in Australia, me in Canada. Dad back in Scotland. The distance isolates us, but I think it somehow amplifies our connectedness. What do your senses tell you?’

    ‘That he’s lonely, reaching out in some way?’

    ‘Is that a statement or a question? It hard to tell since you’ve lived down under.’

    Emily laughed. ‘Little brother, you’re a brat.’

    ‘Christ, why did we listen to him and move so far away?’

    ‘Because he made it seem like such a good idea.’

    ‘I invited him for Christmas.’

    ‘You wasted your breath.’

    ‘I had to ask.’

    ‘I’ve lost count of the times I’ve asked him over. Stay a few months,’ she said. ‘He won’t do it.’

    ‘Come springtime, I’m going to visit. I can’t take time off before then.’

    ‘You don’t get it, do you? He wants to be alone. I’ll call him later. He’ll be fine.’

    ‘Let me know what he says.’

    ‘Oh God,’ she said. ‘Kurt’s taken over the cooking. Got to go. I’ll chat with you tomorrow?’

    ‘You will. Bye, Sis.’

    Emily hung the phone back in its cradle, slid open the doors and shielding her eyes from the sun, wandered towards the barbeque.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Chapter 4

     

    Jericho paced the unlit rooms downstairs with the shotgun cradled in his arms. The whisky hadn’t brought him solace. Tonight, fear, anger, and disappointment, combined with the rising storm to leave him jangling at the edge of his nerves. He’d given his word, and now it was what? Two drinks, three or five? Unsure, he crossed the quarry-tiled floor in the hall and turned into the kitchen to check the bottle. Half empty. He wandered into the lounge. In the hearth, a furnace-glow cast shapes like refugees from a shadow theatre onto the walls. Jericho could have been in a cave. He peered through the windows. The lights left off made it easier to see outside.

    The fire’s warmth drew him closer. In the mirror above the mantle, his red-tinged, underlit face appeared demonic, staring back at him. He turned away. I shouldn’t have shared my thoughts with Jack.

    ‘You don’t know that, Dad! You might believe it—’

    ‘Son, you weren’t there. You didn’t live it—’

    ‘Neither did you! It was a nightmare for God’s sake.’

    ‘You think I’m crazy, is that it?’

    ‘Of course not, but how do you forget something as profound as that for ten years and only just remember? You bottled up your feelings, and now they’re leeching out. This is you dealing with what you didn’t face back then. The truth is, she had a massive heart attack. Even if you’d been a doctor, you couldn’t have done a thing. Mum was beyond saving.’

    In a fog of conflicting emotions, Jericho struggled to get to grips with what he’d felt in the dark times that followed. He’d wanted to escape, to get as far away from the home he and Anita shared, that was beyond question.

    Maybe Jack’s right.

    Doubt burrowed into him like a worm as he picked over distant memories. No, he'd been convinced his children had to get away. It's why he funded their journeys and set them up for a new beginning. When they'd met their partners in far-flung lands, it thrilled him. They were safe, and to ensure they remained that way, he encouraged them to stay abroad. If he'd understood the truth, or known what really happened to Anita, how could he have forgotten it?

    Eyes wild, he leant closer to the mirror. His gaze settled on the empty glass by the chair. Is it possible I acquired a false memory because I’m in some kind of denial?

    Jack’s right. I’m losing it. How many years had he wasted in a wilderness of his own making? Well, no more. I’m going to call Jack. If the invite still holds, I’ll go to him for Christmas, and Emily’s in the New Year if she’ll have me.

    He relaxed his grip, put the gun down and squinted at the hands on his wristwatch. 8:35 pm. Years of mentally calculating the difference between their respective time-zones told him it was too early to ring his daughter in Melbourne. All right, Jack first. Now, where did I leave the phone? He started for the stairs and then stopped. With frightening acceleration, the wind rose through the scales, the sounds from the chimney reaching a crescendo as if played by the mighty god Pan.

    Driving snow blanketed the north facing windows. Unable to see, he rushed to look out through the French doors on the east side. The blizzard machine-gunned a blur of white tracer bullets lit by the light of a full moon. Nothing could survive out there for long. Jericho’s ears tuned into creaking timbers everywhere. No force of Nature had struck his home like this before. The floor quaked beneath his feet.

    Inexplicably, he thought of the fairy tale, Three Little Pigs. My house is timber. Could it blow down? Inspired by a storm, is this how someone dreamed up the story?

    The fire popped and fizzed. What’s that sound? Jericho crouched and ducking close to the nook of the fireplace, looked up into the dark void. Moisture cascaded onto the red-hot embers. Snow. But how?

    BANG.

    Something slammed into the house.

    In his haste to get to his feet, he stumbled and then launched himself for the gun. He snatched it up by the barrel.

    His head cleared. The crash had come from the north wall. No good trying to see out of those windows. He dashed for the letter flap and prising it open, blinked at the stinging assault from the blinding snow. Eyes little more than slits, he scanned left and right.

    There! Ten yards from the house, barely discernible, a bundle wrapped in white rags. He detected a faint cry carried on the wind.

    A child?

    No, something bigger than that.

    A trick?

    Jericho tightened his grip on the shotgun. His gaze ran over the contours of the shape. A bird, and a big one at that. A keen ornithologist, he knew it wasn’t native to these parts. The storm had blown it off course. It’s a crane. He’d heard they were sometimes seen as far north as Scotland. From the sound of the impact, Jericho assumed it was dead. Even if it were not, he knew from bitter childhood experience the odds of nursing injured birds back to health were doomed to fail. In a few moments, the stricken creature would be covered in snow. It’s only a bird. Why put it through the stress of being handled when it will perish either way? Sadness touching his heart, he slowly lowered the flap. A call, shrill and unmistakable in its distress, whistled through the closing gap. Jericho peered outside once more.

    The crane had lifted its head from the snowdrift.

    The wind eased.

    Beyond, twenty-five yards away at the limits of clear visibility, a dark shadow stalked into view. Ice grey eyes pierced the blizzard as death crept towards him.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Chapter 5

     

    Jericho turned and slumped against the door. His mind raced. Fuelled by dread, hatred, and guilt, a battle raged inside him. The fusion of alcohol and adrenaline left scant room for compassion. It’s only a bird!

    Outside, his nightmare made flesh stalked ever closer. He agonised. Thought of Anita, how the wolf had taken her, and he had done nothing. In his mind’s eye, he saw the wolf bounding through the snow towards the helpless crane. Imagined the wolf's long teeth sinking into the crane’s neck, its white feathers stained red, and its spindle-like legs thrashing as it was dragged away to be devoured.

    The tick-tocking of the clock in the hall seemed amplified, the silence between beats, elongated.

    The weapon clutched to his chest, Jericho took a deep breath and swung around. Slamming back the bolt on the door, he opened it. The arctic wind blasted him. Icy barbs stung his face and settled on his eyelashes. He blinked and stared at the two-foot snowdrift blocking his way. Cold and damp already seeping into his clothes, he kicked out, clearing a path through the snow. Shotgun raised, he sighted along its length, and squinting through a cotton wool blur into an undulating white moonscape, swept it left and right. No dark shadow moving in, no visible tracks. Jericho waded forwards, unsteady, apprehension weakening his knees. Can’t show fear. For a moment, he wondered if it was true animals could smell it. He quelled the emotion.

    ‘I know you’re out here,’ he cried. ‘Bring it on.’

    The bird shuffled, and raising its neck, turned towards him. Its beak parted but emitted no sound.

    For the first time, Jericho noticed its eyes. Pink. An albino.

    Savage gusts rippled the snow, lifting and twisting thick clusters of flakes, swirling them into wraith-like forms, which drew his focus, unsettling him. Snaw ghasts. With ten paces left to reach the fallen bird, he tightened his finger on the trigger, and scanning the terrain, ploughed onwards.

    The pitiful bundle of snow-covered feathers resting atop the mound obscured his view. An outdoor man, he knew the wolf to be a hunter, feasting on carrion only when starvation left no other choice. In the time it took for me to get here, why didn’t it drag the crane off? The hellish creature is using it as bait! Jericho’s senses heightened. He stood on tiptoes to see beyond the obstruction. Strained his eyes, looked all around him for tracks, but seeing none, focused on the low shrubs scattered about the front of the garden. A grim smile cracking his lips, he guessed the animal was using them for cover. The chill of moisture penetrated his cardigan, its pockets sagging under the weight of his cartridges. One shot. Can’t afford to miss. I’ll never reload in time.

    ‘You think I don’t know your game,’ he yelled. ‘That I don’t know who you are?’ His toes numb, he stamped his feet to encourage circulation, snow falling from his encrusted trousers. The sting of ice scouring his face, Jericho realised he couldn’t feel his fingers. Taking his right hand from the weapon, he blew into his cupped fist.

    Movement caught his eye. A white shape rose from its makeshift lair in the snow, reminding him of a sniper shifting position.

    The wolf charged, spray kicking up in its wake, and camouflage falling from its fur in clumps, revealed its true colour.

    Jericho slammed his hand back into place, his numbed finger seeking the trigger.

    The barrel of his gun swung down, pointing at the wolf, he understood the ploy. The creature had taken advantage of the terrain to keep the bird between the two of them. With the crane directly in the line of fire, he couldn’t get a clean shot.

    The beast slowed, its focus switched from man to bird and then back again. Lowering its body, it stalked closer. A wicked gleam in its eye, it locked Jericho in its gaze and settled down within pouncing distance, issuing a silent challenge.

    It isn’t scared. Not how it should be. Rifle held steady, Jericho stood his ground. ‘Another move, and I swear I’ll blast you to Kingdom come.’ He stepped a pace nearer, trying to negate his chances of shooting the stricken crane. The cunning devil. It’s playing me, leaving just enough space for a rescue attempt, but not enough to pick the bird up and get it inside before the monstrosity launches an attack.

    Now closer to the crane, he could see that it was bigger than he’d imagined. He had no idea how much it weighed, but it had to be over four feet tall. No way could he tuck it under his arm and break for the cottage. Nor could he carry the thing and aim his gun, let alone fire it. Cold burning his face, he considered his options. The nearer I am, the less chance of missing when I shoot.

    Jericho inched closer, without taking his eyes from the lolling tongue and gaping jaws of the crouching beast. Its panted breath clouded the air.

    ‘Oh, I know what you’re thinking. You’ll just dig in there until he tries picking the bird up. You think that at some point I’ll have to put the gun down. That’s when you’ll make your move.’

    The wolf sank further down onto its haunches, lips stretched taut against jagged white teeth, blue-grey eyes filled with menace.

    ‘I thought so. You’re trying to fox me into firing, to waste a shot.’ Jericho slid his hand up the polished wooden stock. ‘Well, not tonight, fucker.’ He crept half a pace forward and knelt. The tip of the gun held at forty-five degrees guarding against imminent attack, he lowered it. And using the barrel, eased the bird on, scooped it up and along into the crook of his arm. He staggered as he stood up. The bulk of its weight cradled against his chest, Jericho hooked his finger around the trigger and crab-walked towards the house.

    The wolf snarled. Head down, it slunk into the open, and weaving from side-to-side, stalked him.

    His movements limited by the bundle he carried, he resisted the temptation to shoot. ‘You don’t know how much I want to kill you,’ he sneered. ‘Guess I’ll have to wait. Plus,’ he whispered, ‘the blast would give this poor thing a heart attack.’ Jericho’s foot clipped something concealed beneath the snow, and he toppled sideways. The crane sliding down along the polished gunmetal, he dropped to one knee, teetering on the verge of total collapse.

    The predator reacted immediately. Three swift bounding leaps.

    Another and it’s on me. Adrenaline surging to new levels, time seemed to slow for Jericho. Grip adjusted, somehow keeping hold of the injured bird, he held the rifle like an oar and drove the stock through the snow onto solid ground.His nemesis two feet away, he shifted the helpless creature tighter to his chest. Heart drumming in his ears, the muzzle of the gun pulled up and trained on his enemy; he shook his head. ‘Keep coming, you bastard. I don’t care anymore.’

    Jericho’s target froze. Its eyes glowered through plumes of frosted breath as it stared into the barrel.

    His mind screamed, Shoot!

    As if sensing the thought, the wolf scrambled to escape.

    Jericho squeezed the trigger. BOOM.

    The beast plunged into the snow, throwing up a white cascade which, whipped by the wind, drove into Jericho like icy nails.

    Face and ears burning with cold, he got to his feet and retreated, the bird limp in his arms.

    The wolf rolled over. Blood dripped from its fur as it turned around. Eyes ablaze with murderous intent, it charged.

    Shit. Jericho fumbled for another cartridge. No time. Run! The scrunch of paws and ragged breath closing in, he backed up to the house and taking the bird’s weight on one knee, pushed the door handle down with his elbow almost falling when it opened behind him.

    Ten feet away, the wolf sprang at him, slamming into the door as Jericho bolted it. Leaning the shotgun against the wall, he eased the bird from his arms into his hands, relieved to feel warmth as they sank into soft breast plumage. Christ, how am I going to keep you alive?

    Outside, the beast growled, tearing at the wooden door frame.

    ‘Is that it?’ Jericho yelled. ‘The best you can do?’ An ominous silence followed.

    Auto-pilot taking over, he carried the motionless crane into the lounge. ‘I’ve got to dry us both and get you warm.’ In the fire’s glow, he laid the bird on the hearth before setting off to find towels and fresh clothes.

    Back in the lobby, he hesitated. His nose crinkled, assaulted by the rancid stench of urine blown in through the gap around the door. Scent marking. The bastard just scent-marked my house.

    If you'd like to receive a notification when the book is released, email: Thecranewife@skinnybirdproductions.com 

     

  2. I have at last begun the sequel to The Sister. I've given the book the working title of Salvation. Progress is somewhat slow, but in an effort to catapult myself into the requisite state of mind, I publish below an extract.

     

    Chapter 1

    21 March 2008. Near Brighton Lanes.

     

    From the shadowed doorway of a derelict house, Rosetta Flynn shivered and peered into the street opposite her intended lodgings. Satisfied no one had followed; she picked up her holdall and stepped out of the darkness. She crossed the road, her breath billowing vaporous clouds into the midnight air.

    A streetlight pooled illumination onto the pavement, revealing a gap in the arrow-head railings. Her ears attuned to the relative silence, she gazed up at the large windows in the dirty-white frontage of the three-storey stucco building before walking along the red tiled path leading to the front door. Her mouth close to the intercom grill, she pressed the night bell. ‘Come on,’ she whispered through chattering teeth. ‘Don’t you know it’s cold outside?’ She glanced up at the CCTV lens trained on her and, for the benefit of the camera, hugged herself for warmth.

    The sound of bolts sliding from sockets turned her attention to the door. The duty manager grumbled something unintelligible as he unlocked it.

    The door creaked open to reveal a thick-set, red-haired man. With one hand resting on the handle and the other gripping the door frame, his arm barred the way. ‘What’s the name?’ He spoke with an unmistakable Irish brogue.

    ‘Stone,’ she replied.

    He gawped at the grey-caped young woman standing in the entrance porch of his guest house, his gaze drawn to her creamy complexion and rose coloured hair. ‘Do you have any idea what time it is?’

    Her eyes flicked to his name badge. ‘Mr. O’Brien, are you going to let me in or not?’

    He moved aside.

    Rosetta stepped over the threshold and stood in the dingy hallway. A lamp set on top of a desk beneath the stairs offered scant light. O’Brien shuffled past closer than he needed to be, his hands brushing her shoulders. She caught a whiff of whisky on his breath. He ducked under the rake of the stairs and sat down. Opening a drawer, he pulled out a sheet of paper and pushed it towards her. ‘Fill that in.’

    Rosetta obliged.

    ‘The full weekend wasn’t it? I’ll take four hundred pounds.’

    She bristled. ‘I sent the cash registered post two days ago.’

    O’Brien reached for the desktop diary and flicked back a page. ‘Ah, see, it doesn't say anything about that here.’

    Her green eyes smouldered. ‘Don’t fuck with me,’ she said keeping her voice low. ‘I’m not in the mood. Now, the key to my room?’

    The night manager turned away, his fingers selecting a fob stamped with the number seven. He threw it onto the desk.

    Rosetta smiled and took the key. ‘You don’t go much on manners do you? Point me in the right direction; then you can get back to your whisky.’

    Scowling, O’Brien jabbed a finger at the underside of the staircase. ‘First floor. End of the passageway, last room on the right.’

    Heavy with tiredness, she trudged up the narrow stairs to her temporary lodgings, turned across the landing and followed the corridor. Locating the room, she fumbled aligning her key in the lock. Adjusting her grip, she engaged the tumblers. A quick, anticlockwise twist freed the internal bolt. Rosetta entered the room, switched on the light, and closing the door behind her, locked it. She lifted the end of the security chain and slid it into its slotted steel housing. The cheap ironmongery felt flimsy; she wondered how much of a battering it could withstand. A chair adjacent to the end of the bed provided her with a place to deposit her luggage. She walked to the window. There were no security catches on it. Her brow furrowed. Is it safe unsecured? She opened the casement, and poking her head out, discovered a flat-roofed annexe eight feet below.

    Rosetta inhaled the night air, tasting the salty brine in the breeze blowing in from the nearby sea. In the distance, a fox cried. Close by, a large dog growled, affirming his territorial rights. She gazed up at the moon. Already Good Friday. The earliest Easter in almost a hundred years, she would work among the poor and needy just as her mother had in years past.

    Rosetta retreated to the bed and, sitting down, flopped backwards. I’ll just rest a minute. Clean my teeth and get ready for bed.

     

     ‘Run child!’

    Rosetta jolted awake.

    Mother? Cold brilliance flooded the room. She’d forgotten to turn off the light. Heart pounding, she held her breath to calm it. The thunderous beat subsided. She closed her eyes, trying to hitch a ride on the tail of the receding nightmare. The realisation she’d not dreamt of her mother for months triggered a sense of foreboding. Rosetta sat up. Awake. Fully alert. The night bell? Scuffling sounds. O’ Brien shouting. A cry of pain. Footsteps charging up the stairs. She flicked the lights off. Moving, trusting her instincts, she thanked God she’d not undressed. She grabbed her holdall and rushing to the window, eased it higher.

    Bang!

    A boot against the door?

    The impact shook the room.

    Rosetta sat on the window board and lowering her upper body dipped through the gap.

    Bang! Wood splintered.

    Dropping her bag onto the flat roof, she transferred her weight. Her thighs scraped against the stone sill as she lowered herself.

    Bang! A rush of air billowed the curtains. The chain held, buying her precious moments.

    A further crash. Heavy footfalls charged towards her.

    Hanging by her fingertips, she let go. A hand snaking through the gap snatched at her wrist, grabbing a fistful of air.

    Her legs buckled as she landed.

    ‘Get after her,’ a man boomed.

    Rosetta ran to the roof’s edge. In the garden below, a Rottweiler stared, emitting a low growl.

    She glanced back at the window. A man leapt down, stumbled and regaining his balance, walked calmly towards her. ‘Come away from the edge,’ he said. ‘We do not wish to hurt you.’

    Rosetta peered into the gloom adjacent to where she stood. Six feet below, a fence was set inches away from the wall and ran the length of the garden towards the house next door. She threw her bag into the garden and turning, dropped to her haunches. Transferring her weight to her hands, she slid feet first over the edge.

    The man broke into a run. ‘Get back here!’

    Legs scissoring, Rosetta sought the thin line of timber below. Grit dug into her elbows, as she manoeuvred her fingers to grip the upstand of the roof enabling her to suspend herself lower still. Relieved when her toes touched down, she let go of the roof.

     

    The Rottweiler crashed into the fence. Rosetta steadied herself with her back against the wall, while she attempted to crab-walk along a rickety tightrope of wooden construction. The dog leapt at her. From above, she heard the thud of a second person landing on the roof. To her left, a pair of legs dangled from the position she’d just vacated, desperately seeking the top of the fence.

    Above her, a hand scythed through the air, fingertips brushed her hair. She ducked out of the way and almost fell. The muscular brute below, worked itself into a frenzy, barking, switching its attention to the man who now inched towards Rosetta.

    A quiver in his voice, the man soothed, ‘Good boy.’

    Lights appeared in the windows of adjacent houses.

    The owner of this one must be out, she thought. She edged further along the fragile timber palings.

    Two feet away, another pair of legs slithered down the wall seeking to land in front of her. Rosetta’s action was swift. ‘Give me strength,’ she whispered; taking two sideways steps, she kicked out at the nearest foot, deflecting it from its intended toehold.

    ‘Shit,’ the man cried, toppling into the garden.

    The dog attacked without hesitation. Its paws scrabbling on its quarry’s chest, it sought to seize the intruder by the throat.

    ‘Get him off me,’ the man cried. He jammed his arm into the snapping jaws while frantically reaching for something in his boot. The Rottweiler snarled, teeth clamped deep. Head wrenching from side to side, the victim screamed. Moonlight flashed on steel arcing towards the beast’s neck. Stabbed again and again, the dog howled its pain, and then fell to the ground. Its flanks heaving, the dog whimpered.

    Rosetta watched horrified as the animal drew a final ragged breath. Spurred into action by the grisly outcome, she took three rapid side-steps. A gate. The other side, an alleyway. She jumped, snatching up her bag by its looped handles and fled.

    ‘Stop fucking about on that fence; she’s getting away.’

    His accomplice dropped into the garden. ‘You all right?’

    Nursing his arm, the stricken leader scrambled to his feet. ‘Get after her!’

    Rosetta pitched headlong down the alley and slammed into the wrought-iron gate barring her only means of escape. Her heart sank. Padlocked. She yanked at it. The brass body swung out from its clasp. With trembling fingers, she unhooked it and threw the bolt back. Behind her, the thugs kicked at the timber fence smashing their way through. ‘Get back here!’ The first man yelled.

    Footsteps thundered in the enclosed space closing in on her.

    She glanced over her shoulder and shot through the gap, gauging the distance to her would-be assailant. No choice. I have to chance it. Turning swiftly, the padlock still in her hand, she banged the gate shut slammed the bolt across.

    The man grabbed her through the bars. ‘No you don’t,’ he growled.

    Rosetta struck out with the heavy object in her fist.

    ‘Shit,’ he cried, his hands flying to his face. ‘She broke my fucking nose!’

    Hooking the lock into its slot, she snapped it shut just as the second man reached for her. Taller than his colleague, his hand shot through the gap, the tips of his fingers scraping down her cloak.

    Rosetta snatched clear, and turning, fled into the night.

     

     

     

     

  3.  

    Dad was still alive when I started the novel version of the Don’t Turn on the Light. He read the first few chapters sitting on my sofa, about a month before he died.

    So much has happened in between. The river of life flows on.

    The other night I was listening to a song called 1971. The lyrics got me thinking about that year. What could I recall of that time? I remembered I'd been to a Pink Floyd concert - with Dad. I wasn't allowed on my own - mum worried about me becoming exposed to drugs and sex. I was sixteen. Although I don’t suppose much has changed, it seemed things were different in those days.

    I decided to record the gig on a BASF 240 cassette, or was it a 180? Difficult to recall that detail now, but anyway, I taped the show and in the following years, my brothers and I wore the thing out. The songs, the voices in the crowd I came to know by heart. Eventually, it broke, got tangled up around the rollers of the player. I never would have thrown it, but someone in the household did. I can’t tell you how many times I lamented the loss of that tape.

    In the morning, I got up and checked YouTube for any footage of that particular show. There was none. A couple of audience recordings of really poor quality, just as mine had been. Then I spotted one which said, good quality. The Return of the Son of Nothing, the original title of Echoes. I selected play. Roger Waters announced the name of the song and I heard a familiar voice say. 'Do you know that one?' Moments later, another, perhaps even more familiar, 'No I've never heard it.'

    My father and I!. Forty-five years later, his familiar tones had reached out from a place in time to reunite me with those memories, on a copy of my own recording!

    Discovered while writing a story about time and space.

    I'm still reeling from the coincidence...

  4. The Sister complicated? It's like a small town. You have to live there a while before you get to know what's going on, but once you connect, there are several levels. Mainstream and underground. 
    It's like getting introduced to a bunch of people at a party. At first, you struggle with their names. After a while, it's like you've known them forever. The Sister is like that, once you get through the introductory scenes. I always felt if the reader was able reach that position, the story would get better and better.
  5.  
    Waiting for the first review on your latest book is always a little nerve wracking, luckily its a good one! Don't Turn on the light: Crossing the Line ebook is #FREE all week to download, so don't miss out!
    "Once again, Max China reeled me in by evoking an intense emotional attachment to his cast of unforgettable characters! The author effectively blends love, action, scientific theories and time travel into a complex story full of unforseen twists and turns. What should have been a bright start in a new home for Frank and Shelley Cassidy and their two young children is thwarted by dark and ruthless time traveling magician, Edward Sparkes. We soon learn this egotistical villain with a propensity to play God is behind more than one disappearance in their home over the years and takes perverse pleasure in creating overwhelming adversity for Frank and his wife. What transpires is a testament to belief, love and sacrifice. This story is laden with suspense, heartbreak and brutality yet the courage, determination and epic victories woven into the storyline keeps the reader engaged, and on edge, throughout!"
  6. A lot of people believe in ghosts. Me included, within certain parameters. I've been lucky enough to have experienced the manifestations that 'genuine' phenomena produce. On several occasions, I've had people with me who saw or felt the same things. Mostly, I'm a debunker. There's usually a simple explanation if one cares to look. However, the majority of people flee at first contact!

    I worked alone in a house which seemed to possess an atmosphere of stark dread. I always left around eight, when the oppressive vibes became too much and imagination would start kicking in. One night, I turned off the power to the house from the mains rather than go from room to room turning out lights. I had a short walk to the front door from the under stairs cupboard where mains switch was located. With the light gone, the darkness felt like a living thing.

    As I reached the door, the central heating boiler fired up. How could it go that with no electricity to trigger the ignition? My hackles rose. My first instinct was to get the hell out of there. I overcame my trepidation and walked to the kitchen where the boiler was housed. The off switch didn't work, turning the thermostat down was equally unsuccessful. Nothing I tried would kill the power. Skin crawling with goose flesh, I exited the place in a hurry!

    The following day, I had the wiring checked out. The electrician found the house was cross-wired at the mains, so even when it was off, it remained on.

    Simple explanation, see? My other experiences were not so simple... The fact that mine is based on personal experience and turned out to be something other than supernatural is great, but wait until I tell you what happened a couple of nights later, when I went into the garage... 

  7. Q: When did you first start writing?

    A: Like most people, I’ve always written something from time to time over the years, and I first said I wanted to be a writer when I was seventeen, but life gets in the way.

    I started creative writing seriously, about five years ago.

    Q: Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?

    A: I do indeed. I was around ten years of age and doing a paper round - whether that would be allowed these days or not, I don’t know - but there was a huge old house with a creaky wrought iron gate, and a long path that wound its way through overgrown laurel bushes. For some reason it used to terrify me, so I wrote a little piece of fiction about it.

    Q: What is your writing process?

    A: I’ll often wake up in the early hours, usually between 3 and 5 am and type a thousand words into my iPhone ready to email myself for further editing on my computer. I often write stepping stone scenes that connect all through the story, coming back to fill in the details later. The central part of the story I’ll often keep fairly flexible until I’m ready to fix the pieces in place. Because I write in my spare time, I have to fit the work in wherever I can. When I’m firing on all cylinders, I can complete a thousand words that I’m happy with, each day. Part of the reason I could be considered slow, is the research process. Although I write fiction, I like the facts to be correct, so for instance, in my debut novel, The Sister, when I say there was a Dire Straits concert in 1983 at the Hammersmith Odeon - there really was, and it occurred on the night that I said it did.

    Q: What’s the story behind The Sister?

    A: I’ve always wanted to write a novel and I guess it had been building in me. It went through several incarnations before becoming what it is today. I had some things I wanted to say about choices and what can happen if under pressure the wrong ones are made, how easy it is to do that, and the possible consequences of getting it wrong. So, in a nutshell, it’s about a man having the chance to make some sense of his life in his dying moments, and the story of what he sees as his last breath escapes. It is based on the concept that you see your whole life flash by in those last moments. All this plays out against the backdrop of a serial killer and the families of his victims whose lives have been blighted.

    Q: Tell us about your main character.

    A: The book is written in an unconventional way so that a variety of people are introduced fairly quickly, cameo fashion. The early lives of Bruce and Vera are explored, the effects on Bruce from witnessing a killer disposing of a body when he was seven years old, and of course, the effect it had on Vera viewing the same thing, but remotely from two hundred miles away. She is older and born with a wisdom that belies her years and other properties which enable her to cope so much better than he does. Bruce develops mechanisms that shield him from the fear, but blind him to the truth . . . I think I have to just clarify at this point that there are several main characters which come and go throughout the book. You never know when they will appear next.

    Q: How do you approach cover design?

    A: All my covers are professionally created by a Royal Academy of Arts qualified graphic artist. I bounce ideas off him. If something feels right, I go with it. For The Sister, I used a photograph of the full moon reflecting on the surface of an ancient moat, taken one cold February night. The images were exactly perpendicular, as above so below. It just seemed to fit. I like to use photographs I’ve taken for the background imagery. For The Man in Brown, a future release (late summer) - I used a picture of the same moat, this time showing a blazing sun. The reflection in the water is like a portal into another world.

    Many writers wait patiently for years hoping for that elusive book deal. I wanted to write, I wanted to be read and I wanted to be in charge of my own destiny. The landscape has changed sufficiently to make those things possible. I’ve sold thousands of ebook copies of The Sister to date. I’m happy with the decision to go it alone.

    Q: What are you working on next?

    A: I’m finishing my latest novel Don’t Turn on The Light: Crossing The Line. Release date 21 March 2016. As I said previously, I further projects nearing completion, more spin-offs from The Sister, all of which completely self-contained, complete stories. Although not a series, many of my books are linked.

    Q: Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?

    A: I was born in the east end of London, but grew up in a seaside town in Essex. Apart from the odd mention of seagulls, I don’t think where I grew up influenced my writing at all.

    Q: Describe your desk

    A: Organised chaos. If it were tidied, I’d never be able to find anything.

    Q: What inspires you to get out of bed each day?

    A: Daylight, birdsong and sunshine. The sunnier it is, the more inspired I’ll be...

     

     

  8. NOTM

    Book preview. Seven chapters uploaded.

    Chapter 1

    Churchend, Bristol. Monday, August 10, 1987. 7:57 am.

    Dragged over uneven ground between the gravestones of the churchyard next to St. Michael’s Orphanage, five-year-old Timothy Salter stumbled, almost falling. ‘Stop it. You’re hurting my hand,’ he squealed.
    Ahead of him, the girl’s blonde pigtails swished from side to side as she ran. She didn’t turn round. ‘Quiet, Timmy,’ she said, in low tones. ‘Do you want us to get caught?’
    He pulled against her, digging in with his heels.
    Six years older, and twice his size, his sister, had little trouble jerking him back into a slow trot.
    ‘Sarah, where are we going?’ The little boy said.
    ‘We can’t stay. We have to get as far away from here as we can.’
    ‘But why’? He tried snatching his hand from her grasp.
    Sarah tightened her grip. ‘Stop that,’ she said, her voice harsh, yet barely above a whisper.
    Tears brimmed in Timothy’s eyes. His lips trembled. ‘But why?’
    Sarah’s face crumpled. Oh, Mum. Dad. wherever you are. How can I tell him? Her mother spoke softly, as if she were right next to her, and not just in her mind. He’s too young to understand. ‘When you’re older, Timmy,’ Sarah said. ‘I’ll explain.’
    ‘I’m scared,’ he sobbed.
    ‘So am I,’ she said. ‘Now, come on.’
    A hundred yards further, where the churchyard met the lane, they reached a low stone wall and stopped, both of them panting. Sarah released him, placed both hands palms down on top of the smooth coping, and swinging her leg up, she straddled it. ‘Give me your hand, Timmy.’
    He held it out. She took it. Bracing herself, she hauled him up next to her. ‘Everything will be alright,’ she said, jumping to the ground. Reaching up, she helped him down.

    The caretaker stood in the boiler house doorway and watched the children clear the wall. A simple man, he’d done what he thought best. He knew the men who came to the home in the dead of night were powerful, untouchable. He’d seen what had happened to the new girl the night before, and he knew it wouldn’t be long before they went into the little boy’s wing. If he blew the whistle, they’d destroy him. The magistrate would have him put away in prison.
    He decided to give the children a few more minutes, and then report that he’d mislaid his keys.

    In the dry and dusty country lane, tall trees leaned over the fleeing children. Up ahead by the crossroads, alert to their approach, a crow hopped, reluctant to leave the remains of his meal behind. Sarah stared at the carrion with disgust as they ran past. The head flattened against the road; she recognised what the dead animal was by its ears.
    ‘Yuk,’ the little boy said. ‘What is it?’
    ‘A rabbit, I think. Come on, Timmy, you’ll have to run faster than this,’ she urged. ‘We have to hurry. Any minute now, they’ll find out we’re gone and come after us.’
    Sarah stopped at the crossroads. The little boy fell in behind her. ‘Oh, God, Timothy. Which way do we go?’
    ‘That way,’ he said, without hesitation, pointing to a lane that ran downhill. With barely enough room for a car to pass between its high tree-lined banks, it seemed the safest option. Overhead, the canopy of leaves gave the appearance of a long, dark tunnel. ‘All right,’ she said. ‘Let’s go. I don’t think they’d expect us to go down there.’
    Sarah hadn’t a clue where they were. They’d passed only one house in the last five minutes. She’d almost knocked for help, but the cottage being so close to the orphanage worried her. She needed to get them to a police station. Running downhill gave them a brief respite. At the bottom of the lane, there was a level crossing. The barriers were down. ‘There’s a telephone box, Timmy; she said, excited. Then she remembered they had no money. You don’t need to pay for a 999 call; she recalled her mum had once told her. ‘Timmy, over here.’ She heaved on the door with all her might and squeezed through the gap as quick as she could before the door closed on her. She stared in disbelief. The handset was missing. Pushing her way out backwards, she took Timothy’s hand and approached the railway track. She looked both ways and saw nothing. She listened intently. A car! Coming down the lane. She shot round the end of the barrier, pulling her brother alongside. ‘Come on Timmy, we have to go!’ Beside her, the rails hummed. She looked down the track. A train approached in the distance. The car’s engine grew louder as the driver changed down through the gears.
    ‘Let’s go,’ she cried, ‘We’ve got enough time to make it. She ran forward. Timothy pulled back. Dragging him forward, she tripped. Her foot wedged behind the rail. She tugged at it to free herself, screaming, ‘Go, Timmy! Go! I’ll follow.’ Metal screeching against metal, sparks flew from the beneath the wheels and rails. Through the glass of the cab, Sarah could see the driver’s face, his mouth open and his eyes wide, full of horror. It isn’t going to stop! Her little brother’s feet skidded, scrabbling for purchase as he held onto her hand, desperately trying to pull her clear. The train sped towards them. Sarah screamed and let go of his hand. Timothy fell backwards out of the path of the train.
    He would never speak again.

     


    Chapter 2

    Ashmore top security hospital. August 10, 2014. 8:07 am.

    Blood. Warm. Sweet. Saline. The man named Wolfe acknowledged the contradiction. Salt has a sweetness all of its own. A sweet taboo. He sighed. The taste of his own blood could not compare. Hunger consumed him. Forbidden fruit. Fresh meat.
    Salivating, becoming erect, he touched himself, cursing the devil. You promised me the Earth for my soul and delivered nothing.
    Biting down hard on his lower lip, he closed his eyes and then swallowed. The flavour, vile, tainted by hospital diet, revolted him.
    They were moving him. On a bloody Sunday. Somewhere, he’d been told, better equipped to deal with him. From the angle of the sun, he knew it was almost time. Will I go quietly? He grinned. A trickle of bloody saliva escaped the corner of his mouth. Wiping it on the back of his hand, he examined it before licking it clean. Lull them into a false sense of security. That’s what I’ll do.
    The tramp of heavy boots announced the approach of a squad of guards. They paused while steel doors were opened and banged shut.
    More men than before. After the last time, it was to be expected. He’d got a taste of meat before they’d overpowered him, before tenderizing his six-foot ten-inch frame to a bloody pulp.
    The footsteps resumed and then came to a halt outside his cell. He jack-knifed from the bed, and crossed the room, ready.
    Nurse Chisolm peered through the observation panel in the steel door. The other side, Wolfe glowered at him.
    ‘Stand away from the door,’ Chisolm said.
    ‘You coming in?’
    ‘Step back, Wolfe.’
    Instinct dictated he should stay where he was, defiant. And then he changed his mind. Lull them into a false sense of security...Wolfe took a backward step.
    The outer skin of the medication hatch grated as it slid open. At just a couple of inches short of Wolfe’s height, Chisolm stooped with some discomfort and put the plastic cup he carried on the flat surface. ‘Drink this,’ he growled, and slamming the steel plate shut, peered through the viewer, to watch the giant patient’s approach.
    ‘Got anything good in it?’
    ‘Something to help you relax. That’s all.’
    Wolfe shrugged, took a step forward, and collected the cup.
    ‘You know how this works,’ Chisolm said. ‘Easy or hard. Now, let me see you drink it.’
    The patient swallowed it like a fine whisky.
    ‘Best get on the bunk, Wolfman. That little cocktail’s going to hit you hard. We don’t want any accidents, do we? And you know what they say, the bigger you are, the harder—’
    ‘You’d know better than me about taking a fall, Chisolm,’ Wolfe sneered.
    ‘Is that right?’ the guard said. ‘Now, get on the bed.’

     


    Chapter 3

    Hilltop Cottage, Churchend. 8:12 am.

    Michael Anderson carried a silver breakfast tray, laden with toast, marmalade and coffee through the open French doors, and onto the timber patio deck. He checked the position of the sun, and satisfied the shadow he cast was conducive to glare-free reading, he put the tray on the open slats of the hexagonal table and went back inside to collect his latest reading material.

    He thought about his trip to Brighton, wandering the lanes as he so often did with Margot. Did I really go there yesterday? If it wasn’t for the book, the whole thing could have been a dream. He’d browsed as if she were still with him, peering into stores that held no interest for him out of a habit that hadn’t existed in years. He did a double take as he walked past the front of a second-hand bookstore called Fortunes. The shop had been decorated in gipsy themes, the centrepiece an old vardo. At the base of the steps to the caravan, he’d spotted a bargain bucket. Anderson wasn’t usually given to rummaging for cut-price deals, but a book, its title poking out from one side caught his attention. Problem Child, by Stella Bird. The author wasn’t anyone familiar to him. He extracted it from the piled up contents of the wicker basket and purchased it on a whim without looking at the pitch on the back cover.

    It was after nine o’clock when he arrived home, the evening all but gone. Stuck in traffic, he’d chewed on mints to stave off hunger and now that he’d made a cheese sandwich, it tasted of cardboard. After two bites, he threw what was left in the bin and climbed the stairs to run a bath. He turned the taps on and then stood by the washbasin while it filled, staring at his reflection in the mirrored cabinet. A familiar debate started inside his head. You’re tired. You don’t need those. But I sleep so much better when I’ve had them. He opened the cabinet, took out a box of Nytol, and automatically popped two of them through the foil. He no longer took the pills to help him sleep. He’d acquired a psychological dependency on them. He swallowed them and then got undressed. He lowered himself into the water.

    Half an hour later, already in the grip of the pills he’d taken, his initial glance at the back-page pitch, stirred long forgotten memories. The author stated that the book was a tribute to a psychiatrist who hadn’t been afraid to experiment with new ideas. That she’d assembled the book based on the notes and diaries of Dr Ryan. My old friend Ryan? Couldn’t be. A sense of jubilance had risen in him. How right he’d been to purchase the book! Stella Bird’s introduction ran to several pages. She apologised for not using his Christian name and explained that she’d only learned it after his death. Out of respect, she’d refer to him by his surname, the way he’d preferred in life.
    Ryan, he mused, such a character. Although a friend, he never knew his first name either. Once, when Anderson had asked him for it, he’d said, “Just call me Ryan. Shall I call you Mick?”
    Anderson’s smile broadened, lifting his spirits as he recalled his answer. “No, call me Michael.”
    Ryan never did address him by his first name.

    Anderson retrieved the book from the coffee table in the conservatory. He relished the idea of reading for a couple of hours with nothing to disturb him, but chirping birds and the lazy buzz of fat bumble bees. He strode through the house and returned outside with the book tucked under his arm.
    The chair legs juddered as he dragged it back, preparing to sit. The desktop magnifying glass and book set down, he sat and shuffled himself into position, arranging the magnifier to straddle the page he’d bookmarked the night before.
    Spreading jam on a piece of toast, he poured coffee. A final adjustment to the layout of the book, he lifted his cup and sipped, before taking a bite, savouring the taste. He leant forwards and peered through the convex glass.
    With no clear recollection of what he’d already read, beyond a fuzzy memory, Anderson flicked through and realised he’d only completed two pages. Beginning again, he skipped through the author introduction until he reached the last page. His eyes locked momentarily on her justification for releasing the book.
    "I was with Dr Ryan in his last hours and he’d been remarkably lucid. Although I was only a secretary, he’d treated me like a confidante for much of the time I worked for him. He told me of his great interest in the supernatural, and how he’d hoped to one day use his notes to write a book, something he never got around to doing. He had no children. His wife had died some years before. I’m not sure why, but he decided to bequeath me everything, including his personal notes and files. I believe his hope was that I’d find a way to publish them." Stella concluded with the legend: Patient’s names have been changed to protect their identities.
    Will you recognise any of them? How long ago did Ryan and I part company? Anderson sat back in his chair and squinted at the walls of the house made brilliant by the sun, as if caught in a spell. His mind rolled back through the many milestones carved from joy and pain. Thirty-five years. His life as it was then danced before him. He smiled wistfully. Finally, he blinked and turned away.
    He resumed reading.

    When I was a young doctor working in Ireland in the late sixties, I met a girl who would change the course of my life. She was little more than fifteen. I had attended her following a report from her aunt that she was sick. Her family doctor could not be summoned. I was his stand-in. From the moment she told me, “Doctor David’s not coming,” and then whispered word for word, the contents of a note later found with David’s body, I knew she was something special. How had she known? I’d already begun to develop an interest in the paranormal, and here I was in the presence of a child, who without doubt, had been blessed with powers of clairvoyance. I wanted to study her further, an opportunity that was to be denied, but she triggered an interest that became a lifetime obsession. If I’d never met her, would I have become a child psychiatrist? Would I have tried alternative treatments where conventional methods had failed? If it hadn’t been for her, I’d have never dreamed of it. And I certainly wouldn’t have become involved with some of the most interesting events imaginable.

    Fully engrossed, and with Ryan’s voice in his head like he’d last heard it yesterday, Anderson didn’t notice the shadow encroaching on his peripheral vision. Instead, a strange sensation drew his focus. Numbed pain. Dull, and insistent at the soft corner of his left eyelid. What the? He cuffed himself as he swatted the thing away. Some kind of insect.
    Anderson drew a finger across the affected area, a bump already forming. Leave it alone; or it’ll start to itch. If it did, he’d call in at the chemist and buy some antihistamines. Damned mosquitos. He’d never been bitten there before. He swivelled his eyeballs left. The swelling, a skin coloured blur, irritated him like a smear on a pair of reading glasses. Damn. He pushed back in his chair, and as he stood, glanced through the magnifier, at the page beneath. What the hell? Peering closer, against the background of a two-line break – between scenes, apparently dead, lay the biggest and blackest mosquito he’d ever seen. The magnified image held him fascinated.
    The creature had come to rest on its side. In profile, it looked like a grotesque parody of an ostrich. Attached to a tiny head, the petrol-tank body was fuelled by means of an enormous proboscis. The hind legs, disproportionate in size, intrigued him. Designed for walking? No, more like landing gear.
    His eyelid began to itch.
    The irritation too much, he’d find some lotion to relieve it temporarily. He turned away, got up, and went inside.

     


    Chapter 4

    St. Michael’s Church. 8:21 am.

    A silent scream parting his lips, Timothy Salter jolted upright in bed and pitched himself forwards, eyes wide, hands outstretched, snatching at empty air. Crushed by nightmares as surely as his sister under the wheels of the train, his shoulders slumped. His first thought, always his sister. He fell backwards onto the dishevelled bedding.
    Arrows of light beamed through the boarded up slats of the presbytery window and stabbed at the darkness of the squalid room. His eyes adjusted. On top of the bushel crate he’d turned on its end to use as a makeshift bedside table, was a photograph of him and Sarah taken by his father in the garden of their home. It was a tenuous link to the only happiness he’d ever known. His gaze lingered over her. She was ten, wisdom beyond her years already apparent on a face faded by exposure to daylight. She stood with one hand on his shoulder, and a wan smile at her lips. Her hair swept from her face by the breeze blowing that day. Blonder than he, she seemed to look right back at him. Dressed in a black and white cowboy outfit, he wore a too-big Stetson. He was sitting astride a tricycle, a toy gun aimed at his dad, while Sarah, smiling at his antics looked straight ahead. He touched his shoulder. He always thought of her hands. They seemed too big for a little girl. He remembered his mother’s words. “Smile for the camera, my lovely angels.”
    He smiled.
    A flashbulb went off in his mind.
    Long lost voices came back to him. His mother and father. He’d already been alive longer than they had been.

    ‘Are you sure it’ll be all right to leave the children with your sister, Russ?’ His mother saw him watching, and she moved with his father out of earshot. Though he couldn’t hear them, Timothy read their lips, a talent he’d picked up from a deaf boy at the nursery. ‘She isn’t really old enough.’
    ‘Don’t be daft,’ his father replied. ‘She’s eighteen next month, and she’s lived with us long enough to know what’s what.’
    ‘I know. I just worry Jane isn’t mature enough to look after them without us around.’ She sighed. ‘I wish mum and dad hadn’t gone to live in Australia.’
    ‘And I wish mine weren’t dead. Look, it’s just for the weekend,’ his father said, embracing her. ‘Don’t worry. We’ll have fun.’

    Timothy lifted the photograph and began the ritual he repeated every day. He scrutinised the shiny surfaces in the background of the picture. A dark garage window had caught the shadowy image of his parents; their faces obscured behind the brilliant star-shaped flash from the camera. What happened to you? Even today, he didn’t know for sure. He knew they’d been killed, but there was some reluctance on the part of the authorities to explain exactly how. On the day his parents were due home, the police arrived with a man and woman he didn’t know. Social workers. Despite Jane’s protests, ‘I’ll call nan and grandad,’ she’d yelled, he and Sarah had been taken away and placed into care.
    If Sarah had only known their grandparents had left Australia almost straight away, she might have been able to hang on. No, she wouldn’t. We ran away because she wanted to protect me.
    After the accident, he’d been returned to the home. The same night, the men came and took him out of the dormitory to another room. He shook his head violently, but the experience remained. The men were fascinated by his apparent refusal to cry out. They drank, laughed and took photographs.
    When it was over, and he’d been returned to bed, the caretaker came. ‘Come on, boy. I’m getting you out of here.’ Snatches of what the man had said in the car journey came back to him. ‘One day, Timothy, you’ll see what I did was right. I’m taking you to a woman I know. She couldn’t have a kid of her own. She’ll see you right. Her people are rough and ready, but they’ll not allow any harm to come your way.’
    He lived with the woman among travelling people for twelve years. Always moving, there wasn’t a part of the country he hadn’t seen. They’d accepted his refusal to speak, assuming he was mute. He learned to work the land using only basic tools, earning his keep doing odd jobs; he became a skilled gardener.
    One night, sitting around the fire somewhere in the wilds outside Scotland, a wandering woman came by the camp. She stayed for just one night. He listened enthralled as she told stories, but one, in particular, struck him. The woman never took her eyes off him as she related the tale. It was his story. The story of him and Sarah, right down to what happened with the train. The old woman concluded by saying the little girl’s ghost will find no rest until her brother returned to the lanes she haunted.

    As soon as he had the chance, he returned to Churchend. The orphanage had been closed for years. The old priest had accepted his offer to work on the grounds; he’d seen how destitute the boy appeared.
    ‘Where are you staying?’ the priest asked.
    Timothy took a pad from his pocket and scribbled on it with a pencil, and held it out.
    Father Raymond took it. ‘I’ll not see you sleeping under the stars, not while there’s room under God’s roof.’ The old man had never discovered Timothy's true identity. He revealed snippets of information to his guest over the years, usually when in drink. ‘My predecessor, he knew what was going on. How could he not have?’ He’d scrutinised Timothy. ‘If that’s what you’re thinking, you’d be right. The drunken pervert kept a diary. I found it over there.’ His hand indicated the altar. ‘There, of all places. Brazen. No shame. Died of a heart attack when he heard the caretaker had gone to the police. And then the whole sorry tale came out.’ The priest took a sip of his whisky, swilled it around the glass and then drained the last of it. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. ‘It took a while for the authorities to close the place down. They never found the little boy. His grandparents had come all the way from Australia to apply for adoption. Heartbroken they were. That family was cursed, I tell you. The caretaker stood before the courts and testified, but I think he knew more about what had happened with the children than he let on. With the men involved convicted and jailed, it didn’t take long for the stain to spread over the church. People began to stay away.’ He stood and swayed, gripping the edge of the table. ‘Pass me the bottle would you?’
    Timothy obliged.
    Father Raymond poured himself another and offered the open neck to his guest. Timothy shook his head.
    The priest lowered his voice, and holding the back of his hand to his mouth, spoke with theatrical discretion. ‘You’ll probably think I’m crazy, but sometimes on the anniversary of that day, I’ve seen a little girl running among the graves.’ Distracted by his recollections, he failed to see Timothy sit up, more attentive. ‘I always think there’s more to ghosts than we can fathom. You know, there’s a reason for everything on God’s Earth. Life has a way of negating evil things, the same way you always find a dock plant among nettles. The cure is never far away if you know what to look for.’ After Father Raymond said that, Timothy walked the lanes, the tracks, the graveyard, endlessly searching. But he never saw Sarah.

    His reverie over, he picked up the tear-off calendar. August 9. The words of wisdom beneath the date were attributed to Abraham Lincoln. “The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time.”
    Twenty-seven years had passed exactly like that, but nothing had changed. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror on the wall. Gaunt. His deep-set eyes stared back at him. He saw nothing in them other than a bleak wilderness and ever-lasting guilt. He touched them expecting to feel pain. He’d lost weight. He had to eat. If his death was judged self-inflicted, that would be suicide, and he’d be consigned to purgatory, never to see his loved ones again. He hesitated, and then ripping the page clear, crumpled it into a ball and placed the calendar back by his bed.
    He got dressed and slipped his Bible into the top pocket of his boiler suit and prepared for what he had to do.

     


    Chapter 5

    Ashmore top security hospital. 8:25 am.

    The guard pushing the wheelchair bearing the oversized prisoner along the corridor glanced down at Wolfe. The giant’s head, dipping lower with each stride, slumped and came rest on his shoulder.
    ‘He’s gone,’ the guard said, like a parent who’d succeeded in getting a wayward child to sleep, and continued towards the lift.
    Although the patient was strapped in and flanked by a contingent of ten men, Chisolm eyed him warily. ‘Do not assume for one moment he’s less dangerous because he’s doped up,’ he said, without breaking stride. ‘I heard he came up like a Jack-in-a-box last time he was moved. Doctors underestimated the dose needed to keep him under. Took a bite out of someone’s arm, right through the shirtsleeve, swallowed it before anyone could stop him. He knew he wasn’t going anywhere. Did it for pure devilment.’
    ‘I heard that, too.’ The guard steered the wheelchair round a corner. ‘No one knew what he was like back then, did they? To be honest, I’d gladly finish him if I had the chance. Do society a big favour.’
    ‘I think that goes for all of us,’ Chisolm replied. A chorus of grunts signalled the squad’s approval.
    Impassive, if Wolfe had heard their words, he gave no sign. Face pressed close to his exposed upper arm, a trickle of fluid oozed from the corner of his mouth, staining the high cut sleeve of the blue gown he wore. Wolfe had long ago perfected the art of swallowing and sly regurgitation after studying early twentieth century magicians and escape artists, particularly Houdini. The cocktail was strong enough to fell an elephant; that’s what Chisolm had told him that once he’d drunk it. The effects, though diminished by his slow expulsion, were enough to dull his senses. He wondered absently if they’d deliberately overdosed him. He needed to be sick, and fast. But not yet. Outside, that’s when he’d do it – if he was still conscious. He focused on the whisper of rubber wheels against the hard vinyl floor, on the stopping and starting, as he was reversed into the sterile security zones between doors, one banged shut and locked, before the other unlocked and opened.
    The last of the liquid expelled, Wolfe’s tongue felt huge, rubbery. He bit into it, focusing on the pain. Sheer force of will prevented him from falling under the spell of the residual chemicals.
    Another door. Fresh air on his skin. The sun shone through his eyelids, the colour reminded him of tomato soup. He was outside. The August warmth soothed him. Suddenly spun around, he was being hauled in reverse. The wheelchair bumped up something with a metallic clang. A ramp. The whine of an electric lift. He daren’t peep beneath his eyelashes. Chisolm would see. The motor stopped. He was in a vehicle. His concentration lapsed, and he slipped into the dark streets he inhabited in his dreams, lurking in the shadows, away from the gas-lit pools of light that gleamed off wet cobblestones in the midnight mist, looking for prey.
    His body sagged.
    ‘Finally,’ Chisolm said, checking his watch. 8:28 am. ‘Now he’s really under.’

     


    Chapter 6

    Copse Hall. 8:31 am.

    George Kotlas turned into the visitor’s car park and pulled up close to the reception building. He looked around as he opened the back door and unhooked his suit jacket from the holder above the window. The tarmac and white-lining was obviously new. Only one other car was parked there. A mixture of excitement and anticipation fluttered in his stomach. He recalled the letter Dr Rubenstein had sent three weeks ago. It had contained a brief introduction, together will an invitation to call him, but it was the title, Director of Forensic Psychiatry, Proof and Experimental Unit, that drew Kotlas in.

    ‘Dr Rubenstein? It’s George Kotlas. You wrote to me—’
    ‘Dr Kotlas.’ Rubenstein cleared his throat. ‘Yes, I did. I take it you’re interested?’
    ‘At this stage, I’d say I’m more curious. Why approach me?’
    ‘Haven’t you heard, Kotlas? There’s an acute shortage of psychiatrists per se. And practitioners with your provenance are rarer still. I sent a non-disclosure form with the letter. Sign and return it to me. Until then I’m not at liberty to discuss anything further.’

    Kotlas complied. A flurry of correspondence followed, a formal interview was arranged and confirmed in writing along with a list of procedures to be followed on his arrival at the hospital. It occurred to him that Sunday was an odd day to ask him to come in, but it was his day off. It suited him. He still didn’t know exactly what his new role, if successful, would entail. He patted his pocket to check his passport hadn’t fallen out, locked the car and then followed the directional signs for Reception.

    Once Kotlas had completed his security induction, he sat examining his knuckles, comparing one hand to the other. When he’d finished that, he turned to his palms. Unsurprisingly, the calluses on his right were harder and thicker than his left. The security guard that had recorded his fingertip biometrics had remarked on them. ‘Are you sure you’re a doctor? Your hands look like you lay bricks in your spare time.’
    Kotlas had grinned. ‘I do a lot of work with my hands.’
    The door in front of him opened. A bespectacled middle-aged man stepped through and locked it behind him. ‘Mr Kotlas, I presume?’ He closed the space between them with surprising speed and held out his hand. ‘I’m Dr Rubenstein. Philip, but we use last names around here. Welcome. I’m sorry about the delay. Control Room protocol I’m afraid. Come on through.’ He unlocked the door again. ‘I’ll escort you up to my office.’
    Rubenstein used his keys to open and close the numerous doors that barred their way. Finally, he led the younger man into a long passage around the corner.
    ‘I’ve lost my bearings a little bit,’ Kotlas said, and paused in the middle of the corridor. ‘Is this new? It’s just that I noticed a large, older building close behind where Reception would be?’
    ‘Keep moving, Kotlas.’ Rubenstein glanced at the CCTV monitors projecting from the ceiling. ‘You’ll make security nervous. To answer your question, it's a blend of new construction and the adaptation of the existing. This facility is the first of its kind in the country. Aside from those who work here, few are aware of its existence. Copse Hall is a private facility, located on a vast country estate, well away from prying eyes. Here, we hope to gain greater insight into the minds of some of the worst former juvenile killers in the world. What goes on here, is not for discussion beyond these walls,’ Rubenstein said. ‘You know, I’m envious of you, Kotlas. At your age, the possibilities of being at the cutting edge, the opportunities that will present themselves...’
    ‘We’ll see.’ Kotlas nodded thoughtfully. ‘Very quiet isn’t it?’
    ‘We have just a few patients at the moment, and the staffing levels are commensurate with that. I’ll explain further when we get to my office. Right. Here we are.’ Rubenstein stopped by a passenger lift. He placed his fingertips on the reader control. The steel sleeves of the doors slid open. They stepped inside. The doors automatically closed and they began to ascend.

    Rubenstein unlocked his office door and ushered Kotlas through. ‘There’s another reason for the facility appearing quiet. We’ve sent ten guards out to collect our star patient, from Ashmore.’
    ‘Ashmore? I worked there for a while,’ Kotlas said.
    ‘I must confess, that’s a part of why I approached you.’
    ‘So, not so much about shortage, more about provenance.’ Kotlas’ eyes narrowed. ‘Ten man security detail? Not many warrant that. I think I know the answer to my next question. What’s his name?’
    Rubenstein indicated the vacant chair. ‘Take a seat,’ he said, walking around his desk. ‘First things first. I already know a lot about you. Let’s fill in the blanks.’
    ‘No. Wait. How can you have arranged to do that without me knowing?’ Kotlas shook his head.
    Rubenstein peered over the top of his spectacles. ‘Patience, dear boy. We’ll come back to that in a few moments.’

    Ten minutes later, Rubenstein pushed away from the desk and walked to the window. He turned, and leaning against the window board, faced Kotlas. ‘Look, as far as I’m concerned, based on what we’ve discussed, the job’s yours.’
    Kotlas smiled. ‘That’s great, but you haven’t explained exactly what my role is...if I accept. Or how you managed to find out so much about me. You said this is a private company?’
    Rubenstein rubbed his lower lip with a forefinger. ‘Yes, I did.’
    ‘So tell me, who leaked the information?’
    Rubenstein strode back to his seat, sat down, propped his elbows on the desk, and clasped his hands together. ‘I want you to continue your work with Wolfe.’
    Kotlas leaned back in his chair. ‘And the leak?’
    ‘There’s no leak. All this may seem presumptuous, but if you accept, you’re cleared to begin working with us right away.’
    Kotlas pulled on the lobe of his left ear. ‘Forgive me. I just have to be sure of a few things...’
    ‘I told you, this establishment is top secret. We’re in partnership with the government. It’s an arm’s length arrangement.’
    ‘In case things go wrong,’ Kotlas said, tight-lipped. ‘And if I don’t accept?’
    ‘Someone else will. But you are our preferred option. What do you say?’
    ‘I get to continue working with Wolfe?’
    ‘Under my stewardship, yes.’ Rubenstein paused. ‘Do you accept?’
    Kotlas reached for a sheet of paper. ‘Can I?’
    ‘Of course.’ Rubenstein watched, puzzled, as Kotlas took a pen from his inside pocket and scribbled a list of notes. He pushed the paper across the desk. ‘Subject to these terms.’
    The older man took the sheet and read. ‘I can live with those things. We’ll get a contract drawn up. Now, tell me what you know about the man.’
    ‘I’m sure you know most of this already, but this is my resume. Wolfe weighed in at twenty-three pounds when he was born.’
    Rubenstein raised his eyebrows.
    ‘You didn’t know that?’
    ‘Of course I did, but hearing of such an abnormality never fails to stagger me,’ the older man said. ‘Carry on.’
    ‘I think it’s obvious he was delivered by Caesarean section. His parents were both six-footers, but neither side of the family had had a child that big before. Destined for greatness, some might say, but he was never going to have a normal life. He outgrew his parents by the time he was nine-years-old. He claims he first killed when he was ten, but there’s nothing to substantiate that. By the age of thirteen, he was uncontrollable. Killed two girls that year, and despite a massive police hunt, went on to kill five more people before they caught him. Bad isn’t it? The savagery of the killings shocked even hardened detectives. The method used pretty much the same in each case. They all had something in common. He ate bits of them. Took different parts from each. Trying different things on the menu; he told me. As you’re aware, he’s been in the system ever since.’
    ‘You’ve worked with him for the last two years. How do you see him? Mad or bad?’
    ‘What do you think?’
    ‘Kotlas, I asked you,’ Rubenstein said.
    ‘He’s had dozens of psychiatric assessments, and not one of them agrees. To me, he’s both. He sees himself as a victim of his genes.’
    ‘He does? That one is news to me,’ Rubenstein said. ‘Elaborate.’
    ‘Wolfe,’ Kotlas said softly. ‘What’s in a name, eh? It comes from his mother’s side. As you probably know, he adopted it when his father died.’
    ‘Yes, I found that strange. You’d have thought he’d want to keep his father’s name alive.’
    ‘Maybe. You also know he claims a psychic link to Jack the Ripper?’
    ‘That wasn’t taken seriously.’ Rubenstein, perhaps sensing a change in tack, viewed Kotlas with suspicion. ‘Why do you bring it up?’
    ‘Wolfe became more difficult to deal with, complaining that no one listened to him. He went berserk during a routine transfer. Bit one of the staff. He almost overpowered eight burly nurses, all of them highly trained. He ended up in seclusion for a long time. It took me ages to get through to him again.’ Kotlas moistened his lips. ‘Can I have a glass of water?’
    ‘Over there,’ Rubenstein pointed at the water-cooler. ‘Help yourself.’
    The young candidate, got to his feet, continuing to speak as he approached the machine. ‘I told him there was only one way to prove what he was saying was true.’ He filled a clear plastic cup and took a sip. ‘Submit to a DNA test.’
    ‘They went along with that at Ashmore?’ Rubenstein seemed incredulous. ‘For that to work you’d have needed a sample from the Ripper.’
    ‘There is DNA. It was recently recovered from historic samples found at the scene of one of the murders.’
    ‘I heard about that, but honestly, that semen could have come from anyone.’
    ‘That’s what they said at Ashmore, but I wanted to take it further, if only to get Wolfe to see that what he was experiencing had no basis in fact.’
    ‘Did they relent?’
    ‘No. I took some of Wolfe’s hair. It wasn’t hard; he consented. I sent it for independent testing.’
    ‘I’m going to stop you there, Kotlas. What you did is in contravention--'
    ‘Hear me out, Rubenstein,’ he said harshly.
    The older man, reddened, unaccustomed to being addressed in such a manner.
    ‘I’m sorry. But guess what? It was a match. He’s related. Now you can argue till you’re blue in the face that it may not be the Ripper’s DNA, but even if it isn’t, what are the odds of Wolfe’s sample coming up positive? Answer me that? And what is even more bizarre, I read somewhere that the Ripper had a taste for blood, and that certain body parts were missing from his victims. The official line from those days, was that he’d taken them as trophies, but I now believe he ate them. Maybe blood thirst runs in the genes, and if we accept that, it could be where Wolfe gets it from.’
    Rubenstein stared, measuring the younger man. ‘It seems you’re not above a little experimentation yourself, Kotlas.’ He stood abruptly and strode around the desk, offering his hand. ‘Welcome aboard.’

     


    Chapter 7

    St Michael’s Church.

    Timothy Salter looped a piece of string around the stems of the wildflowers he'd collected and tied it. Every year he performed the same ritual, increasing the number of species collected by one. He had to find twenty-seven this time.
    Kneeling on the grass by the grave, he put them in the vase he’d filled with water earlier. He teased the spray of multi-coloured blooms to best effect, the delicate reds of Burning Love fashioned into a heart-shaped centre piece, then placed the vase on the weathered Yorkstone slab at the foot of the headstone. He shuffled in close and ran his outstretched fingertips over the letters carved in the light riven face.

    Russell Timothy Salter July 8, 1955 - Aug. 9, 1987
    May Marie Salter May 31, 1956 - Aug. 9, 1987
    Sarah Grace Salter Feb. 29, 1976 - Aug. 10, 1987

    Tragically taken...

    On a tour of the graveyard soon after Father Raymond had provided him with shelter, he’d told him how the grandparents of the little girl had arrived from Australia to bury their daughter, only to discover Sarah, their grandchild, had died tragically the next day. Timothy’s parents had been murdered in the early hours of the Sunday morning on their way home from a night out. All three had gone into the same grave.
    ‘The tragedy was their grandson had disappeared, and despite an investigation by the police, the little boy was never seen again. They paid for the plot to be deep enough for the boy,’ the priest had said. ‘Not that they expected him to be found dead. The grandmother said she hoped he’d find out where they’d been buried one day. And if he chose, when his time came, he could be buried there, too.’

    Timothy marked the anniversary each year only on the day Sarah had died. He carried her more in his heart than his parents. Head bowed, he crossed himself and prayed in silence, remembering her and what he could of his mum and dad.

    ‘Why were you screaming in your sleep last night, Timmy?’ Sarah asked.
    ‘I can’t remember,’ he’d replied.
    The two of them were laid alongside each other outside, in the garden at home, on the lawn. Sarah plucked a blade of grass and carefully stood it between her thumbs. Holding it firm. She blew over it gently, producing a low, reedy sound.
    He’d plucked a blade for himself and tried it, but only succeeded in dribbling.
    ‘Here, Timmy,’ Sarah said, ‘let me show you.’
    And he’d watched her and he’d learned. Soon, they played a chorus of screeching notes before falling about, overcome by laughter. Sarah laid on her back. ‘Timmy,’ she said.
    ‘What?’
    Sarah blew a devastating shriek. He tried to match it. And on and on they went.

    Five minutes later, their mother came out. ‘What’s all that awful noise?’
    He and Sarah giggled.
    ‘Pack it in, before the neighbours complain.’
    In the quiet moments that followed, remembering his nightmare, he became sombre.
    ‘What is it Timmy?’
    ‘I just remembered what I dreamt about,’ He began to wail. ‘I got lost and I couldn’t find any of you.’
    Sarah sidled up close and put her arm around his shoulders. ‘Timmy, if you ever get lost, just do this.’ She blew between her thumbs. The blade of grass screamed its song into the air. ‘And no matter where you are, if I hear it, I’ll find you.’ She smiled. ‘Better now?’
    ‘Oi, you two.’ Their father stood, hands on hips in the doorway. ‘Your mum says, stop making that racket and get inside for your supper.’

    Timothy plucked a blade of grass, clamped it top and bottom between his thumbs the way Sarah had shown him years ago, and replicated the sound he’d heard her blow.
    No one came.

     

    I hope you enjoyed the preview and if you did, don't forget the book is available on Sept. 29, 2015.

    To pre-order The Night of The mosquito click here.

     

  9. I've sold kindle books in every other country, but never Mexico. Not even for free. I have a free promotion running over the next few days and though it's early, I've had sales in all the other countries so far except the Netherlands, Brazil and, you guessed it - Mexico. Still a few days to go. I'm wondering if I'll break the duck. In truth, it highlights the potential benefits of a Spanish translation. I'm told it's a huge market...

    For anyone interested, after fourteen and a half hours, the free download figures worldwide are 1888, of which 1641 are for the USA. Be interesting to see how the free sales convert back to paid.

  10. Going back over my notes from around five years ago, I was surprised to see that the story I referred to in my last post was written in the present tense. In those early days, I thought it worked quite well, but then I recalled what happened as I neared the end of my first novel, The Sister. I came to the conclusion, after one hundred and fifty thousand words, that the story would be better told in past tense. So I changed it. Half way through the change I began to think it was better as it was and should have left it alone. I had a back up copy, of course, but in the end I persevered. I rewrote scenes I probably wouldn't have touched if I'd let the book be. I now believe the time taken carrying out the revisions, resulted in a stronger storyline and therefore a better book.

  11. Apart from facebook and twitter, I haven't blogged very much before. The freedom to use unlimited characters is somewhat daunting.

    My first attempt at blogging a few years ago met with little success. I decided to try blogging a ghost story as it was written, live so to speak and post an episode when I'd written each one. It was experimental, in that I'm not sure it was a conventional blog. I had to fiddle around with the timeline - so what looked like it was written later - was in fact written earlier.

    Also, it wasn't a conventional story, but grew out of the desire to record a diary of real events that at some point became fictionionalized - well some of it anyway.

    I posted an episode every day or two of somewhere between five hundred and a thousand words. The work was not finally polished, edited only two or three times to try to retain the feel of a story unfolding on the hoof. 

    It proved to be a useful exercise. What emerged were the bones of an unpublished story, entitled, The Man in Brown. I will in the course of the next few days add the first few chapters, and I look forward to engaging with a wider audience, as and when the story progresses.