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.’
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.’
‘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?’
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.
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.
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?
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.
No, something bigger than that.
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.
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.
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