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The interactive novel is set in Victorian Britain and follows the journals of Nigel Briggs, assistant to Professor Ashcroft debunker of the supernatural. Below is the opening chapters of The Case Of The Stolen Dead. This extract is for you to enjoy before the interactive novel really beings on the 28th of October.
The Journals of Nigel Briggs
THE CASE OF THE STOLEN DEAD
ROBERT J. SMITH
Copyright © Robert J. Smith 2018
Wednesday, 25th April 1860
Bruce McTavish called it proper Scottish weather. I called it ruddy freezing. It was the end of April, yet it felt like the middle of January. The day was overcast with a bitter wind that tugged at my garments and bit at the exposed skin of my face. Following Bruce up the twisting sheep trail I buried my head in the folds of my jacket trying to find some relief from the wind. Not concentrating on the path my foot slipped on a patch of mud. I flailed my arms trying to right myself. My foot slid out from underneath me and I was sent tumbling down the steep bank to my left. I came to a halt a in a clump of thistles.
“You all right down there?” Bruce McTavish asked from the sheep track ten feet above me.
“I’m fine,” I said brushing the bits of grass and dirt from my coat. Clutching the long grass for support I scrambled back up the bank on my hands and knees. Not for the first time I cursed the Professor. While I endured the cold, dampness of the Scottish Highlands, he remained in London surrounded by the warm comforts of home. Reaching the sheep track Bruce offered me his hand and pulled me to my feet.
“You took a mighty tumble,” Bruce said. He was sixteen with long muscular limbs and thick red hair. Patchy ginger fluff covered his face in a feeble excuse for a beard. He carried a loaded rifle, claiming we needed it for protection. “You sure you’re all right to continue?”
“How much further have we got to go?”
“Not far now.” It was his default response for whenever I asked. He pointed to the top of the closest hill. “The loch is on the other side of that peak. You sure an English city boy like you can get up there?”
“Just take me to where you saw it.”
The spectacular scenery almost made up for the cold. Amongst the rolling mountains Bruce and I were the only people for miles. We crossed the crest of the hill and began to descend into the valley on the other side. At the base of the valley was a long narrow loch stretching towards the hazy hills in the distance. The water, a grey mirror of the afternoon sky, rippled in the strong breeze.
Bruce stopped halfway down the hill amongst a rocky outcrop. He pointed to a thin pebble beach at the water’s edge. “That’s where I saw it.”
Trying to get out of the wind I crouched beside a large boulder protruding from the grass. I brushed the rock clean and placed my notepad upon its surface. “What did you see?”
“It was early evening and I was checking on the sheep. We had a few ewes out on the hills ready to bring back down to the farm to lamb. I was standing right here when I spotted a sheep down by the loch. I started to walk down to it when I saw the water rippling. Then a monster came out of the loch and grabbed the sheep.”
“Then what happened?”
“I didn’t stay to find out. I ran for home. When I looked again from the top of the hill the sheep was gone. The monster had dragged it into the water.”
I looked down at the grey water in the loch. Was it possible that it harboured such a creature?
Of course not. That was why the Professor had sent me. He had taken one look at the report, dismissed it as a waste of his time, and sent me as his representative.
“And this monster that grabbed the sheep, what did it look like?”
Bruce looked off into the distance. “I only got a brief glimpse.”
“Just describe it the best you can.”
“It had a long head. A bit like a horse.”
“Like a horse?”
“Aye, just like a horse, but a longer and thinner snout. It was a kelpie. No doubt about it.”
“A kelpie?” I repeated.
My scepticism must have shown because Bruce nodded his head ardently. “Aye, defiantly a kelpie. They’re water spirits that live in the rivers and lochs. They can take the shape of a man or horse. In horse form they trick people to climb on to their back before running into the nearest source of water. If you’re lucky they will disappear after jumping into the water just leaving you wet. But sometimes they will drown you or rip you to shreds before eating you.”
“And you are certain you saw a kelpie?”
“Aye, as certain as there is water in that loch.”
I looked up at the sky to get my bearing. From our position the loch was directly to the west. Bruce claimed to have seen the creature in the early evening just as the sun would have been setting over the loch. The long shadows and the shimmer of the sun on the water could have easily produced the illusion of something emerging from the water.
“What do you know about the people that have disappeared?” I asked. The report of people disappearing in the area was the real reason for my visit, not even the Professor would send me all the way to Scotland to investigate a missing sheep.
“Ever since anyone can remember people have gone missing in the area. A few years back the McCone lad disappeared. He was last seen playing near the water.” He pointed to where the loch was concealed by a neighbouring hill. “You can’t see it from here, but there is a river at the far end. A couple of months back a traveller was walking along the road. He was last seen crossing the bridge over the river. Like all the others he was taken by the kelpie.”
The disappearances were more plausibly explained by the missing having the misfortune of drowning rather than falling victim to a beast of superstition. I put the notepad back into my pocket and stood up. I stared out at the loch. The Professor had insisted I prove that there was no such thing as a kelpie. Easier said than done. Somehow, I had to disprove the existence of creature that did not exist.
“Tomorrow I’m going to need a dead sheep, a couple of gallons of blood, and a boat,” I said looking out over the loch.
“What on earth for?”
I turned to him and smiled. “I fancy a spot of fishing.”
Thursday, 26th April 1860
“This is utter madness,” Bruce said dipping the oars into the water.
“You didn’t have to come,” I reminded him.
“And who would have rowed you out to the middle of the loch?” Having the benefit of growing up on a farm Bruce possessed a physical strength that I lacked. He manned the oars with smooth disciplined strokes that I had failed to replicate on my turn.
“I would have managed on my own,” I said.
“Aye and when you came a cropper I would have your death on my conscience. If you’re mad enough to try such a thing, you will be glad that you had Bruce McTavish to watch your back.”
I turned back to the prow with a small smile on my lips. Bruce feared that we were risking our lives. He was convinced that my plan to fish for the loch monster was an act of lunacy. I happened to agree, but only because there was no such creature. Ahead of us was a day sitting in the boat waiting for nothing to happen.
“This will do,” I said once were about five hundred feet from the shore.
We couldn’t have picked a better day to waste. There was not a cloud in the sky. The warm sun shimmered off the water and for the first time since leaving London I was enjoying myself.
I leaned over the edge of the prow and stared down into the greyish green water. “How deep do you think it is?”
Bruce grabbed the back of my coat and pulled me back into the boat. “It’s not safe to be sticking your head over the edge like that,” he warned. “If you’re going to do it at least wait until I have a gun in my hand.”
Humouring him I nodded and sat back down in the boat. I waited until he had stowed the oars and picked up his rifle before taking the lid off the five-gallon drum. With the gentle bobbing of the boat the sheep blood within sloshed up the sides of the drum. I ladled six cups of blood into the loch.
“Do you think this is going to work?” Bruce asked. He stood in the middle of the boat his rifle pointed at the bloody slick in the water.
“When hunting sharks, they ladle blood into the sea to attract them,” I explained. “The principle should be the same. If the kelpie is a predator it should possess a strong sense of smell. The blood will act as a lure bringing it to us. When it takes the bait, we will hook it and bring it in.”
“This boat is not big enough.”
“We will be fine.” If for one second I believed in the possibility of catching a kelpie I certainly would not have come out in a small rowing boat barely big enough for four people.
I took the large hook from the bottom of the boat, checked the line was secure, and then baited the hook with the head of a sheep. We were hunting for a monster so needed a bit more than a handful of worms as bait. The head had begun to rot so I eagerly threw it into the water followed by forty feet of line. Before Bruce could protest I dipped my hands into the water to wash the foul smell from them. I ladled another few cups of blood into the water, checked that the rod was securely mounted to the prow of the boat, and then sat back to wait.
Bruce remained standing for half an hour and then as nothing had happened sat down. “Have you ever done anything like this before?”
“This is the first time I have ever fished for a lake monster,” I admitted ladling more blood into the water. “Although I have faced other… let’s just say dangers before.”
I still couldn’t sleep without a lit candle beside my bed. Two months had passed since the incident in the Potteries, but it felt like yesterday. It didn’t help that prior to my trip to Scotland the Professor had me rewriting the notes of the incident at the Field’s Fine China Factory. The process had revived many of my fears of the dark. To my dismay, the Professor had stricken all accounts of the wraith being a supernatural entity from the documentation. He claims it was a hoax, yet he has failed to provide a rational explanation for what we saw and experienced the night of Gerry Lowe’s death.
Two hours passed and as expected there was no sign of the mythical creature. After ladling more blood into the water, there was only about a gallon left, I decided to stop for lunch. I was laying a slice of bread with lumps of hard cheese when I noticed Bruce’s eyes widen.
“Did you see that?” he asked.
I followed his gaze to a circle of spreading ripples about sixty feet away. “What did you see?”
“Just the water beginning to ripple,” Bruce said standing up for a better look.
“Probably a fish breaking the surface.”
“Aye could be,” he said unconvinced.
Suddenly the boat rocked violently towards the starboard side before rolling back. It felt as if we had been struck by a giant wave. Bruce stumbled backwards. He flailed his arms trying to remain in the boat. He kept his balance at the cost of his hold on the rifle. The gun flew from his grasp and splashed into the water. Before he could grab it, the rifle sunk down into the depths.
“The gun!” Bruce cried. “My father’s going to kill me.”
“What did we hit?” I asked. We were several hundred feet from the shore in water far too deep for us to have hit a rock.
“It was the kelpie!”
“It might have been…”
“It wasn’t a fish,” Bruce interrupted reaching for the oars. “We got get back to land!”
The fishing line jerked on the rod. I watched in disbelief as the excess line began to fly off the reel. Something had taken the bait. The line pulled taunt with enough force to drag the prow of the boat down into the water. Whatever had taken the hook was powerful. I expected the line or the rod to break; instead the boat began to move in the water.
Cursing Bruce took to the oars like he was possessed. But for all his effort the boat moved further away from the shore.
“Cut it lose!” Bruce cried. No sooner had he uttered the words the line went slack. The prow of the boat righted, and Bruce slumped in his seat relieved.
“The line broke,” I said reeling in the slack line. I reeled in about ten feet and then began to feel resistance of something pulling back. “Bruce, I think we still got it.”
Bruce looked horrified.
“Cut the line,” he said reaching for his knife.
“Let’s not be too hasty,” I said. “What if it really is a kelpie we got on the other end?”
“Then we have to cut it free before it attacks us.”
“Or we try and land the creature.”
“Are you mad? We don’t have the gun if things go wrong.”
I was not to be deterred. I could see the rewards of catching the creature. All I had to do was persuade Bruce. “But what if we landed the creature? Just think of what that would mean. We would prove the existence of the kelpie. You would be famous. Your face would be on the front of every paper. You would be a hero amongst the scientific community. Who knows, you might even be knighted. Just imagine Sir Bruce McTavish.”
“Aye and I suppose there would be a Sir Nigel Briggs as well?”
“I’m not going to let you have all the glory.” Especially if it meant proving the Professor was wrong. I was still bitter about his denial of the wraith’s existence. He would not be able to deny the body of kelpie. All we had to do was get the thing out of the water.
Bruce bit his lip. “Say I agree, how do we bring the beast in?”
“It will be a fight, but if we take our time and pull it in slowly the creature will get exhausted. Then when it’s weak we row back to land and drag it ashore. I can’t do this without you. So, what do you say? Shall we catch this creature?”
Bruce glanced at the edge of the loch six hundred feet away, then nodded slowly. “Aye let’s give it a go. But I want your word that if things get out of hand you will cut the line.”
“You have my word,” I said reaching for the rod.
With rod bending and my arms burning against the strain I slowly reeled the line in. Several times my quarry fought back pulling against the line with enough strength to unspool the reel. Bruce watched with his knife in hand ready at moment’s notice to cut the line. He did not offer once to take the rod. He had made it clear that as it was my plan it was up to me to land the creature. When I reminded him about the glory he just smiled and said he was saving his energy for rowing us back in.
An hour passed and although my biceps felt as if they were going to burst, I at last felt like I was making progress. The creature on the other end of the line was no longer fighting as hard. At times I could reel several feet of line in before it fought back. It was tiring, but so was I. This fight would come down to who could last the longest.
Suddenly something crashed into the hull from below with enough force to lift the whole boat clear of the water. The boat dropped back down with a splash, drenching us in freezing water.
“W-w-what hap- hap- happened?” Bruce stammered.
Before I could reply something thudded against the bottom of the boat. A crack appeared in the boards between Bruce and me. Water began seeping around our feet.
“It’s trying to sink us!” Bruce yelled. He passed me his knife. “Cut it free!”
I didn’t argue. I reached for the line as the creature struck the hull again. The boards split, and a long snout burst through the bottom of the boat. Its mouth opened to reveal staggered dagger like teeth. The mottled greyish brown skin was smooth like the skin of an amphibian. I could see the hook embedded into the palate at the top of the mouth. The crocodilian like jaws closed and the snout disappeared back into the water.
Water surged through the hole filling the bottom of the boat. Within seconds the water was up to my ankles. Bruce was trying to bail it out with his cupped hands. I reached for the line. The knife sliced through the line freeing the creature. I hoped it would swim away. But it didn’t. The snout smashed back through the hole in the boat. The gaping jaws flailed around as the creature blindly hunted for something to latch on too. Bruce swung an oar down on to the snout. The jaws clamped shut shattering the oar into splinters.
The water was up to our knees and with only one oar there was no chance we would manage to get the boat back to shore. We only had one option. “We’re going to have to swim for it.”
“I’m not going to get in the water with that thing,” Bruce said. Between us the jaws thrashed from side to side as it tried to grab us.
“We’re already in the water,” I said. “We either swim for it while it’s busy or wait until the boat has sunk.”
Bruce paled but began striping down to his undergarments. Undressing I threw my discarded clothes at the jaws. The jaws snapped shut tearing my clothes to shreds, but it tricked the creature into thinking that it was succeeding in catching something and remaining in the boat.
“Are you ready?” I asked. Bruce nodded, and we jumped into the water.
I shuddered at the icy sting. I heard Bruce gasp beside me. Without looking at him or the boat I swam for the shore. It would not take the monster long to realise we were in the water. We had drifted to within two hundred feet from the shore, a distance that would take me a couple of minutes to swim. How long would it take an aquatic monster to swim the same distance? Half the time? A quarter of the time?
I didn’t want to think about it. Images of jaws grabbing my legs from below filled my mind. I tried to forget about the creature and concentrate on maintaining my crawl. After what felt like an eternity my hands slapped against mud. I stumbled to my feet and I was in knee high water. Only then did I look back.
Bruce was about fifty feet away, swimming with an inefficient doggy paddle. A hundred and fifty feet beyond him the tip of the boat’s prow poked out of the water. The rest of the boat was submerged. There was no sign of the monster.
Then a large hump broke the surface beside the boat. The moisture in my throat dried as the hump turned towards Bruce.
“Hurry up!” I screamed.
Bruce glanced over his shoulder and saw the approaching hump. He thrashed in the water trying to go faster. With every foot he swam the hump was traveling four. Bruce reached waist depth water. He gave up with swimming. Using his arms, he pushed the water aside fighting his way towards me. I willed him on as the creature drew closer.
Then Bruce raced past me. The hump continued forward as the creature targeted me. Drawing into the shallows the hump rose out of the water. I frantically backpedalled as the creature drew within striking range.
I was hit by a wave of foam and spray as the creature surged up on to the shore.
I fell on to my backside just beyond the reach of the snapping jaws as the creature beached itself in front of me. Its head was similar in shape to a crocodile with large yellow eyes. It had a large humped body and instead of legs had four flippers each as long as a man.
In its rage the creature’s jaws snapped at me but I was beyond its reach. Realising we had escaped, the creature shuffled backwards into the water. It moved ungainly in the shallows, but once in deep enough water the creature submerged in a circle of ripples. One by one the ripples disappeared and the creature was gone.
Bruce sat down beside me. “Next time you listen to me and keep to fishing for fish.”
Find out how to read more of the Journals of Nigel Biggs here The Journals of Nigel Briggs