David Wood, Alan Baxter


Chapter 1

“Come on. Show yourself, my darling.” Steven Sweeney crouched in front of the monitor and gazed at the tiny screen displaying the feed from his underwater camera. He saw nothing but murky water with flecks of silt suspended in front of the lens. This was proving to be a waste of time. How many nights had he sat here waiting for something, anything, to happen? Too many to count and too much money wasted. “Sorry, Melanie.” The ghost of a smile played across his face as he whispered his ex-wife’s name. “No alimony payment again this month.” Not that she cared. Her new boyfriend was taking better care of her than Sweeney ever had, as she loved to remind him.

Sighing he stepped out of the tent, stretched, and knuckled the small of his back. If anything did appear on-screen, he’d see it later when he reviewed the recordings, though his hopes weren’t high on that score. In any case, he could take no more sitting around. It was time to take an active approach, even if it proved equally fruitless. He strapped on his headlamp, set the light to red, and took a walk along the shoreline.

He’d come to Lake Kaarme with such high hopes. His research had been solid and the tales spun by the locals were consistent enough to encourage him, yet with enough variation that it didn’t sound like a false mythology crafted to draw in tourists. Leave that foolishness to Loch Ness. Of course, Kaarme could hardly be called a tourist town. Three gulps into his first ale at the local pub he’d learned he was the first out-of-towner to visit in weeks. Apparently the occasional tourist bus would pass through, sometimes stop for one night and move on, but not often. He’d overcome the locals’ suspicion of his motives by posing as a professor who collected stories and legends. That usually went over better than ‘cryptid hunter’.

He continued along the shore of the lake, which loomed before him, a dull slate gray beneath on overcast night sky. Somewhere behind the blanket of clouds lurked the full moon. The stories held that this was feeding time for the creature that skulked within the dark waters.

After twenty minutes of walking, he stopped to rest on a rocky shoal. The cold stone sapped warmth from his flesh, but he didn’t care. The feeling of hopelessness made him hot under the collar. As he took deep breaths to restore his calm, he let his head fall. Had he failed again? It certainly looked like it and, if so, his investor would not be pleased. Sweeney had poured so much of his own finances into the project, so sure he’d be able to reclaim it all from the rich benefactor once he had evidence. It was a dangerous game. The man had the power to utterly destroy Sweeney if he wished.

It wasn’t just that he hadn’t yet found the proof he was seeking. The problem was, he hadn’t found anything at all. He’d dug up a few nuggets of information from the town’s odd, white-haired storyteller, and even pried a couple of details from the resident cryptid hunter, or troll hunter as he called himself, who seemed to know what Sweeney was about, but that was it. He buried his face in his hands and let out a small groan. What was he going to do now?

He opened his eyes and scanned the sandy, rock-strewn shore. He sat up straight. There was something about the lay of the land just a few feet away that caught his attention. Heart racing, but afraid to get his hopes up, he stood and took a few tentative steps closer.

Here, the shore had been smoothed out in the shape of a large, shallow bowl. His eyes traced the smooth bottom where stones the size of lemons had been pressed down into the soft ground by something extremely heavy. On the far side, a wide track, more of a scrape, led back into the water.

“Oh my God!”

He’d found a wallow, and a huge one. So big he’d looked right past it. Whatever had left these marks was larger than any creature known to live in the lake. Unable to believe his luck, he pulled out a small Panasonic Lumix digital camera. It was a pocket model, designed for holiday snaps more than anything else, but it would do for now. He’d return to camp, retrieve his Canon 5D, and come back for some serious pictures in the morning. He began to take a series of shots, moving all around, careful not to tread on the marks, taking photos from all angles. Each click felt like money in the bank. Regardless of what happened during the rest of his time here, this would serve as the proof he needed to keep his investor at bay. He might even be able to sell the images to some of the more esoteric publications. Even the online ones would pay for quality photos. There was his contract to circumvent, of course, but he could find a way around it. If nothing else, he’d use a pseudonym.

He paused, thoughts of a bank balance of more than three figures setting his thoughts spinning. He smiled, but it quickly dissolved as the gentle breeze carried a familiar smell, metallic and slightly sweet, to his nostrils. Blood.

He switched his lamp to full beam and looked around until he spotted the source. A deer carcass lay ten paces away. More accurately, a deer head and neck lay in a dark patch on the ground. Sweeney didn’t need to take a closer look to see that it had not been severed cleanly from the body. The flesh was ragged, as if it had been ripped away.

He took a step back, and then another, sudden fear clouding his mind, considering the amount of force that would be required to do such a thing. He mentally scrolled through his list of theories regarding the source of the legend of the lake, and none of them fit the bill. This was interesting.

A sharp chill jerked him out of his moment of panic and he realized with chagrin that he’d stepped back into the water. His flesh tingled from the lake’s chill touch.

“Well, that’s refreshing.”

He didn’t bother to wade back out. As long as he was already wet, he might as well get a few shots of the wallow from this angle, and then move on to the carcass. He raised his camera but lowered it immediately.

He had neither heard nor seen a thing, but felt as though something were suddenly amiss. The cold sensation in his legs climbed to his chest and with it the conviction that he should not be here.

“You’re being a child, Sweeney.”

The sound of his voice in the quiet night gave him a measure of courage. Again he raised the camera and resumed his work.

The sensation hit him again and this time he knew exactly what it was. The water was moving, swirling about his calves. He looked down to see ripples, as if from a boat wake, wash onto the shore and begin to fill the wallow. But what could cause such a disturbance on this calm night? There was no wind. If there were boats, he’d have heard them.

A soft splash behind caused him to whirl around, camera held out in front of him like a shield. Every fiber of his being told him to scream, but the sound was trapped in his throat with his breath. All he saw was a gaping deep red maw, long, curving teeth, and cascading water. And then there was nothing but pain.

Chapter 2

Sam Aston checked his watch, wavering sunlight from the surface glinting across its beveled glass. Fifteen minutes before noon. He looked up through the stream of bubbles rising from his respirator and the crystal clear water above him to the shadow of the boat’s hull, floating about a hundred and fifty feet west of his position. Visibility was good to the coral horizon, shimmering the palest blue. It would be hot as hell when he got back up there. If he got back up there.

He shifted position in the narrow wedge of reef, careful not to cut himself. Coral wounds could get infected quicker than a croc could snap its jaws shut. And in the Far North Queensland climate, infections were more dangerous than most anywhere else in Australia. But truthfully, the real threat to Sam Aston right now was the tiger shark circling not twenty feet away. Its bluish skin and white underbelly made it an excellent predator, allowing it to circle above its prey, blending into the sunlit waters just below the surface. This creature’s trademark stripes were faded, marking it as well into adulthood.

It flicked its tail to jet past for the twentieth time. There was no way he could out-swim it to the boat. He might have spent most of his adult life in the water, a marine biologist since university, and he might be in great shape, but not great enough to tussle with a hungry tiger shark. Other predators were around, white and black-tip coral sharks, but they were no threat. And even they kept their distance from the striped killer, which was well known to eat pretty much anything, even its own kind on occasion. And this was a big one. The species could reach sixteen feet and this fine specimen had to be at least twelve feet, which made it twice as long as Aston himself. And his fast-reducing air bubbling upward was keeping it interested. The professional scientist in him couldn’t help but marvel at its beauty, the perfection of its evolution. But the man, the soft, vulnerable, fleshy individual that was Sam Aston, became increasingly concerned.

He looked to the mesh bag hanging from his weight belt and the gold glinting within. It was not unusual for him to supplement his marine biology with a little relic hunting, not to mention the occasional less than mainstream dalliance with nefarious folk. The sciences were his first love, but they paid poorly, and a bit of freelancing helped cover the bills. And just at the moment, he h ...