‘Bodmin Beast Body Count Reaches Fifty’.
Charley had scrawled the potential headline in her notebook. It was a sensational headline, an alliterative headline, and fifty was a solid, attention-grabbing number. It was, in fact, the kind of headline that could transport a regional journalist from the back of beyond to Fleet Street.
Don’t get ahead of yourself, Charley told herself, sitting in a farmhouse living room in a remote corner of Bodmin Moor and preparing to delve into the finer details of the story.
On the coffee table between her and farmer Daniel Penrose was a tea tray with a plate of digestives and two untouched cups of tea on it. Neither she nor Daniel were inclined towards refreshments, however.
“They should declare an emergency, lass,” Daniel was saying, pacing furiously up and down the living room. “No one cares what happened to my brother.”
“We at the Cornwall Gazette care,” Charley assured him, putting as sincere an inflexion into her voice as she could. “Now, why not tell me all about your brother’s death and the deaths of the previous forty-nine victims?”
Daniel stopped pacing and took the armchair opposite her. “My brother, Solomon Penrose, that’s S-O-L-O-M-O-N, was a keen local historian,” he began. “From the Cornwall Records and Archives Office in Truro, he discovered that in 28 AD, sixty Roman legionnaires, and that included their commanders, were sent to subdue unrest in the Cornish tin mines on the north-west coast. Their route took them across Bodmin Moor. Only fifteen legionnaires returned, survivors not of a rebellion, but of a ferocious beast.”
“So, this beast is nearly two thousand years old,” Charley said, incredulously, trying not to laugh out loud at her host’s dramatic narration of what appeared to be some local superstition.
“Perhaps the Beast breeds in the wildest, most inaccessible corners of the moor,” Daniel explained. “Or perhaps it’s a creature of preternatural origin. Sightings have been well documented down the years.”
Yeah! Documented by crackpots! thought Charley.
“After the forty-five legionnaires who got slaughtered by this beast,” Daniel continued, “there are five more recorded deaths. They occurred from Victorian times up to modern day, and include that of my brother, less than a week ago. All the victims were badly mauled, and their bodies were surrounded by the enormous paw prints of some terrible monster.”
Despite herself, Charley could not help rolling her eyes. Realising her error, she opened her mouth to apologise. But the farmer ignored her discourtesy. Instead, he rose abruptly from his seat. “Let’s head up onto the moor,” he said. “I’ll show you where Solomon met his end. Bring your bag of tricks with yer.”
A jolty, fifteen-minute ride aboard an antiquated Land Rover, followed by a short yet tiring uphill hike, brought them to Penrose Tor. Amongst the tufted grass, sheep were nonchalantly grazing.
“First off, we lost a sheep with its throat torn out a month back. Then another, then another,” said Daniel. “That’s when Solomon took to coming up here of an evening with his shotgun. It became his obsession to rid the moor of its legendary Beast. One night though, he didn’t return home to the farm. I found him next morning, sprawled out on the promontory yonder, his still-loaded shotgun beside him. His throat had been ripped open and the grass about him was all stained red.”
Taking long shallow breaths to keep her stomach contents down, Charley opened her ‘bag of tricks’ and took out a mini-drone. She sent the camera-carrying device flying overhead, and all the time checked the view on her phone screen. She was looking for animal trails or for any other signs of the folkloric beast. Instead, an L-shaped feature appeared, stretched out on the ground directly below the mini-drone.
“Looks like there’s something beneath the ground’s surface,” she surmised. “The broken-down wall and foundations of an old building, maybe. The roots of the grass above the brickwork would have less access to water, so the blades of grass on the surface become stunted. This allows the wall outlines to show up in aerial pictures.”
Daniel’s eyes widened in fear when he viewed the screen and saw an ‘L’ seemingly etched into the hillside. “It’s a sign,” he said. “An omen boding ill luck. ‘L’ is not just a letter. It’s also the Roman numeral fifty, same as the number of those who’ve died in the jaws of the Beast.” He eyed the surrounding countryside, uneasily. “We’d best hurry back, lass.”
Charley landed the drone and packed it away in her bag. But before she and Daniel could descend to the Land Rover, a creeping mist arose from the lower regions of the moor, engulfing them. Suddenly fearful, Charley strained her ears. Was that a snuffling, grunting sound she could hear? Squinting into the swirls of reduced visibility, she made out the vague shape of a huge, four-legged creature slinking through the cold, grey air. She turned to Daniel, but the farmer had already moved off ahead of her, deeper into the mist. Before she could call out his name, a scream resounded, seemingly coming from everywhere, echoing hollowly off the promontories all around.
Charley took to her heels, downward, ever downward, stumbling, tripping, and at times falling and rolling across the ground, until at nightfall she came to a village. The bleary lights, shining through mist-dimmed windows, were beacons of salvation.
After Daniel Penrose’s violent death and an inconclusive police investigation citing a feral dog as the chief suspect, Charley found herself one night checking the Penrose Tor area of Cornwall on Google Maps. The unusual feature her drone had filmed looked somewhat different to how she recalled it, however. It had changed from an ‘L’ to an ‘L’ and an ‘I’ — the Roman numerals for fifty-one.
Paul A. Freeman authored Rumours of Ophir, a crime novel taught at ‘O’ level in Zimbabwean high schools. There are no cats in the book.