This is the Preface and Chapter One of Alice Westlake’s book which you can download free to read on your Kindle or mobile device. Find out more about Alice — buy the full ebook here.
When their car breaks down on a remote Highland road, Martin, Esther and their mother take refuge at a lonely loch-side guesthouse. Are the other guests just trying to spook them? Or could there be some truth in rumours that a monster lives beneath the dark, rippling surface of the loch – a monster that has claimed two lives already?
Esther and Martin are determined to uncover the facts about the mysterious ‘loch monster’ deaths. But what starts as an adventure quickly takes a strange and sinister turn, as they realise they are part of a plot that just keeps getting thicker. Why are the beds all empty at night? Who is the mysterious red-headed stranger? What is the significance of the symbol in the art gallery? And who can they really trust?
The longer they stay, the more Martin and Esther begin to realise that no-one is quite who they say they are… and that someone really doesn’t want them to leave.
The sense of menace builds layer upon layer as the children start to unravel the web of intrigue… and then comes crashing over their heads in the final action-packed denouement.
Chapter One — Another Boring Loch
The lake glinted darkly through tight clusters of pine trees along its shore. In fact the trees were so thick-set that they seemed to loom menacingly at passers-by on the deserted road, like youths on a lonely street corner. Esther shivered a little and huddled further into the car seat. She was always ready for an adventure, and this holiday had offered plenty – wild camping on the shores of Loch Monar, making fires, climbing trees and paddling in ice-cold mountain streams – but even she was glad they weren’t stopping here for the night.
Her brother Martin had his head stuck in a book as usual. It was amazing he didn’t make himself car sick. This one was a mystery about a missing Egyptian scroll. Esther watched as he absent-mindedly pushed his glasses up his nose and turned a page. Martin was ten, and a bookworm, but his lips still twitched silently as he read.
‘Esther, don’t wind your brother up!’ said mum without even looking in the rear-view mirror.
‘I didn’t say anything!’ protested Esther.
‘You didn’t need to,’ mum said.
Martin glanced up from his book, and then down to the foot-well behind mum’s seat, where his sister’s pale shins stuck out of her walking boots.
‘And Martin don’t kick your sister,’ mum said without missing a beat.
A green road sign whizzed by.
‘Fort Augustus 30 miles!’ groaned Martin. ‘I thought you said we were nearly there.’
‘Nearlyish. It should only be about another three quarters of an hour-’ (mum ignored the indignant cries of ‘three quarters of an hour!’) ‘- but the thing is, I’m getting really worried about our lack of fuel. There’s supposed to be a petrol station somewhere along this road.’
‘This journey’s going on for ever,’ complained Esther.
‘Don’t worry, it’s going to stop very soon if we run out of petrol,’ said Martin. Maybe it was the heat in the car, or the boredom of the journey, but for some reason they both found this inexplicably hilarious. Giggles turned into guffaws, and guffaws into side-clutching laughter of the kind that makes you have to gasp for breath.
Mum didn’t find it funny at all. She frowned, and glanced at the fuel guage again.
Eventually, with a supreme effort, Esther stopped laughing and began rummaging for her asthma inhaler.
Martin gave a little hiccup and proclaimed, ‘My tummy’s full up from laughing!’
Then the car gave a hiccup too.
Just one at first, then a couple more, and then suddenly it was kangaroo-jumping wildly all over the road, and Martin and Esther fell around in fits of laughter again, and then finally, with a whirr like a hoover being turned off, the engine died and the wheels crunched to a standstill on the gravel road-side.
There was a stunned silence.
‘Well that’s done it,’ said mum, after a while. Esther and Martin collapsed in giggles for a third time, but stopped abruptly when they saw her face.
‘I’m glad you two find it such a scream,’ she said sharply, ‘because it probably means we won’t be going to XtremeNess.’
Martin’s smirk died on his lips, as suddenly as if someone had switched off all his facial muscles. Mum had to be kidding! XtremeNess was the only decent thing about this holiday. Camping and country hikes were all very well in small doses, but they weren’t really his thing. This was what he’d been looking forward to all week: a whole theme park dedicated to the Loch Ness Monster, with a waterpark and a museum and a life-size, moving, roaring model of Nessie, and the biggest roller coaster in Scotland!
Mum and Esther were getting out of the car, so Martin followed. Taking the leaflet from his pocket, he unfolded and read it again. The stuff of legend… or is it? Nestled on the shores of Loch Ness, XtremeNess is Scotland’s premier attraction offering a larger-than-life encounter with the world’s most famous monster. Whether you’re young or old, believer or sceptic, you won’t be disappointed! the leaflet promised.
But if you’re Martin Oakley it looks like you’re going to be, he thought, kicking a stone.
Mum was studying the map. ‘The petrol station can’t be much further on. I say we push the car. But you two are going to have to help.’
To begin with, pushing the car was fun. Esther and Martin both went to the back and leaned their shoulders against it, while Mum pushed and steered from the driver’s side door, and the hazard lights blinked on and off in warning. Mum even let them take turns at steering so she could go at the back and push. But it was hard, exhausting work, and long before the petrol station hove into sight they were both sweaty and moaning.
Finally they saw the black and orange sign up ahead, and all three gave a little cheer – but it was short lived. As they drew closer they saw that the garage was all shut up, and everything, from the petrol pumps to the shop windows, covered with a thick layer of grime.
‘It doesn’t look like it’s been open for years,’ exclaimed mum.
‘Now what are we going to do?’ said Esther, flinging herself down onto the verge with a dramatic flourish. They were stuck in the absolute middle of nowhere, miles from civilisation, banks of pine trees stretching away on either side of the road, with only the occasional break in the trees to their right showing the gloomy Loch still rippling eerily. It was hours since another car had passed them on the road.
Mum was peering into the distance. ‘It looks like there’s a couple of buildings up ahead. It might be a hamlet.’
‘More like a Macbeth,’ said Martin, always first in with the literary references. ‘Oh well, at least we’ll have some entertainment while we’re stuck here.’
‘You’re such a geek,’ said Esther, her voice loaded with scorn.
Martin made a sound like an air raid signal. ‘Joke alert, joke alert, warning: all those allergic to humour please put on your gas masks now.’
‘That wasn’t a joke,’ said Esther with a snort of derision.
‘A hamlet means a small village,’ said mum. ‘They might help us. Or at least put us up for the night.’
‘What, here?’ both kids cried, united in horror. ‘We can’t stay here!’
A few minutes later they were knocking on the door of a small granite cottage. A faded sign saying ‘Bed and Breakfast’ hung outside. Martin tried to peer in at the windows, but the late afternoon sun shone directly onto them, making it impossible to see anything inside. It looked dark and quiet and cold, and they were surprised when the door was suddenly thrown open.
The woman had dark, wavy hair, streaked with grey, and pinned up on top of her head with an assortment of pencils, hair pins and what looked like a chopstick. Her hands were still inside a pair of oven gloves. She frowned at them suspiciously for a minute, and all three took a step back; then her face cracked into a smile and she said, ‘Welcome to Loch View. Will you be wanting somewhere to stop for the night? We’re pretty full this weekend, but I’m sure I can squeeze you in.’
The woman, whose name was Iris, told them that the garage would be open on Monday. That meant they had to stay here all day tomorrow, Sunday, just kicking around this dusty little hamlet, instead of maxing out on adrenaline at the theme park.
‘So can we go to XtremeNess on Monday?’ they asked.
‘I’m so sorry, children,’ mum said sadly, ‘I really am. I just can’t take any more time off work. As it is I’m going to have to call in on Monday and tell them I’m still stuck in the Highlands. We’ll just have to come back another year.’
Martin’s lip began to tremble, and even Esther felt a dull thud of disappointment in her stomach when she thought about missing the rides and the waterpark.
‘We can explore the pine forests, and the loch, and maybe even catch some fish,’ said mum, putting on a bright voice.
‘Another boring old loch,’ said Martin.
‘Oh, this one’s no’ boring,’ came a voice from the doorway. They all turned to look.
A broad man in a fisherman’s cap and galoshes seemed to fill the doorway. He looked at Martin with piercing little eyes. ‘When you’ve heard the stories about this loch, you’ll wish it was a bit more boring – if you’re staying here that is.’
‘Joseph! You’ll no’ be frightening the guests with your old stories again,’ cried Iris, coming in with a tray of tea. ‘Joseph’s one of our regular visitors,’ she explained to mum and the kids. ‘He has a very active imagination.’
‘Oh yes, about as active as that grizzly,’ he said, gesturing towards an enormous head of a brown bear mounted on the wall above the fireplace. He stooped to put his head next to Martin’s and croaked: ‘I speak the truth.’
‘Well you can speak your truths after they’ve had a bite to eat, Joe Moffat,’ said Iris firmly, ushering him out of the way so that she could set a tray of crumpets on the table. ‘They’ve been on the road all day, the poor things – literally.’
Esther flopped down onto the ancient armchair, which managed to be both hard and saggy at the same time, and sank her teeth into a hot crumpet dripping with butter. It more than made up for the shortcomings of the lumpy armchair – after a tiring and stressful afternoon, it tasted like the best thing she’d ever eaten. Martin was nestled into one corner of a sofa, his feet tucked under him, reading his book and nibbling like a mouse around the edges of his crumpet. Mum sat next to him and poured the tea. Iris was beavering away in the fireplace, and soon she sat back on her heels and watched as the flames licked their way along the newspaper, the kindling caught, and a fire began to crackle in the grate. She took the chopstick from her hair and prodded at the fire with it.
‘You’ll be wanting your tea,’ she said to mum. It was a statement not a question.
Mum looked hesitant. ‘Oh but – you don’t need to worry about us. We’ll find something to eat.’ Martin and Esther exchanged glances that said: will we? ‘I saw a fish restaurant just back along the road. I’m not sure if it was open,’ she said doubtfully.
‘Oh yes, it – er -’ Iris looked quizzically at Joe, ‘It should be open later. But you’ve had a long day, you don’t want to be going out again this evening. I’ve got a lovely chunky vegetable soup in the fridge I made yesterday, needs to be eaten up tonight or I’ll have to throw it out, and I hate waste. Oh and for the kids I’m sure I’ve got a pizza in the freezer. If I were you I’d save the restaurant for tomorrow – they always have a good catch on Sundays.’
Result! Instead of mackerel caught in the dubious-looking Loch Bàth, they were going to be sitting by the roaring fire, eating pizza and listening to old Joe tell spooky stories.
‘People have told tales of a creature in the Loch for centuries,’ he begun. ‘Long before the village was here, when the road was just a track and the forest a wilderness of oak and ash and briar. Back then, there were stoats and badgers and even deer in these woods, the loch was teeming with salmon and bream, and no-one had ever heard tell of the Loch Ness Monster.’ He spat the last three words.
‘Oh, you look surprised,’ he said. ‘Yes, the Loch Ness Monster is a Johnny-come-lately compared to the Siannach Bàth. What’s more, it is a Fraud!’ he said fiercely, almost rising out of his chair. ‘A gimmick! A publicity stunt! Yes, they have their theme parks, and their hotels, and their fancy restaurants full of Americans. It’s all good harmless fun, and there’s plenty of money to be made from fun. But it isn’t real,’ he breathed.
His huge frame seemed too large for the armchair he was sitting in as he leaned forward, face animated with the drama of the story. But there was something in his manner that made Esther think it was a well-rehearsed tale that he’d told many times before.
‘And this one is real?’ she asked.
‘Oh, the Siannach Bàth is real all right lass. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. It was not two years ago, on a day as still and clear as Highland honey – though you’ll learn, however bright and blue the sky is, the water still ripples with strange currents. Restless, it is, the loch.’
‘What was the monster like?’ asked Martin breathlessly.
‘Well, I didnae stick around to get a close look!’ said Joe. ‘All I remember is, the sky suddenly clouded over, almost as if someone had put a dimmer switch on the sun, and a wind got up, from nowhere like, and the surface of the loch began rippling and churning away, and I thought it’s time to go home right enough, so I turned the boat round quick and began rowing to the jetty as fast as I could, and as I was rowing I felt a kind of – disturbance – in the water behind me, and I looked over my shoulder and there was a great swelling wave spreading across from the other shore, and there in the middle of it was a great grey shape, rising about a metre out of the water.’
‘A grey shape?’ asked Esther doubtfully. ‘What, like a piece of driftwood, or a rock, or an old TV someone had dumped in the lake?’
‘I can see you’re a sceptic,’ grinned the old man gleefully. ‘How many TVs have you seen with teeth like this?’ and he whipped something from his pocket, and brandished it triumphantly in Esther’s face: a 5 inch long, sharp, pointed, yellow fang.