Book: Foxglove Copse
Part of the Porthkennack Universe
Publisher: Riptide Publishing
Cover Artist: G.D. Leigh
Publication date: September 4, 2017
Length: 245 pages
After a massive anxiety attack, Sam Atkins left his high-powered job in the City and committed himself to life on the road in a small van. Six months in, he’s running out of savings and coming to the conclusion that he might have to go home to his emotionally abusive family.
Needing time to think, he takes a walk through a copse by the Cornish roadside, only to stumble upon the body of a ritualistically killed sheep. As he’s trying to work out what the symbols around the animal mean, the sheep’s owner, Jennifer, and her nephew, Ruan Gwynn, come upon him.
Ruan is a kind-hearted young man with a large supportive clan, and since he and Sam feel almost instant attraction, he doesn’t want to believe Sam is a sheep-killing cultist. In fact, the moment he lays eyes on Sam’s miserable solitary life, he wants to rescue the man. But as the killings escalate, he and Sam need to stop whoever is actually to blame before they can concentrate on saving each other.
That done, he took a damp and comfortless towel into the chill ceramic loos in search of warm water and free soap. Not unexpectedly, it smelled of mould and piss and mud inside. The floor was wet with boot prints, and the tray of the shower half-silted with sand and leaves. Some large dog, perhaps, had been sluiced down there before bounding back into its owner’s warm, carpeted four-by-four.
But Sam had been on the road for nearly half a year and had come prepared. He let the water run for a while, to take the worst of the dirt down the plughole, then he took flip-flops and a large plastic bag from his pocket. Stripping, he put his clothes on the bag, stepped from his boots into the flip-flops, and got into the shower moments before the unforgiving December air took all the breath from his body.
Hot water! An unceasing flood of it, kneading his scalp and soothing his shoulders. This time last year he’d had a wet room, in a house, a room finished in marble, with a power shower of gleaming copper, the size of a hubcap. If he closed his eyes, here in this cold winter car park, the sense of decadence was the same. But with the memory came the choking sensation that he had also felt in that room, while trying to wash off panic, sleeplessness, and stress.
He opened his eyes to find a mottled brown terrier nosing at his coat, a bespectacled man at the nearest urinal watching him out of the corner of his eye.
“All right?” he challenged.
The man looked away, but Sam’s brief moment of indulgence was undone regardless. He kept the water running for the warmth of the steam as he stepped out, rubbed the clammy towel over himself, and struggled to pull back on the clothes he’d been wearing since the launderette in Hackney, over a fortnight ago.
He had no idea what kind of perversions or judgements were going through the bespectacled man’s head, but he breathed easier when the guy left, taking his mongrel dog with him. Now he could at least dry his hair and his towel under a hand drier in peace.
It felt good to be clean. These days, even that was an achievement.
Outside, the light had faded further, and it had begun to rain. He put up his hood and sprinted for the van, getting through the door and into the driver’s seat before he lost all traces of warmth. Starting her up, he moved from just outside the toilet block to just outside McDonald’s, checking his phone while he tried the three closest spaces one after another.
A glance in the driving mirror said he still looked shaggy, suspicious, so he plugged his electric shaver into the cigarette lighter. A number-one comb took the beard down to designer stubble, and a number sixteen cropped his fair hair until it was only beginning to show a curl.
There. Now, with the Barbour waterproof coat and hat left over from better days, the Aran sweater and the briefcase containing his laptop, he passed for a gentleman farmer. Someone who wouldn’t be side-eyed in the toilets by the respectability police.
Inside McDonald’s, everything glowed warm and bright—a different culture, one to which he no longer belonged. Jingly Christmas music, the smell of fat, and the rumble of people talking. Red and yellow plastic toys in a glass display cabinet. Green plastic on the chairs, sticky with spilled sauce—the details assaulted him. The inside of the windows had steamed up; the whole place was crammed with bodies breathing the same air, and Sam’s heart got stuck somewhere in his viscera, tangling them up until he thought he was going to puke.
“How can I help you?” said the plump Indian girl at the till for the second time, breaking him out of his spiral. Goddamn it, he had to fake normality better than this.
He smiled. “Sorry. Miles away. Um, just a white coffee please.”
Pressing his card to the contactless reader, he tried to effect the nonchalance of a man who had all the money in the world and no cares. No one liked to give you things if they thought you were actually in need. “And, uh, can I have the wi-fi password?”
He downloaded his emails sitting in the free warmth, sipping at the coffee for as long as he could make it last, then he returned to his van, where he made sandwiches, wrapped himself up in his quilt, and piggybacking on the wi-fi signal that spilled over to the car park, made the Skype call that he’d been putting off since November the first.
His mother picked up. He could see her in a brightly lit box in the corner of his screen, artfully made up, her beautiful silver hair feathered around cheekbones that still turned heads. “Sam! Oh my God, where are you now?” She literally clutched her pearls, which he had the resilience to find amusing.
“Hi, Mum.” A tiny point of pain flowered under his right shoulder blade, as though someone had just pierced the skin there with the point of a pickaxe, and was driving in with excruciating slowness. “How are you doing?”
“Sam,” she said, warningly. “Don’t take that tone.”
He smoothed his fingers through his newly shaven beard, reminding himself that he had achieved something today. He was not—yet—a complete failure. “What tone?”
“The tone where you keep pretending that nothing’s wrong. When are you coming home? When are you going to come to your senses and find a new job? You can’t drive around parking in lay-bys for the rest of your life.”
“Short answers?” Long answers would have taken a novel, one for which he didn’t have the words or aptitude. “I’m not. I’m not. And yes, I can.”
“Yes, of course you can.” Her grey eyes were as sharp as the points of stilettos. “How are you going to keep feeding yourself? Buying petrol—”
“Diesel,” he coughed, as though it had been driven out of him by the skewer that was still pushing through his back. Axminster carpet was visible over his mother’s tailored shoulder, and the long scarlet edge of Three Sunflowers and a Bottle of Water by David Hockney, which she had bought from him when he had been selling off the contents of his house.
“Same thing,” she snapped. “My point is that by now the paltry amount you kept for yourself after your episode must be running out. I understand that you had a shock, and you’ve needed time to get over it, but really, I am beginning to be seriously concerned about your mental welfare, Sam. You can’t carry on the way you’re going. You must come home.”
“Is that Sam?” He recognized his sister’s voice, sounding tinny at a distance. Tabitha eclipsed the red line of the painting as she strode into the webcam’s view and waved: tall and even fairer than him, impeccably suited, with the gleam of permanent triumph in her green eye. “Have you starved to death yet, darling? Do you need me to lend you a couple of thousand?”
“Sam!” His mother must have caught the look on his face. “Don’t hang up. Tabby, go and sit somewhere else.”
For a marvel, Tabitha did, though her long legs in their Christian Louboutin shoes poked into the upper corner of the frame. She had been the underachiever when Sam had been earning fifty thousand pounds a year plus an extra fifty thou’ in bonuses, and now she was the family’s darling. She did so enjoy reminding him of it.
“I know you’ve been having some problems, emotionally,” his mother continued, as though she were gingerly picking up a disgusting rag. “We can fix that. Come home. Come home for Christmas, at the very least, and we can start finding the right medication for your anxiety problems. Daddy can find you an easier job. A nice little flat. You can start again, here where we can help you.”
By now the skewer through his back had expanded to the diameter of a golf ball, all the muscles around it locking down in panic. He could barely gasp a shallow breath around the unyielding pressure of it, this imaginary pain that felt like a spear through the lung. “I’ve got to go.”
“Don’t do this to me, Sam. How can you be so selfish?”
He shut the computer down and curled up. Breathing, breathing in the quiet, wood-lined room that was the back of his converted van, with the blind down over the rear window so he wouldn’t be seen.
It was true that he had three hundred and seventy-five pounds eighty-four pence to his name, and he didn’t know what he would do when it ran out. But if he found somewhere more permanent to stop, he could certainly eke it out until after Christmas. He could not bear to put himself in their clutches for the season of goodwill.
A half an hour later, he came back to himself to find he was watching the rain snake in silver serpents down the windscreen. As his brain rebooted, he discovered he was tired but ready to move on. Slipping into the driver’s seat, he started her up, easing back out into the A30 traffic with no clear destination in mind. Maybe Bodmin. Perhaps he could stop somewhere on the moor and live in a neolithic shepherd’s hut, like Sherlock Holmes.
But Bodmin was featureless and grey in the rain, with a bleakness he didn’t need on top of his own. On a whim, he turned up the B3274 and headed towards Porthkennack instead.
As if by omen, the rain slackened as he came within sight of the sea, and the sunset drew brief bands of gold across the horizon. The road crested a small hill, from which he could see down into a galaxy of homely windows, and afar off the silent pulse of a lighthouse.
To his left, a gap in the hedgerow beckoned. He slowed, the only vehicle on the road, and turned his lights to it. Yes. There was a faint track. Beyond it, a swaying shadow against the stars, was a woodland, where the glint of a brook vanished into glossy rhododendron and the low, broad leaves of foxgloves open like imploring hands in the gloom.
Running water and camouflage—he might stay there for some time without being seen. Making an instant decision, he rolled gently up the bank and carefully, carefully into the wood.
Three trees in, a fallen stump leaned across the track. At one point the wheel ruts had continued out into the distant fields, but it seemed that when the tree fell, the path had been abandoned to grow ferns and briars. That suited him; no one would be coming in or out. He would not be blocking anyone’s access if he stayed here awhile.
Turning the engine off, he grabbed his torch from the glove box and stepped out into a shocking silence. No cars moved on the unlit road and the sky was end to end with stars, bleak and magnificent as the glitter of an iceberg. For a moment, it felt as though time itself had stopped, that he was the only human left in the universe. A chill crawled up his back.
But then the wind swept from the sea and sighed through the treetops around him. The moment passed as he folded out the mast for the wind-turbine and connected it to its battery.
Fallen branches littered the ground. He picked up some sprays of rhododendron and leaned them against the van’s green side, camouflaging it. Walking back to the road, he looked in and could not see her. Good. The concealment might not survive the coming of the dawn, but he should at least be able to sleep in peace.
He collected branches for the wood burner and stacked them in the passenger side footwell to dry out, laid his laptop on the fold-out table, and considered browsing the job sites for temporary work nearby. Just the thought of it narrowed his chest until he couldn’t squeeze in a breath. Clocking in at a regular time, talking to people, pay cheques, responsibility . . .
Turning his back on everything, he decided to take a walk and then go to bed early. Maybe, when he’d had a good night’s sleep, he could face his future.
Barely five minutes’ walk down the overgrown, abandoned path, the wood gave way to rough grazing land on a one-in-seven slope. Once he had come out of the trees, he could see down, in shades of dun and grey, past humps of rocks, to the solid black presence of a distant farm house, with lights burning behind its windows. The flecks of white scattered across the hillside must be sheep.
It took him a while of watching the fluffy white dots move, sweeping in one scatter from a nearby epicentre, before it occurred to him that this was not how sheep normally behaved. The baas that gusted to his ears on the wind were high-pitched and full of panic. Something had spooked them—something over by that cluster of rocks.
Curiosity drove him down the rough hummocks of the tussocky slope, heather and grass slippery under his wellies, his wind-up torch dimming as its charge ran out. The circle of light turned to umber and vanished altogether. He didn’t wind it again, because the moon and stars were shining brightly. He could see enough, and he didn’t want to be seen.
As he approached the rocks, he saw with a lurch of foreboding that they were not just tumbled there by the landscape. Five of them stood up on their narrow ends like the fingers of a buried hand, and in the centre of the “palm” something dark and small lay.
He thought it was another stone at first—an altar stone, where tens of thousands of years ago the neolithic people here had placated their gods. But then the gusting wind brought the smell.
Before, the night had been all newly washed rock and grass, distant seaweed. Now, his already unsettled stomach writhed inside him like a hatching alien, because this was a warmer scent. Blood. Blood and shit and acrid fear—the smell of death.
Why he ran forward, he didn’t know. Maybe to help. But the animal in the stone hand was past help. One of the sheep, its white coat so sodden with blood that even under the moon it did not gleam. It lay on its back, the rib cage cut open with ugly, tearing wounds, the bones severed at the back so that it could be opened like a flower to show that all of the organs had been removed.
About the Porthkennack Universe
Welcome to Porthkennack, a charming Cornish seaside town with a long and sometimes sinister history. Legend says King Arthur's Black Knight built the fort on the headland here, and it’s a certainty that the town was founded on the proceeds of smuggling, piracy on the high seas, and the deliberate wrecking of cargo ships on the rocky shore. Nowadays it draws in the tourists with sunshine and surfing, but locals know that the ghosts of its Gothic past are never far below the surface.
This collaborative story world is brought to you by five award-winning, best-selling British LGBTQ romance authors: Alex Beecroft, Joanna Chambers, Charlie Cochrane, Garrett Leigh, and JL Merrow. Follow Porthkennack and its inhabitants through the centuries and through the full rainbow spectrum with historical and contemporary stand-alone titles.
Check out Porthkennack! Riptide Publishing
About the Author
Alex Beecroft is an English author best known for historical fiction, notably Age of Sail, featuring gay characters and romantic storylines. Her novels and shorter works include paranormal, fantasy, and contemporary fiction.
Beecroft won Linden Bay Romance’s (now Samhain Publishing) Starlight Writing Competition in 2007 with her first novel, Captain’s Surrender, making it her first published book. On the subject of writing gay romance, Beecroft has appeared in the Charleston City Paper, LA Weekly, the New Haven Advocate, the Baltimore City Paper, and The Other Paper. She is a member of the Romantic Novelists' Association of the UK and an occasional reviewer for the blog Speak Its Name, which highlights historical gay fiction.
Alex was born in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and grew up in the wild countryside of the English Peak District. She lives with her husband and two children in a little village near Cambridge and tries to avoid being mistaken for a tourist.
Alex is only intermittently present in the real world. She has led a Saxon shield wall into battle, toiled as a Georgian kitchen maid, and recently taken up an 800-year-old form of English folk dance, but she still hasn’t learned to operate a mobile phone.
She is represented by Louise Fury of the L. Perkins Literary Agency.
Connect with Alex:
- Website: alexbeecroft.com
- Blog: alexbeecroft.com/blog
- Facebook: facebook.com/AlexBeecroftAuthor
- Twitter: @Alex_Beecroft
- Goodreads: goodreads.com/Alex_Beecroft
To celebrate the release of Foxglove Copse, one lucky winner will receive a $10 Amazon gift card and an ebook of their choice from Alex’s backlist! Leave a comment with your contact info to enter the contest. Entries close at midnight, Eastern time, on September 9, 2017. Contest is NOT restricted to U.S. entries. Thanks for following the tour, and don’t forget to leave your contact info!