Jane Herbert smiled nervously as she looked around the Circle. “I don’t have anything to read to you,” she said. “But I have an idea I want to pitch.” None of the other group members really knew much about Jane. She was an ever-present, always pleasant company but certainly no open book. It always appeared that whatever small revelation she was prepared to make had been well thought-through beforehand. She played her life like a poker hand. The others knew that she wrote horror stories, she had described herself on one occasion as ‘Stephen King in a frock’, but other than the little insights she chose to impart in and around the bar, little was known about her or her writing. “The tale starts with the discovery of a dismembered cat in field near a farm. Nothing unusual in that; must happen all the time – foxes, stray dogs, drunken youths… Nobody pays much attention, even when other mutilated small creatures start appearing – rats, rabbits, one or two more cats – nobody really bothers, until that is, the first of the brutally dismembered larger animals appears and it gradually becomes clear that nothing is safe any longer: dogs, foxes, badgers, deer are found – all horribly killed and half-eaten by who knows what?…”
“My God!” whispered Frankie. “That’s like no Tale of the Riverbank I’ve ever seen.” Jane Smiled, she was happy with the reaction.
“The killings become more regular; more brutal with each passing day,” she continued. “The local people begin to discuss the possibility of some slavering mythical beast. The national tabloids catch wind of the story and they descend on the village: farm animals are locked away at nights, watched over by reporters, farmhands and CCTV cameras, all hoping to uncover the truth of the Beast of Westhall, but the killings stop as suddenly as they began, interest wanes and the farms slowly return to the mores of normal rural existence. It is widely believed that it has all been some kind of morbid publicity stunt, or even, perhaps, some kind of arcane sacrificial ritual. Over time, as things return to normal, only one reporter remains, an atypically thorough journalistic investigator, determined to uncover the truth. It is he who finds the first human victim, stripped of flesh and clothing, and huddled under a hawthorn hedge surrounded by nothing more than a bloodied muddy lake, fringed by ungulate footprints and wisps of wool fluttering in the breeze where it has snagged on the barbed wire fence…”
“What’s an ungulate?” asked Phil after a pause that was just long enough to make him feel that he was the only one who didn’t know.
“I think it’s an animal with a cloven foot, isn’t it?” said Frankie. Jane smiled at him once again.
Phil turned to Frankie and mouthed the words, “Teacher’s Pet.” They both grinned.
“So, is that what’s doing the killing then?” Phil persevered, aware that he may still have been the only one of them in the dark. “Something or other with a clover foot?”
“Cloven,” corrected Deidre, who was never one to turn up such a chance.
“Well,” answered a thoughtful Jane. “It’s likely, isn’t it? Although it’s even more likely that the ungulates, whatever they may be, could just have been curious bystanders. They are, after all, herbivores.”
“What about pigs? Are they ungulates? My grandad had a pig during the war – it ate anything.”
“But did it kill anything?”
“I’m not sure, could have done. I’ve never trusted pigs since they sent Boxer off to the knacker’s yard.”
“What about the wool on the barbed wire?” asked Penny. “…Unless that’s a red herring.”
“Do herring have wool?” asked Phil, ashamed of himself almost immediately as Penny flushed instantly crimson.
“Well, they are weird, aren’t they, sheep?” chipped in Louise. “Evil little eyes.”
“They don’t kill though, do they,” said Terry. “At least, not in real life.”
“They have plenty of motive to start killing humans, I’d say,” countered Vanessa. “I agree with Louise, evil little eyes. Although Penny’s right,” she cast a glance at Phil, “the wool could just be a red herring.”
“Why do we count sheep do you think?” asked Frankie. “When we want to go to sleep, I mean. Why sheep? Why not rabbits, or kittens, or koalas, they’re far more restful… Maybe sloths would be even better. Counting sloths – how peaceful can you get?”
“They are sinister, aren’t they, sheep? Lambs are cute, like baby hyena, but by the time they’re adult and they’ve seen most of their contemporaries carted off to the abattoir, they definitely give the impression of an animal with a grudge.”
“Killer sheep – or maybe just one killer. Be a nightmare to identify in the middle of a flock wouldn’t it?” said Phil. “Mind you, knowing what sheep are like, they’d all want a go. They’re notoriously…” his voice trailed away, “…sheep-like aren’t they?”
“What about deer?” asked Billy, keen to join in the conversation. “They can be big and aggressive.”
“Didn’t Jane say that some of the victims had been deer?”
“Wouldn’t put it past ‘em,” Billy muttered darkly.
“Bloody hell,” said Frankie. “Psycho Rudolph! This could be more disturbing than The Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”
“Nothing could be that scary.” Penny looked genuinely alarmed at the prospect.
“Imagine,” grinned Billy, “you’re just drifting off to sleep, peacefully counting sheep, when one of them leaps out and starts to chew your face off!”
“I really…” Penny turned very pale indeed. “Why do we count sheep do you think?”
“I think it’s because they come in flocks,” suggested Deidre.
“Starlings come in flocks,” said Terry. “And pigeons.”
“Much too difficult to tie down,” said Vanessa. “It would keep you awake, the possibility that you’d missed one.”
“You’d have to count so quickly,” added Penny. “I think it would keep you awake.”
“Unlike a demented sheep?” Billy chided, winking at the grinning Terry.
“I think we’d all agree,” said Vanessa, “that consideration of the demented in any species is probably inadvisable in the moments before sleep. Nobody should have to try and sleep in the company of the psychotically unhinged. Do you have a partner Mr Hunt?”
“I…” Billy’s mouth lolled open like a dying carp. He looked towards Terry for support. He got none.
“Good,” said Vanessa, unaware of Deidre’s appreciative stare. “So, Jane, what are they, these killer ungulates: sheep, pigs, deer or just plain old red herrings?”
“Well, there’s my problem, I’m really not sure,” she frowned slightly. “I haven’t really got it straight in my head yet, and I’m afraid to say that it’s keeping me awake at night…”