So, I'm getting pretty close to my final draft. And these are the first three chapters that I'll be sending to agents and publishers. I need to know if they hook the readers in the right places. *puppy eyes* THE CHIMERA PATH CHAPTER ONE Black clouds burnt the air and water drowned the earth. It was the worse rainfall in years and a sense of panic shook the trees and sent animals fleeing sodden to their dens. Through the graveyard was a slide of mud and water, made all the stranger by the stillness of the man within it. In the morning cold that brought no shivers, but simply burned the flesh, Nathan sat against the headstone and awaited the shudder that would break him. He could not stay in the church. He had left as the coffin was carried in; the half-dead passing the dead and fleeing into winter. Perhaps his father was looking for him, but the storm would hide him for now. Out here, beyond the church, the green deep had flooded the world and only the tops of gravestones remained, like masts, with the names of the dead swooning. He felt himself sitting at an incline to the world, a tunnel of elm and marble stretched before him. Here he had come down, sinking to a crouch to suck cold air and hold back the tears. Nathan’s cousin, Michael, had been five years older than him - a huge gap as a child. He remembered Michael’s dresser drawer, full of coins, and how his hair was always messy and long enough to touch his shoulders. He remembered the time in the field with the rifle. Michael had laughed as Nathan shot the top off a water bottle and Nathan had copied everything his cousin did that day and on the way home had vomited in his parents’ car, bloated with crisps and coke. But though he hung on Michael’s every word, Michael still looked at Nathan like all the others: uncertain, sympathetic, as if there was something wrong. Perhaps there was, for Nathan’s shyness had been excruciating as a child. He could never give what he wished of himself and anything he did communicate was tempered first by doubt and second by frustration. Whenever the family went anywhere his identity took shape in the monologues of his mother, such that if she left the room Nathan would become a shell, staring and disabled. Michael was the only cousin who seemed happy to play with him when there were no adults around to qualify his silence or lend him context. Michael had not been special, but Nathan remembered the day in the field, shooting the rifle; and that was enough. Now the body in that coffin was a nightmare, pieced together from the reports of his father and uncle – relayed to them in turn by the police. Nathan’s cousin, Michael Swader, was bound for the grave a spoiled corpse, things removed, holes in the bone where the chains had been threaded. Violations after death, his body sliced open first by his murderer and again by the coroner. He pressed his back to the headstone as the wind hissed through the elm alcove and brought more rain. He could not cry. But his heart ached and he covered it with his hand, asking why? Why had Michael’s heart been removed? What reason could someone have to chain Michael’s body up and plunder from it? Nathan could not admit these things into his life; he could not marry this mutilation with his family. How could he think of Michael, when Aunt Melanie bemoaned the weather and straightened the straps of her handbag? Or when Grandpa Joe spoke with Uncle Eric of the old times in Ireland? And all the frustrations that his mother recalled in him, how could they share the space where that vision hung: the vision of Michael defiled? He heard himself breathing, swallowing air as if it was the weight to hold him to this world. Then he scratched his scalp, pushing through brown knots to feel his brain, living, filled with thoughts, whilst his cousin’s was broken in two. They had found a part placed in each of his suspended palms, like a bloody offering. And this was Michael – this the image that would abide. The police had said nothing more. They had caught the murderer, freezing and delirious on the streets of Sleaford, a few miles from where Michael’s body was chained in his house. The arrest had been made, the murderer jailed; but there were no explanations given, no sense to what had been done to the body. The murder itself had become like the boy Nathan, left in a room without context, drawing looks of only pity and bemusement. His hand splayed on the rain-soaked ground, imagining the slits on Michael’s wrists – those too added after death like the other mutilations. In the air behind him the final hymn stirred. He could not tell which one. His family were singing, no blame nor anger in their voices. And beyond the trees everything was flat and absent, the level vista of Lincolnshire skewered by church-spires. Coffins holding entrails, things dark and abhorrent crammed inside, away from the world. Their acceptance of all this was as puzzling as the act itself. He felt his head coming between his knees, his body crumpling. Between the trees a sculpted figure stood, chained upon its feet with blood-soaked torso, hands grasping the bloodied halves of its cerebrum. Then in the next moment, Nathan focussed. Between the trees was a woman, dark haired and slender. She was walking across the thyme patches, almost floating as her stride negated the terrain, and through the rain her indigo coat was like a smoke trail. Crossing his path, he saw the silver glint that broke the woman’s colour, her hand pale as it gripped the pistol. And as quickly as she had painted herself upon his world, she was gone, moving behind the headstones. She was approaching the church and the hymn was drowning her quickening breath. Nathan would always look back on this moment, for in his act was a violent and unexpected clarity. He pushed himself to his feet, head-first into consequence, and almost had to run to keep up with her, stooping whilst she moved upright. Through the jagged alleys of the gravestones she led him into the church’s shadow, and as her top slipped further from her shoulders and billowed from her naked waist, the gun became more pronounced. From darkness she was entering the light of flesh and metal. Nathan moved faster, closing with her as she circled to the east side of the church. And from there he called out, “What are you doing?” The woman glanced, her eyes matching her coat, exotic blue. The wind carried a cinnamon perfume between them as she continued onwards. “Wait! Stop!” He flinched as the gun lifted. Beyond the barrel the church’s east window caught the light in myriad hues; and behind it silhouettes, dozens still and one moving. The priest. “No, don’t do this!” The woman took slow aim at the priest and the coat slipped further, air biting her shoulders and making them shiver. He stepped closer. “Stop it. Talk to me.” She was just as tall as Nathan and, he imagined, just as strong. Her build was athletic, her top unbuttoned to flutter in time with raven hair. She was a creature of blacks and blues, a dark beauty amidst the graves. In comparison, Nathan Morgan kept to greys and browns. He was a half-man who almost dropped behind the winter gloom as he approached her. His coat held the scent of nightmare sweat, while his looks were marred by cuts and bruises. Beneath the hanging strands of his hair, one eye was swollen; yet this was just his newest injury – one he had received before coming here – amongst countless others. A cargo of sore ribs and bruised limbs made him wince as he faced her. She made no response. The silhouette of the priest shifted as the hymn reached its last crescendo. He was moving to the lectern for the closing prayer, where the bullet would take him. The gun tracked. The finger tensed on the trigger. Her shoulders no longer shook with the cold, but with the lone tremor of rage. But he touched them all the same, one hand on each as he tried to calm her. “It’s okay.” The gun twisted suddenly between his arms, hair and coat splashing aside as the butt of the pistol connected with his cheekbone, just below the eye. Nathan cried out and staggered, but the woman kept coming. The pistol struck the back of his shoulder, delivering another bolt of agony. He brought his arms up, one coiling around her own, the other at the side of her head. There was no choice but to grab a handful of hair and twist. But she moved against expectation, coming forward instead of recoiling. Her knee connected with his ribs and knocked the wind from his body. In the next moment he was falling, but he kept his grip and pulled her with him. Landing in a tumble, they rolled across the sodden grass where the smell of the ground joined the metallic taste of blood. He twisted to guide his weight on top of her, keeping hold of the gun hand and struggling to grip the other. In a second his palm was against her face, pushing it into the grass, and his thighs were clamping her torso. A pause of seconds, bodies straining, breaths caught and pain in blossom, till at last the woman cried out and dropped the pistol. With the weapon gone the dynamic changed. Nathan became aware of himself and the woman straddled beneath him. Through the haze of pain returned his awkwardness and he knew he couldn’t stay like this. Removing his hand from her face, he pulled with the other and rolled her away, falling down between the woman and the gun. “Calm down. Please!” She stayed there on all-fours, her gaze furious as blood trickled from her split lip. He thought she would pounce, resuming violence; but it did not come. Her body heaved for air as she ignored the pistol and watched him. “Just fucking calm down!” Nathan shouted. The breathing quickened as she braced against the anger, her body ebbing heavier till a longer sigh eased her over the threshold. She sat back on her haunches and covered her eyes, staying that way till her final gasps brought her to silence. Then her shoulders sunk and, after searching the ground for a moment, she looked at her muddy hands and yelled her first word. “Fuck!” “Wh… what are you doing?” As quickly as rage had become her, now sorrow crept in to replace it. “It was him.” “What?” “He made me.” “Why are you…?” “Thaddeus.” Light crested the church and pierced the dark clouds overhead. Nathan could only scowl helplessly as a colder wind came to sting his eyes. “He made it happen…” “What are you talking about? You know Michael?” Nathan asked, his tenses flawed amidst the cold and pain. But the woman’s gaze was twitching between things, barely registering, as if her surroundings were a greater distraction than the man before her. A sharp line of black was formed by her eyebrows, shadows cast over soft cheekbones and the lips he had bloodied. “I can’t stay here.” Nathan went to speak again as he rose, but then his name was called. Recognising the voice, he jumped to his feet. “Dad…” Nathan’s father stood by the corner of the church wall, looking thinner than ever in his brown pinstripe. As the final hymn ended he approached, scratching a beard as rusty as the grass. “I was looking for you,” he barked, clearly annoyed. “I’m sorry, I… I had to get out.” Nathan moved towards his father, the gun shimmering in the grass between them. “What happened?” His father squinted and Nathan brought a hand to his cheek to cover the blossom of a bruise. “I fell over. I…” He turned to involve the woman in his lie; but she was already gone. Beyond the north side of church she was striding away at the same pace with which she had entered his life. The indigo coat pulled tight and with one hand she brushed hair from inside the collar, letting dark strands cascade down her back. Stepping high over the thickets, she made for the car park. He should have called to her – he felt he was supposed to. But instead Nathan allowed her to leave, a vacant spectator, wondering if he had really heard the name that was spoken. “Was that Evelyn?” Nathan turned sharply as his father stood beside him to peer at the woman. “You know her?” “One of Michael’s girlfriends, I think.” The woman wrenched open the door of a dark green sports car and the exhaust roared as the engine started up. “Anyway, are you coming back, Nath?” “Yeah, I’m coming.” As Nathan watched the sports car pull away, his father returned to the church whilst buttoning his jacket. Nathan followed but moved a little slower. Stooping down in the grass, he plucked up Evelyn’s gun, gripping it by the barrel and dropping it into his coat pocket.