THE SKELETON KING
ISBN -13: 978-1516905874
Copyright © 2015 by Lauren Gilley
Cover photograph Copyright © 2015 by Lauren Gilley
Brighton, East Sussex, England
24 Years Ago
The trainer was a broad man, with a full dark beard. He stood wreathed in mist beside the rail, gaze sweeping along the downs and the irregular track. His breath plumed like smoke. Dawn just breaking, and the ocean lay hidden under a white shroud, the crash of the waves a dull murmur.
An indistinct sound drew closer, and then became the fast drumming of hooves. Walsh felt the turf vibrating beneath his boots the moment before horse and rider burst from the mist. The horse at a sleek gallop, neck extended, legs driving like pistons. The jockey crouched low over the animal’s withers, hands white-knuckled on the reins.
To see a horse gambol through an open field was beautiful. To watch a Thoroughbred breezing on the track – that was breathtaking.
Horse and jockey flew past, disappearing once more in the mist.
“Ha,” the trainer said to himself, clicking his stopwatch. “Fast,” he murmured. “Jesus, the beast is fast.”
He jotted figures on the clipboard he carried, and then made to turn away from the rail.
Walsh felt his grandfather’s hand between his shoulder blades, giving him a little shove forward.
Gramps cleared his throat. “ ‘Scuse me, sir?”
The trainer turned toward them, squinting to see through the fog. “Aye?”
Gramps gave another shove and Walsh was standing right in front of the trainer, head tilting back on his skinny neck so he could look up at the man.
“My grandson here,” Gramps said, “is a right fine rider. He wants to become an exercise rider. Wants to work the horses.” He gestured to the track.
The trainer leaned closer, inspecting Walsh from the top of his pale head to the scuffed toes of his outgrown boots. “I do need a new a rider. Had one broke his foot ‘bout a week ago. How old are you, boy?”
“Eighteen, sir,” Walsh lied.
The man grinned. “Sure you are. Can you sit a horse?”
“Like he’s glued in the bloody saddle,” Gramps said.
Walsh could only nod.
The trainer studied him a long moment, eyes hooded. Then he nodded. “Come back to the barn then, lad. Let’s see what we can find for you to do.”
“They’re back, chica.”
Of course they were. It was too much to hope for that they’d forgotten the way out here. “Good job, Kelsey. One more lap – keep those fingers light. Thumbs up. Atta girl. Then a nice, easy downward transition…there ya go. And walk him out. Let him have the reins.” Her final instruction of the lesson delivered, pleased with her young student’s progress, Emmie twisted around to face Fred.
The groom stood at the rail, hands folded over the top board, his expression one of resigned concern.
“How many this time?”
“Three.” He pushed back his straw sun hat and scratched at his forehead. There was a deep crease where the hatband had been. “Fancy men, with shiny new botas.” He lifted one of his dusty cowboy boots with a wry grin.
Emmie snorted. “Trying to look the part. Bastards.” She sighed. “Alright. I’ll head up and meet them. They’re at the barn?”
She turned back to face her student. Kelsey was ten, scrawny and tenacious in the way of all blooming equestrians. Emmie’s favorite student, if she was allowed to have favorites. Kelsey would die of heat stroke before admitting defeat; Emmie was the one who had to insist on water breaks.
“Great job, girlie,” Emmie told her, smiling. “Can you walk Champ out for me?”
The girl was beaming. “Yes!” Something as simple as cooling out a horse was thrilling for a kid with this kind of equine addiction.
“When he’s cool to the touch, bring him back to the barn and Fred can help you untack and put him away, alright?”
“Great job, baby!” Kelsey’s mom called from the rail. She turned to Emmie and said, “Is she really ready to unsaddle him by herself?” Her brows plucked together with worry.
“Totally ready,” Emmie assured her. In an undertone: “And the worst thing Champ’s ever done is raid the Apple Wafers bag. If y’all need anything, ask Fred.”
Emmie wanted to walk alongside the horse as Kelsey cooled him out, discuss the highs and lows of the lesson, map a course for next week’s lesson. It was her habit, a way to bond with her students and further their understanding. She liked to go up to the barn with them, instill good post-ride habits.
But she had three dicks in suits waiting on her, and wasn’t that a mood-killer?
“Thank you,” she told Fred on her way out of the arena, and he dipped his head in response.
Sweet Fred – she couldn’t run this place without him. Originally hired on by Mr. Richards as a landscaper, he’d come running to her aid one afternoon when Brett left a gate open. In his soft-spoken, gentle way, he’d explained – after the horses were all safely back in their paddocks – that he’d worked with horses in his native Nicaragua before immigrating north to the US. He’d told her to call him Fred, because his real name was difficult for Americans to pronounce.
He’d been promoted to head groom, and his help was indispensable. Because there were horse farms…
And then there was Briar Hall.
As she mounted the hill toward the stone and timber barn, Emmie had a view of the farm bathed in amber evening light. Verdant fields dotted with oaks; two 100’x200’ natural sand arenas with lights and sprinkler systems; outbuildings for hay and shavings in dark cypress wood; four-board black fencing across the property. The barn was a masterpiece: twenty stalls, tongue-and-groove wood on the interior, industrial fans over each stall, with four wash racks, massive tack room, office, and the loft apartment above, where she lived. Three cupolas set at intervals along the peak of the copper roof housed heating units that warmed the barn in the winter.
The property rolled gently upward from there, toward the pale stone house on the hill where Mr. Richards lived, alone since the passing of his wife last year.
All told, Briar Hall was sixty acres of horse heaven, a strip of forest hiding the property from its neighbors. It was more a home to Emmie than any house had ever been. From hangaround kid, to student, to stall-mucker, to groom, to working student – she’d poured her heart, her sweat, her blood, her life into this farm, and now, at twenty-nine, she was its manager.
And it was for sale.
Three men stood beside the black BMW X5 parked in front of the barn. Black suits, muted ties, and, as promised, shiny black cowboy boots with crazy-pointed toes. Two conferred, holding iPhones; the third scanned the front of the barn with obvious distaste.
Emmie felt sick.
She wiped her hands on the thighs of her breeches and forced a chilly smile. “Gentlemen,” she greeted as she approached. “You’re back.”
Phones were pocketed and one of them stepped forward, his smile detached, professional. “We’re here to talk with Mr. Richards again. He said you could show us up to the house, Ms. Johansen.”
Vultures, she thought. You awful bastards. “I can.” But she didn’t oblige them right away. “You guys have new boots.”
The man in front of her – she thought his name was Gannon – glanced down at his shoes. “Well” – he shrugged, made an attempt at a wry grin – “if I’m going to own a farm, I might as well get used to the attire, right?”
“Right.” She sighed. “Come on. We can take the Rhino.”
“Ratchet, what did your courthouse guy say?”
The secretary made a comical face, like he didn’t want to have to say what he was about to. “His girlfriend was the one who pulled the plat. The names match. The guy looking to buy Briar Hall is the same guy who called and talked to Ethan about the cattle property. Lance Gannon.”
Everyone at the table said “fuck” on the same breath.
“What do you know about him?” Ghost asked.
The zippered notebook came open, pages rustling. “He’s co-owner of a land development firm, with two other guys: his brother, Neal, and a cousin, Don Harmon. The housing market’s knocked ‘em on their ass, but they had a successful build about six months ago, that retirement condo village down near Spring City.”
“I’ve seen the place,” Dublin said grimly. “Four condos to a unit, real nice, with their own grocery store, gas station, restaurant, that kinda thing. All self-contained, so the old farts don’t ever have to leave. No offense to the elderly, mind,” he added, a glance thrown toward Troy’s empty chair.
“I don’t care what the amenities are like,” Ghost said. His face was thunderous. “I wanna know if they’ve got enough bank to buy out old man Richards.”
“Bank and then some,” Ratchet said with a wince. “These guys don’t mess, boss.”
Walsh turned his silver lighter around and around in one hand, watching the lamplight slide across its surface and fracture on his rings. Biding his time. Waiting until this clusterfuck was inevitably turned toward him. It was a stick of financial dynamite, and he was the one-man bomb squad.
Michael was the one who’d seen the sign. Almost a month ago, he’d taken Holly up to the cattle property to work on her target shooting, and he’d come back to report that there was a For Sale sign up at the street in front of Briar Hall, the cattle property’s long-standing neighbor.
Two weeks ago, someone had called Ethan Briscoe’s office, wanting to talk to the owner of “that piece of land beside Briar Hall.” Since Ghost had finagled the property deed around and set up a dummy corp as the land’s owner, Ethan’s office handled all phone calls and mail directed toward the place. The property wasn’t for sale, Ethan had told Gannon, end of story.
But now plats were being pulled for Briar Hall. And if a developer bought the horse farm, that would mean earth movers, construction crews, and eventually a whole boatload of nosy neighbors right next door to their shooting range and body dump.
“We gotta talk to Richards,” Aidan said, pulling in a deep drag off a fresh smoke. In the dim interior of the chapel, the scarred-over tats on his forearms looked darker than normal. “Convince him to hold out for a real buyer.”
“Pretty sure Gannon’s got real money,” Rottie said with a snort.
“I meant somebody who’s gonna keep it a farm,” Aidan clarified, rolling his eyes.
“Yeah, but that place’s gotta cost, what, at least a mil,” Tango said. “Not a lot of wannabe farmers walking around with that kinda change in their pockets.”
“We could advertise,” Briscoe said, tone only half-joking.
“ ‘Wanted: Rich Fucker Looking to Buy a Horse Farm.’ ”
Ghost shook his head. “Richards and his people have been quiet. No one comes over the fence, no one cares that we shoot out there. Even if Briar Hall stays a farm, who’s to say new neighbors won’t get nosy?”
“We convince them that’s a bad idea,” Mercy said with an elegant shrug, leaning back in his chair, looking satisfied with his logic.
“Cute.” Ghost smirked. “But I don’t think we’re to the fingernail-prying stage yet.”
“Aw, but boss, I’ve been so bored.” Mercy pretended to pout.
“Which would explain the reason I’ve got another grandson on the way, right?”
Chuckles rippled around the table.
“Seriously, though.” Ghost sobered, and the laughter died away. “We’re gonna have to figure out something.” His eyes flicked toward Walsh. “Everybody put your thinking caps on. In the meantime, I think we’re going to have to reconsider our go-to remains disposal techniques.”
Groans all around.
He ignored them. “I need you guys” – he gestured to Walsh and Michael on either side of him – “to head up to the property, get me a ballpark figure for how many bodies we’re talking. Make sure they’re good and deep underground. You” – Ratchet – “see what kinda dirt you can find on Gannon and his crew. You” – Mercy – “get a hobby that don’t involve gettin’ people pregnant, alright?”
A chorus of “yes, sir” and a big grin from Mercy dismissed the meeting.
Emmie had been inside the house countless times, but it never stopped impressing her. She led the developers around to the back entrance, up onto the wraparound porch, through the French doors of the library. The place had a library. The interior smelled of old pages and oiled leather, the cigars Mr. Richards enjoyed every evening while he read.
A door surrounded by bookshelves led into the adjoining office, and Emmie knocked once before opening it a fraction, peeking in.
Davis Richards sat at his massive marble-topped desk, scowling at his computer screen. He wasn’t a big man, but there was a Churchillian pugnacity to his broad face that lent him an air of total authority. He was seventy-six, looked sixty, and oversaw his operations – all of them – with a brusqueness that would have been cliché if not for the occasional burst of unexpected levity. He’d always treated Emmie well, and at times, he felt more like a grandfather than a boss.
His head swiveled toward her as the door opened. “What? Oh, Em, it’s you. You brought Gannon up?”
“Yes, sir.” She pushed the door wide. “They said you had an appointment with them.”
“Yeah, yeah, I do.” He waved the three suits closer with an impatient gesture. “Come sit down.” As she was backing out of the room, he said, “Thanks, Emmie. Everything going okay today?”
She gave him a quick smile. “Just fine.”
Except for the fact that you’re selling the farm to real estate developers, everything’s fucking peachy.
It felt wrong to stay, and press her ear to the door, so she went back outside, pausing a moment at the top of the stairs. The stone house with its heavy timber trimwork seemed to glow in the evening light, the façade gleaming gold. From the porch, she could see most of the farm stretched out below. Tranquil, drowsy in the faded heat.
What would she do without this place? There were other farms, other students, other places she could go. But the landscape of her heart bore the image of this place, this farm.
The Rhino was waiting for her in front of the garage doors and she climbed behind the wheel. Let the flashy suits walk back down to the barn, she thought, cranking the engine.
Briar Hall was in its usual evening uproar: horses pawing at gates, whinnying, calling to her as she parked. The steady sounds of buckets rattling and pellets sluicing into feeders signaled that Becca was pouring dinner.
Emmie passed Tonya on her way into the barn. The leggy brunette led her gelding, Chaucer, out through the double doors, looking more like a Dover catalogue model in her fawn breeches and white poplin shirt than a serious equestrian. But serious she was, Emmie's most talented student, cool and beautiful and elegant.
“Running through your tests tonight?” Emmie asked.
Tonya nodded. “The transition after the second half-pass needs work."
“You want me to come watch for a bit?”
Tonya shrugged and tossed a disinterested glance over her shoulder toward the busy barn aisle. “If you have time, sure.”
She'd known the high-dollar socialite too long now to be offended by her tone. “ ‘Kay,” Emmie said, and kept moving.
Kelsey and her mother were saying goodbye to Champ, Kelsey flinging her arms around the stout gelding’s neck for one last hug. Then Kelsey hugged Emmie, and Emmie felt that rare warm stir of emotion that sometimes left her lamenting her lack of children.
“Good job, today, I’ll see you next week.”
“Okay!” Kelsey was all gap-toothed smile and girlhood exuberance when it came to the horses; in truth, she reminded Emmie of herself at that age.
Becca came down the aisle, tower of eight-quart buckets in her skinny arms. “They’re back,” she said, wrinkling her nose, and Emmie nodded.
“Unfortunately, yeah. I just took them up to see Davis.”
“Though, actually,” Becca dropped her voice, “this is really all Amy’s fault. Her dad builds her this barn, and she up and runs off to Kentucky. Ungrateful–”
“I’m still not one-hundred-percent sure there aren’t cameras in here,” Emmie reminded, smiling despite herself.
Becca clamped her lips shut, eyes bugging. “Oops.”
Emmie laughed, hollowly. “It’s okay. I ditto that too,” she whispered, “but let’s try not to get fired before our jobs are eliminated.”
“Right.” Becca nodded and walked off. “I’ll start with the left side of the driveway,” she called over her shoulder. “I’ll let you get the Beast’s pasture.”
That would be Emmie’s horse, Apollo. Who Becca and Fred referred to as either the Beast, Widowmaker, or El Diablo. He was the first one at the gate every night, no exceptions, and none of the other horses challenged him.
Emmie grabbed a carrot from the tack room fridge and took her first deep, relaxing breath of the afternoon, heading out the front doors. It had been one shock after the next lately – Amy announcing she was marrying and moving all her horses to Kentucky; Davis deciding to sell the farm; developer after developer making their way up the drive in low-slung black cars. In the midst of the whirlwind, she was losing touch with the part of her that thrived on the even keel of farm life, forgetting to enjoy the quiet moments. She hadn’t ridden in days.
She took a deep breath of summer-scented air as she headed down the driveway, resolving to shove all thoughts of leaving Briar Hall out of her head.
In the dressage arena, Tonya warmed Chaucer up at a swinging trot, horse and rider in perfect sync. Emmie watched them a moment as she walked, mentally approving of the way Tonya’s hands rested light on the reins, letting the horse stretch.
“Em!” Becca shouted, startling her. “He’s doing it again! Tally!”
Emmie glanced toward the pasture she was headed for…and sure enough, there went Tally, leaping neatly over the five-foot fence and taking off at a mad gallop toward the trees.
It was early when church let out, and after a brief discussion in the common room, Walsh and Michael decided to head up to the cattle property now, avoiding the heat of the day tomorrow and getting a jump on whatever was to be done there. They shared an intolerance for waiting, in that regard.
The sun was at its sharp evening slant when they parked their bikes in front of the falling-down farmhouse and dismounted.
Walsh was slow about tugging off his gloves, straightening his rings. He took a moment to let the country air fill his lungs; he traced the rolling pastureland with his eyes. The grass rippled in gleaming waves as the wind caught it. Clusters of doves lifted from their hiding places and took awkward flight.
He loved it here. Nothing but the animals and the faded whispers of the dead to disturb the quiet. One of the few places in his brother-crowded world where he could feel his insides unclench.
“You good?” Michael asked. There was the faintest edge of impatience in his normally flat voice; he wanted to go home to Holly, and Lucy, and whatever hot dinner awaited him in the oven.
“Yeah.” Walsh laid his gloves on the seat of his bike and pulled a notepad and pen from his inside cut pocket. “You were the last one to have a burial up here. Lead the way.”
Tally was short for Tally-Ho, a name that had left the entire barn staff in stitches…until they’d realized how appropriate the name was for the Thoroughbred. On an almost weekly basis, Tally went over a fence. For a while, they’d turned him out in the round pen, because its eight-foot solid board walls couldn’t be leapt. But it had been a cruelty, keeping such a large, energetic horse in such a small enclosure. They’d swapped pastures, putting him in with Apollo’s herd, and for a few weeks, the change seemed to please him, and he’d stayed put. But tonight showed him back to his old ways.
“I’m sorry, Fred, you’re sure you don’t need our help?”
“Sí. You better catch Loco, before his madre shows up and yells at us.”
“No kidding.” Emmie dropped the saddle flap and ran down the stirrup. “Don’t worry about Apollo’s fly sheet; I’ll take it off when I get back.”
She buckled on her helmet and glanced toward the neighboring wash rack, where Becca saddled her gelding, Mocha. “Ready?”
Quick click of Becca’s helmet strap. “Yep.”
Emmie draped Tally’s halter and lead-rope over one arm and gathered the loose reins of her mount. She adored Apollo, but search-and-rescue wasn’t his strong suit. She’d saddled her favorite lesson horse, Sherman, almost seventeen hands of solid, level-headed Quarter Horse with a knack for just about everything.
Sherman turned to regard her through sleepy brown eyes, the lopsided blaze on his face giving the impression that he was lifting one nostril in question.
“Let’s go find your dumb friend, okay?” she told the horse, patting his shoulder and leading him from the barn.
Tonya was on her way back into the barn as Emmie and Becca left. “Tally got out again?” she guessed.
“He wanted to make sure I got a ride in today,” Emmie said with a fast, false smile. The prospect of wrangling the wild Thoroughbred left her exhausted. “Good ride?” she asked Tonya.
“Better than the one you’re about to have.”
She and Becca mounted and steered their horses down the driveway, toward the run between two pastures where Tally had disappeared. The grass needed cutting and it swished around the horses’ fetlocks as they walked. Mocha and Sherman stepped with coiled energy, necks stretching forward as an evening breeze ruffled their short manes.
It wasn’t the ride Emmie would have chosen, but there was no fighting the magic of being in the saddle. Sherman had an easy, swinging walk and the motion of his shoulders rolling soothed her nerves. She pulled in a deep breath and let it out slowly, felt the tension bleed from the backs of her legs as his ribcage pushed at them.
“It’s really happening, isn’t it?” Becca said quietly beside her. “They’re really selling this place. And those dickheads are going to turn it into a freaking shuffleboard court.”
Emmie heaved a deep sigh that caught in her throat; her eyes burned and she blinked hard as she stared between Sherman’s ears at the grass ahead. “I’ve gone through so many scenarios in my mind: What if we bought it ourselves?”
Becca made a gasping sound of shock beside her that quickly turned into an excited squeal.
“What if we started raising money? Hosted a tack sale. A 4-H show, and put all the proceeds toward a collective purchase of Briar Hall? What if we all chipped in – you, me, Fred – and we went to the bank to take out a loan? What if we tried to get Tonya’s family to buy it?”
“Tonya!” Becca exclaimed. “That’s it! Her dad’s loaded. We’ll get him to buy it, and she wouldn’t have any reason to fire us, and we could….You’re shaking your head.”
“Because I already asked Tonya, and her family already has a farm; they don’t want this one. And because no tack sale, or benefit show, or loan in the world will get our three broke asses enough money to buy this place.” Emmie cleared her throat and hoped it didn’t sound like she was on the verge of sniffling. “This is the problem with falling in love with someplace that isn’t yours – it won’t ever be yours.”
“It’s not fair,” Becca said fiercely.
“Davis is old, and this is a lot for him to handle,” Emmie said, knowing it was the truth.
“What does he handle? You run everything, and he just signs the checks.”
“You know what I think it is? I think he just doesn’t want all his kids fighting about it when he finally kicks off.”
She started to protest…but nodded instead. “I’d say that’s a big possibility.”
“I just don’t want to leeeeaaavvve,” Becca groaned, bending at the waist and draping her torso across Mocha’s neck. The gelding snorted in annoyance but otherwise tolerated her theatrics.
Emmie smiled faintly at the display, feeling chilled and depressed inside. She knew, when the inevitable departure came, Becca would land on her feet. Eighteen, fresh out of high school and taking a semester or two to work, she was personable, responsible, bubbly, and could meld easily into a new barn and a new situation. She and Mocha would find another boarding or training facility to take them, and she’d swap chores for her board, and she’d start college, and in less than a year’s time, the heartbreak of Briar Hall would have faded.
Emmie, on the other hand, was going to be scraped off the side of this place like bubbled-up lead paint, and wherever she went, she’d be starting all over, back to square one; no longer a trusted decision-maker, but the new-girl. The new, almost-thirty, boring, dry, workaholic girl with the difficult horse no one wanted to bring in from the pasture. Not to mention she couldn’t afford to board Apollo; she needed to work off his rent. And, now that she thought of it, she’d need a place to live, because going home to the folks just wasn’t an option.
Dwelling on it was getting her nowhere fast.
With a firm mental shake, she cleared her head. “Which way did he go, you think?” she asked as they reached the end of the run and had to choose to follow the property line to the left or right.
“Well, all those briars Brett was supposed to trim back are to the left,” Becca said. “So…”
“He went left,” they said in unison.
“These’ll be the two kids who were bothering Ava,” Michael said, gesturing to the innocuous patch of grass between two sapling pines. A good spot; the trees were small, still, so the roots hadn’t provided much obstruction, but as they grew, the roots would further till the bones.
“Ronnie and Mason,” Walsh said, writing down the location on his pad and putting two tally marks beside it.
“That should be it.” Michael folded his arms and didn’t seem to know what to do with himself, then, mouth curled sharply with distaste for this whole business. At least, that was how Walsh read his expression. What seemed a deep frown for Michael was just a facial twitch on someone else. “How many you got total?”
Walsh ticked through the list and whistled. “Thirty-seven.”
“The Carpathians were a…large deposit.”
“But”- Walsh stowed his pen and pad away, straightened his cut and dug out a smoke – “the graves look good. Not too much erosion, no odor. All of it was done by the book. Digging ‘em up would be a bloody nightmare.”
“It’s not possible,” Michael agreed. “Some have been here for fifteen years. Nothing left but bone and dust. And you get that stuff up in the air, on the ground – dogs can sniff that out.”
“Hmm,” Walsh agreed, taking his first drag. “Better to leave ‘em.”
By unspoken agreement they headed back for their bikes, the walking slow in the rough grass. Twilight was hitting hard, and the farm around them was pulling on its blanket of shadows as the first stars flared to life overhead. It would be full dark soon, and then the property would become a whole other world, one that belonged to the quiet things that watched them now from the trees; things that slunk along on silent bellies, with yellow eyes and strange calls that echoed across the empty pastures.
It was a good dump ground, and Ghost had used it wisely. Not one body had been buried before the farm had been “sold” to the dummy corporation that now owned it. As far as the city knew, Ghost Teague didn’t own shit aside from his home and business. The club was careful with its comings and goings, and up till now, their activity on the old cattle farm had been invisible.
But if a whole village of retirees moved in next door…
If there was shopping and entertainment and all sorts of staff…
It was something that bothered Walsh more than he’d said aloud.
All his Tennessee chapter brothers had grown up in the States; several had visited London, but they hadn’t been raised there. They knew nothing of the din and stench and jostle of a city that size. Day in, day out, London had eaten at him, like acid rain crumbling away his hard edges over time, until he’d become this smooth, emotionless shell.
Until Gramps died, summers in East Sussex with his grandfather had been the highlight of his childhood life. His mother had fretted over him, worried that he had no father. “A boy should spend some time with men, learning how to be one,” she’d told him, and when he was four, she’d begun packing him off to her father’s house for two months out of the year.
It was in Rottingdean, East Sussex that he’d realized he was a boy misplaced in the world. He could close his eyes now and return there, to the bedroom that overlooked the back garden, the nubby clean-smelling blanket beneath his cheek, weak sunshine warming his bare arms, the scent of Gram’s roses beyond the open window being swept up in the salt tang coming in from the beach. He could hear the ham frying and hear Gramps singing and he could hear birds. Real, actual songbirds, on the window ledge and in the garden, calling to one another.
Summers became his life, and all the months in between merely his existence. Rottingdean was roses and cottage gardens; it was fumbling, pleasant-faced tourists and friendly locals. Cozy pubs, fingers sticky with candy, a belly full of Gram’s fatty cooking. It was games of chase through walled back gardens with boys who didn’t tease him for being so small. It was his bare sun-browned toes digging into the cool sand on the beach, and the sun striking off the white cliff face high above. Day trips to Brighton. Endless walks outside the town, into fields that fostered his wildest boyhood imaginings.
He didn’t belong in the cheek-by-jowl world of cities. He belonged somewhere drowsy and soft. It was why he loved Tennessee. It was why something as sad as an abandoned cattle farm meant something to him outside its body-hiding attributes.
“Did you hear that?” Michael asked, startling him, slamming him back to the present.
He halted, going still all over. The wind touched his face. “What?”
And there it was: a scream.
It wasn’t a human one, though.
“What the hell?” Michael asked under his breath. His hand went to his waistband, the gun stashed there.
Walsh put his thumb and forefinger in his mouth and whistled, one sharp blast that made Michael wince and flushed doves from the grass.
A moment later, a figure emerged from behind a stand of trees partway up the driveway. A snorting, head-tossing, four-legged figure, who stepped to the center of the path and stared at them, nostrils flared. The horse was a dark, gleaming bay, rangy and long-necked, black tail cocked like he was prepared to bolt.
“Ghost got horses up there in the barn we don’t know about?” Michael asked dryly.
Walsh whistled again, and the horse took a few steps toward them, threw his head up, and snorted explosively.
Walsh started up the driveway, toward the horse and the old vacant barn beyond it, pace steady so he wouldn’t spook the animal.
“What are you gonna do?” Michael asked behind him, and he sounded annoyed.
He didn’t know. But his feet were taking him up the hill.
“It’s locked,” Emmie said grimly, surveying the gate in front of her. They’d found hoofprints in the deep mud right at the property’s edge, and they’d fought their way through honeysuckle and low-hanging tree limbs up to the fence. They’d found this gate that separated Briar Hall from its neighbor. And they’d found it locked, with a padlock that only bolt cutters could overcome.
“Is there a key at the barn?” Becca asked behind her, where she held both horses out from under the dense cover of branches.
“Not that I know about.” Emmie gave the lock a tug, and the rusty chain scratched at the tubular gate. She had a sinking suspicion the neighbors had been the ones to put the lock in place.
She tilted her head back and looked up at the sky through the latticework of leaves above. It was almost dark, the landscape a miasma of purple shadows and indistinct outlines. She had a small flashlight and her cellphone in her breeches pockets, Tally’s halter still slung over one shoulder.
Doubtless, all the horses were in by now. Tally’s owner had probably arrived, and was wondering where her baby was.
“Stay with the horses,” she said, stepping onto the lowest rung of the gate. “I’m going to go have a look around and see if I can find him.”
“No!” Becca protested.
Emmie glanced over her shoulder and found the girl staring at her with horror.
“Who even owns that place over there? What if, like, some crazy old farmer dude with a shotgun and a pitchfork is just waiting to…fork somebody to death,” she finished, face going red with distress. “You can’t go alone, Em.”
“Someone has to stay with the horses.” And, she added to herself, if one of us has to get arrested for trespassing, better me than the kid with the bright future. “I won’t be gone long, and I’ll call you if I need help.” She touched her phone where its outline showed through her pocket. She grinned. “You know, if I almost get forked to death.”
“You are not funny.”
“And it’s not getting any lighter. I’ll be back.” Without leaving room for argument, Emmie climbed up and over the gate, landing in a soft crush of ferns, and started off at a brisk walk before Becca could talk any sense into her.
There was evidence of Tally’s passage: trampled undergrowth, more moon-shaped tracks in the soft soil, visible as Emmie passed the flashlight across the ground.
The sky retained color, but down low along the grass, it was already nighttime.
Something skittered in the brush and she jumped, sucked in a breath, berated herself. She was no stranger to the dark, or to the woods, for that matter. With the exception of Fred, Briar Hall was seriously lacking in the white knight department, and she’d learned to just suck up her worries and soldier on.
A little chill went down her back, light as the stroke of a finger. There was something about being five-feet-tall and wandering alone on someone else’s land as night fell. She knew nothing about the people who owned this property, only that she heard the muted crack of distant gunshots on occasion. Becca’s description of a farmer bearing a shotgun and pitchfork was a real possibility, one that left her mouth dry.
The clump of forest began to thin as she walked, last year’s leaf litter crunching under her feet. Big flashes of indigo sky became visible, and then, swatting a cypress branch aside, she was striding into a pasture, a broad expanse of tangled grasses swaying in the wind.
Off to her right, a barn loomed as a dark shape stamped against the sky. It gave off that distinctly abandoned vibe: overgrown at its base, one massive door flapping idly. There were no lights, no vehicles, no homey scents of animals floating toward her.
What was this place?
A shrill whinny pierced the gloom, and she started, jogging forward a few steps through the tall grass. “Tally?” she called. She puckered her lips and made a loud kissing sound. “Tally, come here, man. I don’t wanna hike all over this damn place looking for you.”
“Don’t suspect you’ll have to, love,” a male voice called out to her. “I’ve got him down here.”
Emmie froze, heart slamming up into her throat. Her skin shrank tight over her bones, the sensation painful, as panic coursed through her in sudden, hot currents.
She felt like one of the horses she cared for: Stranger Danger! And a strange man, at that. She wasn’t afraid of men, but being five-foot-nothing had its strength disadvantages when you were talking strange men in dark pastures.
She wrapped her hand tight around the flashlight and let the beam precede her as she stepped over the small rise ahead, and surveyed what lay below.
Two men stood in the center of a dirt driveway, both in dark clothes, one dark-headed, the other pale in the glow of the flashlight. The blonde had a belt looped right behind Tally’s ears, holding the horse beneath his throatlatch with a makeshift collar.
It was the blonde who glanced toward her, squinting against the glare. “Put that away before you blind everybody,” he said, and it confirmed her initial impression. He was English, the accent unmistakable. The words were said kindly, but in a way that suggested he meant to be listened to.
Emmie aimed the flashlight down at her boots. It was dark, but she could still see both men, and the white of Tally’s eye as he glanced at her and snorted.
“Easy,” the Englishman told the horse, stroking his neck. Something flashed on his hand. Rings, maybe?
Emmie pushed down the fear rising in her belly and took a deep breath. “I’m so sorry he bothered you,” she said, pulling the halter down off her shoulder and stepping forward. “I hope he didn’t damage anything. He’s a boarder’s horse, and we can’t seem to keep him inside a fence.”
The blonde man held onto the belt until she had the halter secure on Tally’s head, then pulled it free and stepped back; slow, deliberate movements like he’d been around horses before. Greenhorns all shared a certain clumsiness. This man eased back smoothly, sliding the belt back through the loops on his jeans.
“No harm done,” he said. “Gave us a bit of a start, seeing him come over the hill. I thought somebody’d be along to find him eventually.”
She took a firm grip on the leadline, acutely aware of the dark-haired man’s stare off to the side. His malevolence was visible even in the failing light. “Well…thank you for catching him.” She clucked to Tally and began to turn him away.
The Englishman spoke again. “You came over from Briar Hall, yeah?”
She paused, skin still prickling, nerves rattling her breath. “Yes. I wouldn’t have trespassed, but Tally–”
He waved off the explanation with a dismissive gesture. “If you don’t mind me asking, how’d you get over here?”
She swallowed, and her throat felt sticky on the inside. “There’s an old gate, just up that way. It was locked, so I climbed over.”
When he said nothing else, only continued to stare at her, she cleared her throat and said, “Well, I’d better get him back…Come on, Tally.”
She had her back to the men when Mr. English said, “How’re you gonna lift the beast over, love?” He breathed a sound that might have been a laugh.
“I’ll figure something out,” she said, face burning, glad of the concealing darkness.
“Hold on,” he told her. “I’ve got the key.” A metallic jangle proved his point.
He moved up on her left, and Tally tugged at the line. She started walking again, feeling trapped between the two of them.
Her British horse-catcher wasn’t tall, she noted as they moved. His chin was on eye-level.
So maybe, if he was a psycho rapist, she stood half a chance of kneeing him in the jewels and making a break for it.
His friend, though…That guy ought to be interrogating mafia rats somewhere.
“Briar Hall’s for sale, isn’t it?” the blonde asked beside her.
Warning sirens pinged in her head, sirens she would have heeded on a normal day. But she was tired, frightened, and emotionally taxed. “Unfortunately.”
“Hmph.” God knew what that sound meant. “How much does old man Richards want for it?”
“More than is polite for me to ask him about.”
“You work for him then?”
“I’m the barn manager.”
“So you run the place.”
“You turning a decent profit?”
“Excuse me?” She shouldn’t be talking to him. She should just close her trap, let him unlock the gate, and then get the hell out of here.
“Does the barn make money?” he continued, unabashed. “All your horse-keeping, and lessons, and what have you. Is it profitable?”
She scowled at the dark trees ahead of them. “You’d have to ask Davis.” A thought struck her. “Why?” she asked with a snort. “You interested in buying the place?”
“I might be.”
That shocked her into silence.
Before she could gather a comeback, a low whicker issued from the brush ahead of them.
“Friends?” the blonde asked.
“Em?” Becca called. “Is that you?”
“Yeah,” she called back. “I’ve got Tally. Everything’s fine.”
“Who are you talking to?” Becca asked, voice uncertain.
“Your pitchfork-wielding farmer,” Emmie shot back.
The Englishman made another of those indecipherable sounds in his throat and they ducked beneath the branches to get to the gate.
“No, for real,” Becca insisted in a loud, frightened voice.
So done with this entire ordeal, Emmie said, “I have no idea. Some dude. But he’s got the key, so he gets props for that.”
She thought her English savior was laughing as the key slid into the lock and the thing came apart with a loud, rusty sound.
“Is he, like, a total serial killer?” Becca asked.
“Probably,” Emmie called back. “My working student,” she explained to the blonde. “She gets a little dramatic.”
In answer, the gate squealed as it was forced open, long weeds and brambles catching at the lower rungs.
Visible only as shadows, Becca, Sherman, and Mocha appeared on the other side.
“Oh my God,” Becca said. “I was so worried.”
Tally whinnied to his friends and they answered.
Emmie hesitated, turning to her gate-unlocker. “Thank you,” she told him, and meant it.
“Go on,” he said. “Don’t be losing hold of that nag.”
She wasn’t sure, but as she walked through the gate, she thought she caught the quick gleam of white teeth as he grinned.