Authors: Lauren Gilley
The Skeleton King
Dartmoor Book III
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and events are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Names and characters are the property of the author and may not be duplicated.
THE SKELETON KING
ISBN -13: 978-1516905874
Copyright © 2015 by Lauren Gilley
Cover photograph Copyright © 2015 by Lauren Gilley
All rights reserved.
The Dartmoor Series
Price of Angels
Half My Blood
The Skeleton King
The Lean Dogs
Ghost – President
Walsh- Vice President
Michael – Sgt. at Arms
Ratchet – Secretary
Hound – Tracker
Rottie – Tracker
Mercy – Extractor
Aidan – Ghost’s son
Tango – Aidan’s best friend
Collier – incarcerated
The Old Ladies
Maggie – Ghost
Ava – Mercy
Holly – Michael
Nell – Hound
Mina – Rottie
Jackie – Collier
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.”
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
.” 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.”
, 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
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
. 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
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.