Happy New Year! It is a New Release Day! Yay!
Here’s the first chapter:
1: Behold a Pale Horse…
Death is no stranger. I have known it. Tasted it. Seen its violent colours. Its abrupt finality. Yet still, I didn’t see it coming.
Three days the sheets have hung there. Rain has fallen solidly since yesterday. I ride past the Jacksons’ place once again, look over, and there they remain, sodden, clinging to the line, like limp blue sails. It’s unlike Jan to have left them out. She runs a tight ship, one that puts mine to shame.
I trawl my memory to see if I can recall her telling me they were going away. She usually would do, as I feed the cats. The faintest whisper of alarm creeps over me. The cats are a fancy, flat-faced, fluffy breed, ill-equipped to provide for themselves. Even now, they could be fading away from starvation. But I come up blank. I always put stuff like that on the calendar. Always. And there’s nothing written on it, I checked earlier.
The cars are in the drive. Another sign they’ve gone nowhere. We last saw them on Boxing Day, but maybe they’d holed up over what remained of the Christmas period. Hibernated away like a sleuth of bears, to watch endless box sets on TV, while they ate their way through multiple snacks and leftover selection boxes. That, I could understand, almost, if it were only John and Jan at home, although it is out of character even for them, but the girls are of an age where they are unlikely to tolerate too much time with the oldies. For instance the eldest, Jenny, has her own car and would surely have wanted to see the New Year in with friends. Yet there it is, in the drive along with those of her parents, and like them, as far as I can tell, appears not to have moved for several days, the gravel still dry underneath. It makes little sense. Even if they were ill, there would surely have been some signs of life. That thought alone is enough to make me uneasy.
I’m now well past the Jacksons’ place, Number 9, and nearly out of the village, so I turn my attention back to Macca. She is one occupant of my livery yard, her owner an Australian. I push her forward into a trot, a pace we keep up for the next hour, to build fitness. Throughout the ride I keep my collar turned against the wind, my face tucked down low to protect myself from the bitter sting of rain coming in on a slant. I slow to a walk for the last half mile to cool Macca down before we get back to the yard.
As I dismount, my eager terrier Scout greets me as though I’ve been gone for a week. I lean down to scrabble her ears. It’s a shame, but I’ve lost her down one too many rabbit holes, so she can no longer accompany me when I ride out. It isn’t worth the worry to come to her rescue so often and I can’t bear the thought that one day I might never find her. Now she has to make do with the free run of the stables and adjoining paddocks, scarcely a hardship. As I stand straight again, I roll my shoulders to release the tension built up as I cowered from the elements throughout the ride.
After I put Macca away, I’m kept busy the rest of the morning. Although some owners have shaken off their New Year celebrations and arrived to deal with their own horses, not all have been so keen to brave the filthy weather, so I still have two more liveries to exercise. I’ve also given Harry and Pip the day off, something I always regret, but know they’ll appreciate. This means I still have several more stables to muck out, and the yard duties to do. I’m nowhere near finished when my growling stomach tells me it’s lunchtime and, as I’ve been on the go since six, I need the break.
I cross to the house, Scout at my heels. She sniffs around her food bowl for any surprise treats and curls up in her bed for a snooze. I peel myself out of my wet outerwear, spread my long riding coat over the dryer, and lever my boots off. Then, as the Jacksons have not been far from my mind since the first ride out, when I enter the kitchen from the utility room I glance up at the row of keys to check I still have one for Number 9. I find it buried on the end hook, and my fingers, stiff with cold, struggle to free it from those that rest on top.
‘Can I help with whatever it is you’re looking for?’ interrupts my thoughts and I glance over my shoulder to see my husband, Seb, in the doorway. I finally get the key off the hook and lay it on the windowsill, my intention to pop round to check on the place after lunch. Seb walks further into the kitchen, looking warm and toasty in his thick sweater, the pink pages of his paper folded and held in one hand; the other in his pocket. Clearly, he’s had an easier morning than I have, but I know he’ll have done something about lunch. I’m not disappointed as he spins the dial on the microwave to heat the soup.
‘Thanks, but all sorted. It was the key to Number 9 I wanted,’ I say, as he envelops me in a hug, my head tucking neatly under his chin.
Heat radiates off him and I soak as much in as I can, cramming my icy hands up under his armpits, before he grumbles, ‘You’re freezing.’ Stoically, he continues to enclose me in his arms and holds me tight to encourage the heat transfer, one hand wandering lower until it rests on my bottom.
‘I know, fortunately I have you around to warm me up,’ I say, and with the growling of my empty stomach overriding my need for his warmth, I pull away to run my hands under the tap before I take two large rolls out of the bread bin, split and butter them. “I’m going to go round after lunch, as I’m worried. There’s been no sign of them for days.’
‘Go round where?’ The start of the conversation is already forgotten.
‘On New Year’s Day?’ Incredulity is etched into every word. ‘They’ll have been to a party and are sleeping it off.’ I pause. I hadn’t considered that. As I think about it, I realise not everyone lives like me with a need for early nights caused by pre-dawn starts. Some people even go out past midnight.
‘But the sheets are out. Something’s wrong.’
‘The what?’ His eyes narrow with confusion. I knew that wouldn’t make sense to anyone but me. He makes the tea, and I split the soup between our bowls as I explain further.
‘Jan has sheets out on the line. She must have hung them out during those bright couple of days after Christmas, but they’re still there and it’s raining.’
‘So, what, you’re going to take them in?’
‘The sheets? No, well, I might do while I’m there, in case they’re ill. Although, you’d think one of them would have been able to have done that.’ I mull over this thought as I take the seat opposite Seb and trust the first spoonful of steaming soup rather tentatively to my mouth.
Seb goes quiet and stares into his bowl, deep in thought. He looks over at me with that awkwardly apologetic expression he has when he thinks I won’t like what he’s about to say. ‘You’re not going to like this but I don’t think you should go round there today.’ I meet the eyes of my ever-so-reasonable husband and shrug, because he’s right, I don’t like it. Knowing me only too well, he peers over his glasses at me, realises he’s left them on, and as he hates any outward sign of his advancing years removes them, placing them on the table before he continues in his conciliatory manner. ‘They’re probably having a quiet family New Year’s Day. That is what normal people do, you know. Not everyone’s like you with dozens of animals to look after so barely gets so much as a lie-in.’ His eyes crease pleasantly at the corners as he warms to his theme. ‘Some people actually spend the whole day in their pyjamas. They have, what do you call them…?’ and he points the half-eaten roll he’s holding in my direction as he looks at me, perplexed, as if I would have the answer. I see the look of satisfaction land on his face as he remembers, ‘… duvet days. Yes. That’s what they have. Duvet days.’ He dunks his bread, happy he’s solved the mystery.
‘Hmm, one of those sounds great.’ I fantasise for mere seconds on this before I remember I have no patience for such indulgence. I’d manage, maybe, one film under the covers before guilt would drive me back out into the yard.
‘That life could be yours, you know?’ Seb says, and his eyebrows arch as if it’s merely a suggestion when we both know it’s not. ‘And I wouldn’t mind the opportunity to spend a day or two under the duvet with you.’ He gives me a cheeky grin, which I can’t help but respond to with a smile, but as I continue eating, I return to the problem occupying so much of my thoughts. Much as I hate to admit it, he’s probably right. Today might not be the best day to pop in, in case Seb is correct and they are in the middle of a family day, which I’d hate to interrupt. I consider phoning instead, but dismiss that option for the same reasons.
My friends having a duvet day doesn’t explain the sheets, though. However, while that continues to puzzle, I realise I’ve already got plenty to fill my afternoon so, relieved not to have another thing to fit into it, I decide to put off my visit until the next day and change the subject.
‘When you haven’t been thinking about getting me under a duvet today, what have you been up to?’
‘Oh you know, the usual.’ I don’t know, actually, but as I murmur something to encourage some conversation, he inclines his head towards his newspaper. ‘Checking my portfolio, researching potential investments, that sort of thing.’
That sort of thing.
Seb, (called Sebastian by everyone other than me) and I are a case of opposites attracting. As such, we agreed early in our relationship that we would each stick to what we did best. Because he, unbelievably, doesn’t like horses, and I don’t have the slightest interest in whatever it is he does for a living. Crucially though, we support each other in whatever way we can, and while I’m painfully aware that he does far more for me than I ever do in return, this makes our marriage work.
When he isn’t doing his work from home, he works in the City. Something to do with high yield investments and hedge funds. Stuff which I don’t fully understand, even though he’s explained it to me. Because I have no interest in it, I don’t ‘get it’ as he has said on more than one occasion. A bit like how he’d react should I try to explain the ins and outs of snaffles and pelhams, I imagine. I can see it now, the glazed look forming across his features as he tries not to yawn with boredom.
I leave him to what I suspect will become a doze in front of the wood burner for a good part of the afternoon and wrap up warmly before I venture back outside. Scout jumps up the minute she sees me put on my boots. She’s a scruffy brown terrier of indeterminate origin and, as my most faithful of companions, would never let me go to work unaccompanied, however cosy her bed.
As I close the gate to the yard behind me, I smile, surprised to hear a familiar whistle. I know exactly who it comes from. Harry. I turn the corner and can see he’s picked up from where I left off. I look in at the stable door.
‘I wasn’t expecting to see you here.’
‘I know, but there’s only so much lying around you can do. I need some fresh air.’ His Irish lilt is as strong as it was when I first met him many years ago.
‘So, you thought what better way to clear the hangover than by mucking out a stinky stable or two?’ I grin at him. It’s good to see him, and as always I appreciate his help. He knew I would have my work cut out for me today and the sacrifice of his limited free time is the sort of selfless act I’ve come to expect from him. Harry is an artist. He lives in the self-contained “granny annex” (which he prefers to call a flat) of the old manor house a couple of doors down (although with the houses spaced as they are here that is some three hundred metres away). I love his art, a lot of it horse related, both paintings and sculptures, but as he’s a creative being, his income comes from several sources. He runs workshops and art classes and sells his work through a few different outlets. He also puts in shifts at the local pub, The Red Calf; delivers papers and groceries for the shop on an old rickety bike with a large basket on the front and trailer on the back – and puts in more hours than I pay him for in my stable yard. I’d initially protested when he arrived earlier and stayed later than his allotted shift, because I couldn’t afford to pay him for more, but he assured me he was happy to do it. He’d once told me it kept him out of trouble, he enjoyed being around horses and that it was, after all, research for his art. I’d therefore parked the guilt about it long ago and gratefully accepted the extra help.
I shout through from the next stable as I make a start on it, ‘Big night at the pub? Did you see in the New Year?’
‘Yes…’ is his slightly muffled response, ‘… though I ended up working as Mike was short-staffed.’
‘That’s a shame.’
‘I don’t mind the extra, plus it stopped me from hanging today.’
‘Good point.’ I end the conversation to break open a bale of straw and replenish the bed.
Between us, we make quick work of the rest of the yard. Once the last stable is clean and bedded down with fresh straw, we spend what remains of the afternoon working through the long list of things to do. While it’s still light, we go out to the paddocks to check on the ponies. Harry loads up the trailer behind the quad bike with hay nets and while I leap on and off to open and close gates for him, we travel around the fields to check on the occupants of each, hanging up fresh nets and removing empty ones. All the ponies are rugged up and most have had the sense to take cover under the field shelters I had built a few years ago but there are a few I spot, Bassett, Puffin, Smokey and Topaz among them, who prefer to use the hedges for protection, turning their hindquarters into the prevailing wind. Finally, we give them all some hard feed for a much needed winter boost, though Copper comes to nibble at my arm for some affection before tucking in, and I make a mental note to keep an eye on him in case he’s going off his food.
Daylight has dwindled by the time we get back to the yard. I switch on the lights in the stables, delighted as always to see heads over each of the doors as the occupants wait for us, some more patiently than others. We visit each box to adjust rugs, groom those that need it, top up water buckets and hay nets, before delivering the highly anticipated last feeds. Harry and I work like a well-oiled machine; we’ve done this together many times.
When all the daily tasks are done, it’s already been dark for three hours and I’m back in the house, I send a text to Jan, to wish her a happy New Year. I add, I hope she’s okay and raise the possibility I’ll pop round tomorrow to catch up. I keep it breezy, like I don’t have a care in the world, and wonder why I hadn’t thought to have done this earlier. It’s such a simple non-intrusive method of contact, but we are low-maintenance friends and as such are rarely in touch outside our planned meet-ups.
I keep my phone by my side.
There’s no response.
A Killer Strikes is now available to buy. The publication date is today, 1 January 2023.
The perfect family… The perfect murders…
A family massacred. A village in mourning. Can anyone sleep safely while a killer is on the loose?
Laura Percival, owner of The Stables, notices something wrong at her friend’s house when out on her morning ride. Further investigation reveals scenes she’ll never forget.
While the police are quick to accuse, Laura is less so, defending those around her as she struggles to make sense of the deaths. And all the time she wonders if she really knew her friends at all.
A chance encounter opens up a line of investigation that uncovers a secret life. One that Laura is much closer to than she ever realised.
A Killer Strikes is a gripping domestic thriller. If you like character-driven action, suspenseful storytelling and dark revelations then you’ll love this exciting novel.
If this looks like something you might like to read, you can find it at your favourite bookshop HERE. Or click on the book cover.
I loved this book and my review is winging it’s way to Amazon as we speak…
Thank you so much, Anita. Such a relief. I really appreciate that. And thank you for putting it on Goodreads too.