An extract from Sixteen Horses, the debut novel by Greg Buchanan, published by Mantle in April 2021.
‘Legs, eleven,’ the voice called. ‘Does anyone have legs, eleven?’ No answer came.
Seagulls perched on top of paint-flaked facades and black iron lamp-posts. Neon logos screamed ST GEORGE’S CHARCOAL GRILL, TROPICAL CAFE, CAESAR’S PALACE. Empty amusement arcades blared waka waka waka chiptune and flashing lights. It was all for no one, no one at all.
The sky was grey. Waves lapped against the shore.
In twenty-four days, two torsos would be discovered upon the sand.
A couple of hours after the horse heads were found, a man leant against the side of his caravan with a cigarette in his right hand, a stained cotton vest stuck to his thin, freckly body.
The morning bingo had woken Michael up – it did so every couple of days at this time. The repetition, the questions, the sheer suicide-inducing tedium of the announcer’s voice, all of it was more effective than any alarm. It drilled into his skull. The day was cold and the air smelt of ash.
He dropped his cigarette down onto the cement and flattened it with his foot, exhaling deeply and then coughing.
‘Queen Bee. Under the tree. Lucky three.’
He went inside the caravan for a few minutes and emerged dressed for his work: the same vest, but with a checked shirt over it, a faded, thick blue-black. He locked the door and walked onward, putting as much distance between himself and the bingo as possible.
He’d left Annie at Joe’s Tyres, had given the eponymous Joe some money each day to make sure she was OK.
It wouldn’t bother Joe, of course, but a favour was a favour.
His friend had a whole patch of land right outside his garage, you see, beneath the looming towers all around; it was just perfect, far better than tethering Annie to the caravan like he’d used to do. And truth be told, the customers kind of liked it. Joe too. Trotting around as they waited for their cars to be repaired. Coming to the fence for treats.
There was something about a horse.
People loved her, and they loved Michael for the access he granted. Business wasn’t that busy this time of year, but they still got the odd kid wanting to travel along the beachfront in their little carriage. Teenagers used the horse, too – some of them would pre-book a ride at night, an Annie-drawn date in the dark. It was the highlight of their young lives, everything else surely a disappointment.
In the summer, well, his business did gangbusters. They were a team.
He’d take Annie out every morning before work, even when there would be no work. He’d sit with his horse by the sea as she grazed on grass nearby. He’d let her sun herself while he read his paper, sometimes even a book. He’d go out there for the same reason the empty arcades opened their doors, the same reason a bingo hall played to a crowd of six.
He reached Joe’s Tyres and let himself round the back gate. ‘Annie,’ he croaked, too quiet at first. His throat was a bit raw from the night before. ‘Annie!’ he said, cheerful, slightly louder.
He rubbed his tired eyes. There was no answer.
He walked out into the field, taking a wide berth. It wasn’t a large plot, but there were trees everywhere and backs of buildings she could have gone around, grey bleached hotels that had shut down years ago, strips of coloured cladding to revitalize them for a new purpose. Some of them had started to take in the dispossessed and the vulnerable, all shunted here from other towns. Housing was cheap.
This field was in their shadow, just a few minutes’ walk from the sea. Perhaps it had been a garden, once. The fences were cast iron, black, ornate. He kept going.
He walked the length of the field. A car passed with a distant hum, followed by another.
Nothing. He couldn’t see her anywhere.
All your old favourites. ICE CREAM, TEN FLAVOURS.
SHOE & KEY REPAIR. WHILE YOU WAIT.
AMERICAN CHIP SALON (they had forgotten the extra O, and the name had stuck).
MILITARY SURPLUS, with an angry man reading an angry newspaper, glaring up at all those who dared walk past.
All around lay litter from the night before. Cigarette butts. Receipts. Gum. Thin wooden skewers, stained with chip oil. Sparklers, set aflame then discarded.
Motor scooters ambled along through the square, coalescing together, moving apart, the haggard, swollen faces of the riders pointing towards the ground. These men had once stood on oil rigs as the black seas had raged below, or had once brought back thousands of tons of fish a year. They had smiled at the boys and girls on the beach, all the businesses booming, their arms thick, their hearts strong and glad.
They kept their faces down, now. They barely spoke to each other. Half of them could not remember who they were, not really.
Seagulls swooped from roof to roof. Middle-aged couples sat on benches, mostly silent. The air smelt of dust, salt, skin, tobacco. Beyond the anonymous, crackling buildings that encircled Market Square, a song played from tinny speakers. When music is that far off, when it thuds from the innards of some shitty pub, you can’t make out the words any more.
‘Czy Alexey wciąż leży w łóżku?’ a woman asked, shopping bags at her feet, her phone pressed against her cheek. ‘Powiedz mu, żeby wstał z łóżka. Musi iść do szkoły.’
Her conversation was quiet, but others noticed. Most didn’t look. One old woman did. It bothered her.
‘OK, ja ciebie też kocham. Zrobię później klopsiki, dobrze?’
The Polish woman put the phone back in her pocket and briefly caught the gaze of the old stranger. She took her shopping bags and went over to TEA SARAH COFFEE (ROLLS).
‘Milk, two sugars,’ the Polish woman said, her English barely accented. She smiled as she took her tea, nodding in thanks. She picked up her shopping bags and left.
When she was gone, the old woman murmured to her partner, pained. They talked about votes.
The day continued. People came and went.
At 12.02 p.m., a police car came through the square, stopping at the corner of the car park. This was not that unusual. It would be unusual if you saw one in the night. They left the town to itself in the night.
One of the policemen got out – it was the handsome older one; George, the old woman thought his name was – and he went over to the market tents. He disappeared for a bit. The metal letters above the arch – ILMARSH MARKET – they were grimy, they only shone when the sun was properly out.
Minutes later, George emerged and got back into his car. He drove off.
Over the next hour, people started talking.
The old woman knew something was different – people were gesturing to each other. She saw two motor scooters stopped, their owners deep in conversation.
Something had happened.
She said as much to her friend. ‘Something has happened, Derrick.’
Her friend just nodded. It was unclear what he was thinking about.
She turned her head, twisting her body in awkward, dramatic motions that had come to her with age. She looked a little scared, a little delighted. ‘Something has happened,’ she repeated.
Rain had been forecast for the day before, but it had never come.
It came now.
They hammered nails into tents around the horse heads, dividing them into three roughly distinct sites. They left their police cars closer this time.
Sixteen horses, Alec had said. And the tails – they’re all cut off . . . They’re in a pile . . .
The way the tails clung together, slightly wet within the growing rain. The way the eyes, even now, even after wind, still watched from the ground. And the spacing . . . the almost-but-not-quite circles they formed . . . it did not feel like a crime scene.
It felt like a wish.
No uniformed officers had been available that morning. Alec shouldn’t have been. He was a detective sergeant. He was CID. He was meant for more than this.
He had been having trouble sleeping.
Alec got on the phone as the head vet drove off.
The man had given him a name and a number, a referral for a specialist just a few hours away. Someone with forensic experience, apparently.
‘Might be worth it,’ Alec said to his superior. They’d only need her for a little while.
Earlier that day Alec had been laughed at for suggesting they plaster-cast the footprints found at the scene (‘You want some luminol with that, Poirot? How about we get COBRA on the phone and—’). Now, now the situation was different.
All these people, phoning into the station. Not just the owners of horses.
Something had happened. Something was happening. The day was cold and the wind blew and the rain was pouring.
‘OK,’ the inspector said, staring at a photo of the crime scene. Harry held the dark images in his hands, saw the captured tails up close, the clotted blood. He saw the white bone. ‘OK . . . I’ll make a call.’