Read an exclusive extract of Greg Buchanan's eagerly awaited thriller, Sixteen Horses
Discover the most original crime novel of the year, soon to be featured on the new series of BBC Two’s Between the Covers, hosted by Sara Cox.
Tufts of cloud burned black before the sunrise, the horizon littered with the flotsam of old and rusted silhouettes. They were alone.
‘Chemtrails,’ the farmer had said to Alec, early on their walk. Other than this, he had been silent.
And now their torches revealed the edge of a bank, right before the crest of a shallow stream that cut through the farmer’s reclaimed marshland. Along its muddy edge and all around, the reeds sang with flies and crickets and buntings.
‘Where are they?’ Alec asked, shivering. It was 6.55 a.m. He’d left his jacket in his patrol car.
‘There weren’t any sheep over here,’ the farmer said, ignoring the question. He leapt over the bank, his boots slipping slightly on the incline. ‘They normally love coming over here.’
Alec stared at the mud, and the farmer grinned, his cheeks ruddy beneath his dirty white beard. With that thick wax coat and that gut and that voice, he could have been a lunatic Santa Claus. ‘You won’t fall,’ he said. ‘Not afraid of a little dirt, are you, Sergeant Nichols?’
‘No.’ Yes. ‘I just hope you aren’t wasting my time. And these flies . . .’ Alec swatted one away from his rolled-up sleeve, a great bulbous thing that had nestled on the hairs of his forearm. He was food for this whole place.
‘Try covering up next time,’ the farmer said.
Alec grimaced. He stepped back, tensing before rushing over the ditch. He came down with a thud, right into the thick and gelatinous mud. He splattered his black trouser legs and the farmer’s jeans.
The other man tutted, smiling. ‘What have we come to, eh?’
Alec brushed at the muck around his ankles, but this only spread it further. His palms grew filthy.
The farmer walked on. He gestured past a large, half-empty water tank around two hundred feet away, its translucent plastic grown stained with time, the smear of a smile where fluid had lapped within. ‘We found them near there.’ His face fell.
Alec checked his watch. 7.06 a.m.
The sun would soon rise.
They kept on, the silence drowned out by the buzzing of the flies and the distant hellos of scraggly sheep out there in the semi-darkness.
‘Jean’s moving out,’ the farmer said. ‘Did you know?’
‘Jean . . . The lady who lives down the lane,’ the farmer said, frowning. ‘She’s moving out, selling up her farm.’
‘Oh yes, Jean . . .’ His voice drifted. ‘I saw the sign.’ Alec had driven past it on the way here, a farm twice the size of this one, its animals and land and people in far better condition. He had not known the name. He knew few out here. One more reminder that he did not belong, he supposed.
‘They’re selling up to live with family, so she says.’
‘I think I saw them in town a few times,’ Alec said. They were almost at the water tank, at the smile. ‘Were they the ones who made those wagon wheels? They’d mix sausage meat into a kind of – well, kind of cinnamon swirl, I suppose. It’s delicious. Did you ever try one?’
He swatted another fly away from his face. ‘No,’ the farmer said. ‘I’m a vegetarian.’
‘Really? My wife tried doing that a few years back, and—’
‘No,’ the farmer said, and the conversation died.
The world was still dark, even if only for a little while. The sun was almost free. The day had almost begun.
Fifty feet away, the field gave way to freshly tilled brown soil, forming mounds everywhere on the uneven earth. Chalky rocks littered the plot in every direction. Each step in this place was as muddy and wet as the last.
Further still, a thin metal fence marked the edge of the land, clots of wool decorating the wire like fairy lights where the sheep had once tried to break through.
But there were no animals in sight now. There was nothing but detritus.
‘I don’t see what—’
‘There,’ the farmer interrupted. ‘In the ground.’
Alec looked down. For a moment, he saw nothing but dirt.
Alec stopped talking, a breeze moving past them both. Something shook along the soil.
He removed his torch and stepped forward, pointing its light at the source. Just three feet away, almost the same colour as the mud itself, there lay a great mound of black hair, coiled in thick and silken spirals.
He moved closer and knelt down. He wiped his hands on his trouser legs, reached into his pockets, and pulled out a pair of latex gloves. He tried to pull them on in one smooth motion, but his fingers – clammy, damp from the walk – clung to the latex before he could get them fully in. He had to inch each one into place before he could touch those cold dark circles. He stared at them all the while.
He lifted some of the hair up, surprised by the weight of it, its coarseness. He held it higher and ran his fingers along the strands, gripping at intervals. Towards the base of the spiral, where the rest of the hair still lay upon the ground, he felt flesh and bone.
Alec put it back carefully. The sun continued to rise. There was something else.
It was black, almost like plastic in its sheen, a thin half-moon of dulled white at its rim. It looked past him.
There was an eye, a large sad eye in the earth.
Alec stepped back.
‘My daughter found them,’ the farmer said. ‘Shouldn’t even have been out . . .’
Alec shone his torch across the area. There were others – some close together, some alone. He walked until he was sure he had found the whole set. He paced back and forth, a hundred feet all around.
He counted sixteen submerged heads, all apart, all with only the barest strand of skin on display, all with a single eye left exposed to the sun. One of the heads had been dug up a little more than the others, revealing the neck, at least. It was unclear how much of the corpse remained beneath the surface.
There were footprints everywhere: his, the farmer’s, the daughter’s, no doubt. He hadn’t been told any of this . . . He hadn’t known . . .
‘Who could do this?’ the farmer croaked, blinking. ‘Who could make themselves—’
Alec looked up suddenly, acid rising in his throat. The sky was growing brighter, its red spreading like fire, the clouds shifting blue. Still the flies and crickets screamed across the reeds, though nothing crawled along those dead eyes. Nothing seemed to touch them.
There was a stone house half a mile away along the horizon.
‘Who lives over there?’ Alec asked.
Alec stared at it a moment longer. It was a lonely-looking place.
‘Have you ever seen anything like this?’ he asked. ‘It’s—’
‘No. Have you?’
Alec shook his head, stepping back, staring once more at the hair. It was all tails, he could see that now.
‘That’s murder,’ the farmer said, his voice soft. ‘Just look at them. Look.’
It was in fact criminal damage, a mere property crime.
If you decide something isn’t human, you can do almost anything.
Alec looked at the house again, dark and cold in the distance.
‘Do you know anyone who might have a grudge against you? Anyone who might try and cause you harm?’
The farmer tried to smile. ‘Apart from my wife? No, no . . . I get along with folk. Always have.’ He paused. ‘What do I do?’
‘We need to get a vet in.’ Alec stood up. ‘We need to get post-mortems performed, if we can. I wouldn’t touch them until we know more—’
‘Can’t afford any of that,’ the farmer said.
‘You wouldn’t have to—’
‘And besides,’ the farmer interrupted. ‘Someone buried them, didn’t they? Horses don’t just get that way themselves.’
‘What about the mud? If this used to be wetland, maybe they . . . I don’t know, maybe they—’
‘No,’ the farmer said, firmly, without elaboration.
Alec paused, looking back down at the eyes. But for the lack of motion, they might have been alive.
He got his phone out to take some photographs of the scene. They would have to do until help came. ‘Try and keep your other animals away,’ Alec said. ‘If you can keep your other animals inside or—’
‘What about the owner?’ asked the farmer.
‘Them – these—’ The farmer gesticulated, wincing.
‘What?’ Alec glanced down at the heads and up again at this man. ‘Were you stabling them?’ He paused. ‘We’d need to contact the—’
‘NO,’ the farmer spat. ‘No – no – no—’
‘Hey, it’s OK,’ Alec said, stepping closer as the farmer turned away. ‘I’m sure it’s covered by your insurance.’
‘You don’t understand. I don’t keep horses – I’ve never kept horses. That’s what I tried to tell the girl on the phone—’
A fly landed on the rim of an eye.
‘I’ve never seen these horses before in my life.’