Are you on the lookout for a book to curl up with on dark, cold winter nights? Or perhaps a Christmas gift for a horse lover in your life? Well, Sky Dancer, which was released recently, could be the answer.
Written by Midge Bailey, Sky Dancer is a romantic crime thriller based around the world of horses. It is a darkly complex tale about corporate greed and the fallout that occurs when such greed becomes an insatiable addiction. Six murders occur but with two real victims, who are branded to the bone by life changing secrets. Irishman Dr Jake Steel is part of an organisation deeply buried within the dark side of international horseracing. He’s made a career out of being someone else and, dehumanised by a life of constant camouflage and invisibility, it’s a dead cert that he doesn’t believe himself vulnerable to anything, and especially not to a woman. Also hiding in life’s shadows is Aloysha, another who isn’t exactly sure who he is anymore. But Alyosha is certain of one fact and that is that the safest dead certs are exactly that — dead. Both of them love the same woman, but only one of them would murder her to prove it.
Midge Bailey has been involved with elite thoroughbred bloodstock for the majority of her career based in the UK, Europe and Australia. As a lecturer, she specialised in equine reproduction and behaviour writing Equine Stud Management, co-authoring The Horse from Conception to Maturity with Dr PD Rossdale and contributing to Understanding Nervousness in the Horse and Rider as well as several specialist magazines. Although still teaching riding and horse behaviour, she is now exclusively writing fiction. A sometime triathlete and aspiring ultra-runner, Midge currently lives in West Dorset with her family and two Highland ponies.
Here is an excerpt from the book where, following the unexpected death of his closest friend and mentor, Irishman Dr Jake Steel is asked to take over a covert investigation for The Jockey Club. A set of coded notes written in Tibetan are swiftly followed by the discovery of a body at a National Hunt racing yard on Dartmoor. What starts out as a simple translation job for Jake rapidly becomes something much more dangerous:
Her office was the entire third floor of a building that had once seen more slaves through the back door than most in the vicinity. Occupying a warehouse right in the centre of Bristol docks, the place was made of old oak and now needed holding together, rather appropriately, by a lot of old money. A little spilt blood and sweat between friends of the right sort still oiled the wheels of commerce in the 21st century. Covert security for the oldest of old school organisations, the British Jockey Club, was no exception. As a job, it had its perks for someone like me even if this new posting was unlikely to be one of them.
So, without arguing, I went to a town called Ashfield on the southern edge of Dartmoor. When I arrived the place looked empty, as if it had shuffled into a form of hibernation rigor mortis and then forgotten what to do next. I drove straight to the police station. Inside, behind a glass window, sat a bored looking constable, squinting at a computer screen.
‘Can I help?’ his accent broad, he glanced up without interest. He had a bland face that could have been twelve or twenty-five.
‘Jacob Steel for DCI Moore.’
I waited for the reassessing to occur and, right on cue, it was as if a light had been switched on in a dark room. I rarely looked like a man who might come to such a place willingly and definitely not one who might want anything from the business side of a CID desk.
Without looking away, he pressed a few buttons on the desk phone and said, ‘Dr Jacob Steel is here, Sir,’ he paused for longer than was necessary and then added, ‘I have double checked ID.’
‘My word, Dr Steel,’ DCI Moore said without any preamble as he walked in, smiling broadly and holding out his hand, ‘you don’t look anything like I thought you would.’
I shook the offered hand, ‘If its any consolation, you do and its Jake. Just Jake, please.’
DCI Moore did indeed look exactly like he should: solid with rugby ears. He had grey flecked hair, military cut; mud brown eyes and a suit.
‘Right, Jake, let’s go up to my office, talk on the way.’
He led me along corridors and through several doorways.
‘I’m unsure how much background you’ve had so I’ll risk a quick brief but with apologies as a given if I’m repeating.’
I’d had minimal background which wasn’t unusual so I simply nodded in agreement.
‘I’ve been in the force here for thirty years, grew up in the town and, although its quiet, we do have our fair share of all the usual. Half eaten bodies, however, aren’t an everyday occurrence,’ he didn’t try to hide the fact that he was quite pleased one had finally turned up, ‘but that’s what we have – the partially consumed remains of a recently deceased male.’
‘Consumed?’ I asked. ‘By what?’
‘Boar. Wild boar to be precise. They appear to have found the body first, in what state we don’t yet know but they’ve been dining on it. Thankfully we’ve recovered most of it, albeit well gnawed and rearranged, with the notable exception, so far, of the skull.’
He held open his office door, ushering me through to a seat in front of the desk; then pushed over a large file and flicked open the cover to reveal several photographic prints of scattered bones in a wooded area. I shuffled them out like a card deck and examined them closely. Only fragments of flesh clung to the soiled remains. There was something immediately familiar about those bones… Hmm. Interesting.
‘These are the items that we hope you can help with,’ he produced four plastic covered stained sheets of paper and placed them with the photographs. ‘These were found in the immediate area of the remains, rolled up around some sort of incense stick.’
I studied each sheet. Notebook sized and stained dark in places, the paper was covered almost entirely in symbols. Intricate symbols that intertwined into a complicated web of several different colour inks. They looked identical to the ones Gwil had sent.
‘I understand that you may have already decoded something similar?’
‘Translated only.’ I shook my head, thinking more about the incense sticks than the writing.
After several minutes of silence Moore interrupted my train of thought, ‘Are you always this verbose?’ A prod to remind me where I was.
I slid the sheets back into the file with the photographs.
‘The writing is a form of Sanskrit, I’ve translated a similar piece of text into English but that was, in essence, a code within a code and, therefore, extremely difficult to decipher. I can confirm that this,’ I gestured to the sheets, ‘looks like its more of the same.’
‘Do you do this full-time?’ he rubbed at his lips with the fingertips of one hand, narrowing his eyes. ‘If you mean translation then, no, I think even I would find that a little too tedious.’
‘How did you get involved this time then?’
‘By putting on the shoes of a dead man.’
‘Our expert died somewhat unexpectedly and I’m standing in, so to speak. Tibetan translators are, surprisingly, not that common so sometimes it is necessary to scrape a barrel bottom.’
‘I was told that you were an authority on ancient languages which, to my uncultured mind, is not exactly the bottom of anything.’
‘Ah, well, I suppose that depends on how you set your standards.’
There was a long moment of awkward silence.
‘Right, no doubt, you want to get on. Whilst you’re here I’ll personally authorise and provide any additional support that you require. In return, I expect to be kept fully informed of any and all developments. Agreed?’
‘Agreed. I’ll expect the same.’
‘Of course, we’re all on the same side.’
I’d heard that before and, right now, any trust extended about as far as I could spit a rat. He shifted the conversation, such as it was, to practicalities.
‘We’ve arranged accommodation for you in town and there’s a desk you can use through there,’ he gestured to a side door, ‘you also have the services of Constable Brunning — Trev. He’s a little unorthodox but absolutely reliable so I hope you’ll get on. He’ll be back in shortly but, whilst we wait, do you have any further questions?’
‘I’d like to go to the scene right now. Assess the amount of boar activity in the area for a start. Its possible they’ve eaten sections of the notes that were left with the remains.’
‘Agreed, I’ll get Trev to take you but, a word of warning, the land owner, David Flint, is both obstructive and volatile. Please be careful not to tread unnecessarily on sensitive toes.’
A noise from the side office interrupted us and a face appeared around the door.
‘There you are, Trev. This is Dr Jake Steel. I want you to take him up to Flint’s place as soon as, pass on any up to date relevant details as you go, ok?’
Short, soft and, with the start of a paunch, Trevor Brunning’s appearance didn’t fill me with confidence. Perhaps the feeling was mutual as, arms folded, he checked me out down to my shoes for a painful few minutes.
‘I have to confess that I was expecting more of your traditional professor. Why the hell did you end up choosing such a career path when you look like you do?’
I replied with silence. I’d no time for idiots, especially idiots in uniform.
He was right though. My face gives me choices. I accept that. Take it for what it is, pretty much in the same way that someone with a birthmark or scar accepts, eventually, that its part of them and impossible to change. In my youth, I used to wish for accidents, seems juvenile now, but I wanted to damage this perceived perfection in some way. Break it, destroy it, so I no longer had to be disabled by it. However, I found a way to channel my energies into something much more worthwhile and now, when I look in the mirror, I no longer see demons.
Trev talked as he drove, filling in gaps. The remains were, in many ways, straightforward and, aside from the notes that I’d already seen, a wallet had been recovered from the disturbed soil which meant that identification
might also soon be forthcoming.
We drove up an impressive drive, to park near to an even more impressive stable yard. A man appeared, pointing us back to an all-weather gallop track where David Flint, racehorse trainer, stood next to his four by four on the brow of the hill, watching racehorses being exercised.
Waiting a short distance away, I watched Flint. An ex-jockey himself, he was expensively dressed in an expanse of tweed and had clearly more than made up for any dietary restrictions earlier in his career. In his late fifties, he was almost the complete caricature with a beaked nose and square jaw hinting at well connected bloodlines; his complexion a pebble dashed red. It was the telltale branding of either weather or gin, quite often both. Eventually he looked in our direction.
‘Dr Steel, I presume?’ he remarked to the air in general, then turned back to watch the next group of horses come galloping from the bottom of the hill; his expression fixed as if he couldn’t quite believe what academia let in these days.
He turned again momentarily and stared at Trev. ‘Why have you asked to see me again? Isn’t it about time you left the rest of us to get on with earning a living?’
It was the usual statement and one even I had heard many times; no one wanted to have the police picking, asking endless questions and, in an already busy day, they could be a right pain in the arse. But that was the job; to ask the questions, to dig, to find the answers that were usually tucked a long way away from the obvious.
Two horses, a bay and a chestnut, thundered past at the gallop, matching stride for stride. Two more followed but the horse nearest to the rail, a grey, fought for its head all the way with the rider sawing ineffectually at its open mouth. Flint cursed loudly as he watched, radiating anger. As soon as they came walking back he let rip at the rider.
‘Steph! What the hell were you doing! That wasn’t a piece of work that was a bloody disaster! Swop with Sid and take Drifter back to the yard!’ he roared across the open land, his face puce.
The girl paled and walked her horse down to the lad on the bay.
‘Useless! Such a bloody stupid girl!’ Flint was still ranting. ‘She’s as windy as they come and has that effect on just about everything she sits on. I shouldn’t let her ride but I need the sodding horses to work, don’t I? Christ, what I wouldn’t give for half a dozen more like Sid. Sid gets the sodding job done without any dramatics.’
Being nervous wasn’t a heinous crime as far as I knew but, to Flint, it was clearly one short of homicide. He boiled with tension and bad temper; I wondered if Steph was going to get another torrent when he got back to the yard.
The grey came up the gallops again with Sid on board and, instead of the wide eyed leaping and plunging, it now cruised effortlessly with the rider crouched, almost motionless, over its withers.
Flint uttered a grunt of satisfaction as the horses passed then turned to face us. ‘That’s the lot so what is it that you actually need to know, Dr Steel? What can I tell you that I’ve not already said to the police?’
‘I understand that there are wild boar here. Don’t they trouble the horses?’ I kept my voice light and ignored his tone. A stupid question, perhaps, but somewhere to start nonetheless.
‘No, they don’t hang around, contrary to popular belief they’re actually rather shy. I’ve probably only seen one or two close to the yard in years. They sometimes forage in the woods and I presume that was where they found the body or whatever it is. All this nonsense and it’ll probably turn out to be a sheep.’
‘Mr Flint, with due respect, please drop the attitude.’ Trev sighed as if Flint was the one being a pain in the arse. ‘No-one has time to cover old ground but we’ve still got unanswered questions. Dr Steel’s presence here is vital as he’s been specifically requested to survey the area on our behalf.’
I let that little fabrication go by without a flicker.
‘Either way, I don’t want you lot churning up any more of my land and, as you have no vehicle, I’ll have to get someone from my staff to take you. You’ll need a four by four and someone who actually knows where to go. How long do you need?’
‘An hour maybe, I’m not completely certain but not much longer than that.’
The likelihood of finding anything of interest was remote but at least this meeting had given chance for a look around.
‘I’ll ask Sid to take you up in that case, local knowledge and all that. Come on, get in, I’ll run you back to the yard,’ he marched to the Land Rover and swung himself in.
Typical of most farm vehicles, the inside was layered liberally with mud and dog hair. On the dashboard broken bits of leather held in empty crisp packets and a large uncapped hypodermic syringe, the tube crusty with age, wedged upright into the screen vent. I was grateful that there wasn’t a territorial terrier in situ as well.
Into the yard, Flint dragged up the handbrake and jumped out roaring for Sid. Trev muttered something derogatory as we, once again, also got out to wait.
Flint’s shout had found Sid washing down a steaming horse and he was now very obviously spelling out our inconvenient request. It was hard to tell what Sid thought of it all as he still had on black tinted racing goggles, the Dettori look obviously; black skull cap and black neck tube, there wasn’t much visible of his face at all. With black jacket and breeches, Sid didn’t give much away. I waited and wondered if he was actually old enough to drive.
The racing yard was large for this part of the country, many of the residents now staring at me over smart half doors. A radio played quietly and lads laughed with one another; aside from Steph’s roasting it appeared, on the outside, that all was well working for David Flint. To one side of the stables, about six feet from where we waited, a large Scania horse lorry was parked. A pair of anonymous legs poked out from underneath covered by oily blue trousers which had hitched up to reveal hairy ankles above work boots. There was a loud metallic bang from the lorry’s underbelly combined with a volley of swearing which was immediately followed by the rolling arrival of a grease can towards my feet. The ankles shifted to one side.
‘Pass that back, would you?’ a man’s voice called out. ‘Save me getting up, though only the guvnor knows why I’m having to do this again today!’
I rolled the can back towards the outstretched hand with my boot.
‘Cheers,’ the hand and the can disappeared once more along with the ankles and the banging began again. David Flint returned, hands still deep in his pockets. ‘Sid can take you up now but don’t hang around as we all
have work to do.’
He turned away, stepping closer to the Scania.
‘Get a bloody move on, John, you’re blocking the yard,’ he addressed the side of the lorry receiving an answering grunt from underneath. With a silent gesture of annoyance he got back into his vehicle and drove off. Trev’s radio squeaked into life and, after a brief conversation, he said, ‘Apologies, I’m wanted elsewhere. I’ll send a car for you if I’m likely to be delayed. Would an hour be ok?’
‘An hour is probably more than enough but, no hurry, as and when.’
Trev left as Sid arrived, lifting up goggles as he walked towards me. It was only when he removed his skull cap that I realised that Sid wasn’t a lad after all. Sid was very definitely female. Maybe mid-twenties, blonde hair and sea blue eyes that made me think instantly of waves and mountain sky. It took longer than it should have done for me to re-order my thoughts.
We’d met before. Twice in fact. I never forget a face.
On the first occasion I’d been a woman, or more precisely dressed as one, at a black tie charity dinner for horseracing’s elite. It’s a long story that probably warrants further explanation at another time. I remembered her eyes most of all as they’d been arresting; ocean blue darkened by some internal pain that she obviously believed hidden. The second time had been, somewhat obscurely, at a famous Scottish monolith. I’d spent most of the day free climbing its less friendly side and, at the summit, she’d been there, expensive camera covering those troubled eyes.
And here we stood once more, the third time. Inevitable if sequence is your thing and probably just as inevitable if its more about fates. Despite our previous, she clearly didn’t remember me. Nothing at all, not even a well hidden flicker of recognition. But I remembered and now I also remembered her name: Sidra Fielding, professional jockey.
Price: Sky Dancer, by Midge Bailey, can be purchased for £4.99 for Kindle or £9.99 in paperback via Amazon.
A sequel to Sky Dancer is due to be published in late summer 2019.
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