The day began, as they always do, with a scoop of grain for Crockett and a bucket of premium horse pellets for Tex. It was a blend of a high-end competition feed, a senior mix, vitamins, and a joint supplement, wet down just enough for his old teeth but not so much he’d turn his nose up at it. At 37, the big guy knew what he liked—and what he didn’t.
I’d groomed both horses and was mucking out stalls when my cell vibrated against my hip, along with the distinctive cash register ka-ching that meant a call from the insurance company that occasionally gave me work.
“Got one with your name all over it.” Terry Pritchard’s voice boomed over the line, too chipper for the hour and laced with false bonhomie. “Barn fire.”
My gut tightened. “Anybody hurt?”
“No, it was the middle of the night. The owners were inside the house—or so they say.”
I’d meant the horses, but I didn’t correct him. A barn fire is every horseman’s nightmare, but probably I should have asked about the people first.
“Some big Walking Horse operation,” he said. He ran down the details, as if he didn’t know I was already hooked, and I haggled a little as if there was some doubt, but in the end I took the job. A shower and a shave, and I headed out for Braydon County, not far from Shelbyville, where the annual Walking Horse Celebration was held. But first I stopped at the office for a cup of my half-sister’s Vietnamese coffee. It’s thick and sweet, a long stretch from the strong black stuff I usually drink, but in the three months since I met her, I’ve gotten used to the stuff.
I’ve gotten used to her too. People underestimate her because of her thick accent and broken English, but she’s smart and resourceful enough to use that to her advantage. We’re an unlikely team, a tall blond cowboy and a small, one-armed Asian woman with a scarred face. She wished me luck with the case and sent me on my way with enough coffee to sustain me for the hour’s drive to Braydon County and the blackened remains of Carlin and Zane Underwood’s barn.
It was a blistering day, and the Underwoods baked in the heat and watched my progress with hostile eyes. You couldn’t blame them for their hostility. The fire marshal’s report suggested arson, and their insurance claim depended largely on my recommendation. So I ignored the tension in the air and nudged a charred beam with my boot. I watched it crumble, wishing I knew more about things like flash patterns and points of origin.
I climbed over a mangled metal door frame to where the tack room should have been. Nothing left but ashes, melted metal latches, a few blackened rhinestones, the shell of a charred refrigerator, and a mishmash of plastic and metal cans melted together and made brittle by the heat. The fire had started here, according to the report. Chemical residue and remnants of the labels identified the contents of the cans as mustard oil, kerosene, lighter fluid, and turpentine, not to mention a few other chemicals used in the unsavory practice of soring horses.
The muscles in my neck tightened as I read the labels. Soring is a way of enhancing a Walking Horse’s gait by painting its legs with caustic chemicals or by cutting, abrading, or bruising its feet. Some say it’s not done anymore, but the truth is, it’s just gone underground. The more sophisticated the detection methods get, the more sophisticated the methods for eluding them.
Sickened, I picked my way back through the rubble. My boot scuffed something small and white, and I told myself it wasn’t the bit of bone I knew it was.
I used my toe to cover it with ashes, saw another flash of white among the ash. I’d worked homicides for seven years, and my stomach leaped at the familiar shape. This time, I bent to pick it up. It was a human mandible. I looked around, found a piece of two-by-four that still looked sturdy enough for the job, and used it to sift through the ashes.
A twisted snaffle bit with the mouthpiece fused, two teeth, and a human skull.
When I got to the rib cage, I set the two-by-four gently aside and said, “Houston, we have a problem.”
A Taste of Blood and Ashes is the fourth book in the Jared McKean mystery series, published by Permanent Press, September 2016.
When Nashville PI and horse whisperer Jared McKean is hired to investigate a suspicious barn fire, he finds evidence of soring, the practice of using painful shoeing or caustic chemicals to affect the gait of a Tennessee Walking Horse. But the owners, Zane and Carlin Underwood, are known anti-soring activists. Carlin’s distress seems genuine, and Zane is confined to a wheelchair, paralyzed from the chest down during an attack by a frenzied stallion. Jared believes someone else is behind the arson.
Knowing the arsonist is almost certainly someone in community of those who breed and show Walking Horses, Jared and his new assistant, his half-sister Khanh, attend a local horse show in hopes of flushing out the culprit. There are suspects aplenty, including a groom on the run from a powerful cartel, a modern day robber baron, and a beautiful gold-digger whose dreams are filled with fire.
Secrets pile on top of secrets, and as Zane’s memories of the events leading to his accident begin to return, the situation becomes deadly. Jared and Khanh find themselves in the crosshairs of a killer who will do anything to keep the past in the past.
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Meet the author
Jaden Terrell is the internationally published author of the Jared McKean private detective novels and a contributor to Now Write! Mysteries, a collection of exercises published by Tarcher/Penguin for writers of crime fiction. Terrell writes for the Killer Nashville Magazine and ITW’s Big Thrill. A Shamus award finalist and Magnolia award recipient, Terrell is also a writing coach, workshop leader, and developmental editor Connect with Jaden at jadenterrell.com.
All comments are welcomed.
Giveaway: Leave a comment below for your chance to win an advanced reader copy of A Taste of Blood and Ashes. US entries only, please. The giveaway will end October 2, 2016 at 11:59 AM EST. Good luck everyone!