Book 3 of the Falls Chance Ranch Series

Monday, December 28, 2009

Chapter 10

“I don’t want Riley to have to re-live this all over again until we know whether or not there’s a reason to.” Paul said after a long minute’s silence. “The chances are there won’t be. We’ve seen plenty of false alarms before.”

Dale had managed to drop a quiet word into Flynn’s ear without anyone hearing, and Flynn suggested to Riley he go out and move Mia into the corral with the mares for an hour to introduce herself before the herd was turned loose after breakfast. As soon as he was out of earshot Flynn asked for and got the full content of Luath’s phone call, and his tone and the silence from Paul and Jasper told Dale everything. It felt almost invasive to stay instead of discreetly slipping away to leave them with their grief. Paul glanced up sideways as if he heard what Dale was thinking, put a hand out across the table top and Dale wrapped both his hands around Paul’s. Paul gave him a rather unsteady attempt at a smile.

“I agree.” Flynn said grimly. “All Luath’s warning us about anyway is bloody gossip, with no responsibility towards who it upsets before there’s any facts involved.”

“Luath’s always said you can’t keep this sort of thing quiet, people are too desperate to know.” Paul took a shaky breath and squeezed Dale’s hand. “I’ll do something with these trout.”

“And Luath won’t be able to do a damned thing about protecting Darcy from any of this, it’ll be all over the internet. If he’d put his bloody foot down about what he let Darcy bloody join up to-”

“He’s got no right or reason to restrict anything Darcy does.” Paul said gently. “You know that.”

Flynn made a stifled, growling sound and went to the window to watch Riley lead Mia up to the corral, then pulled his boots on and went out to join him, letting the door swing abruptly shut behind him.

He didn’t come back to breakfast. Riley, coming in some minutes later with his face flushed from the cold and rubbing his hands to try to warm them, let the door bang much as Flynn had done.

“He’s in one of those moods. I got my head bitten off and told to get out of his way.”

“He hasn’t had much sleep for a couple of nights now, I’m not surprised he’s grouchy.” Paul said neutrally, plating up trout. “Is he coming back to eat?”

“I don’t think so. He turned the mares loose and he was saddling up Leo.” Riley hung up his jacket and went to wash his hands. “Apparently he’s going to look for more nonexistent tracks. There isn’t a damn stallion out there, we’d have seen it by now.”

“If it makes him feel better to look, let him look.” Paul put fresh fried trout down in front of Riley and handed a second plate to Dale. “What are you two going to do with today?”

“I’ve got limping sheep,” Jasper said, accepting his plate from Paul. “Ri, can you spare a couple of hours to come with me and clip hooves?”

“Yeah. I want to haul the rest of the logs down from the woods, and someone’s going to need to keep an eye on the contractors if Flynn’s stomped off.” Riley said with his mouth full, helping himself to the bread which was still steaming in its basket.

“He has not stomped off.” Paul sat down with his own breakfast. “None of us want to see Bandit fight, you can’t expect Flynn to just turn him out and hope for the best.”

“We’ve looked for another stallion; there isn’t one. Bandit’s just chuntering at that stallion up on Mustang Hill if you ask me.”

“I can watch the contractors.” Dale said quietly. “And cover the yard work. If that’s in keeping with the protocol for being grounded? No one’s shown me the policy yet.”

He was looking at Jasper as he spoke, and Jasper didn’t answer for a minute, pausing with a forkful of trout raised to look at him a lot longer than was comfortable.

“Not that I don’t take it seriously,” Dale found himself adding hurriedly.

Jasper and Flynn never appreciated him being flippant to avoid saying things that were personal, and Jasper was still looking at him. Dale took a deep breath and surrendered.

“I know, I’m not allowed to work because I made some bloody stupid choices, and I hate seeing things that need doing and not doing them, which is a lot of the point. I’d just like to make the offer.”

There was another long silence while Jasper ate the forkful of trout, still watching him, which made Dale still more acutely aware of what he’d just asked. Then Jasper looked at Riley, putting his fork down.

“Ri? What do you think? I’d think we’d agree that the time off for good behaviour is redundant here.”

Riley snorted. “If you’re going with that clause you might as well never bother grounding him.”

“I don’t agree that ‘good’ behaviour constitutes being quiet, polite and not difficult under duress,” Paul said candidly, “In fact I think that was a lot of the behaviour we had a problem with. What I’d want to see to be convinced the point had been made, would be a little less quiet and evidence of better organised priorities. And that I’m not at all sure of yet.”

Dale felt himself turning hotly, uncomfortably scarlet.

“Ri?” Jasper said again. Riley glanced at Dale, looking distinctly uncomfortable, and raised a shoulder in a shrug.

“I’m not qualified, leave me out of it.”

“You’re fully qualified and you’re part of this.” Jasper said mildly. “Tell me what you think.”

Dale found himself avoiding Riley’s eye as much as Riley was avoiding his, and there was another uncomfortable silence before Riley sighed sharply.

“Ok, I want you to back off and leave him the hell alone, and it would help if he did the yard work today since he’ll do it a damn sight better than I will and it’s time I need to do other things – but no, I don’t think we’re done. Sorry Dale. What you did sucked and I don’t think you really get why yet, and I don’t think you’d do any differently in the same situation.”

“I agree.” Jasper told him. “So I think we’ll compromise. Dale, you stay within the yard, and today you may do the yard work. If you’d keep an eye on the contractors that would also be helpful, thank you.”

Face burning and getting the point very acutely, Dale cleared his throat to get the words out.

“Yes sir.”

The contractors needed very little supervision. Dale broke off with the yard work to greet them when they arrived, and Paul supplied them with tea and toast in lieu of breakfast and then opened the larder on bagfuls of fruit and vegetables, produced stock pots and pans the size of which Dale had never before seen in a domestic kitchen, and began to line up armies of glass jars on the counters.

With the contractors getting on with replacing the old existing fence posts and adding fence rails instead of wire, Dale cleaned out the now empty stable stalls and scrubbed them down, mucked out the also empty corral, and then moved the riding horses from their paddocks back to the space of the corral. The change was obviously to their liking, Nekkid and Moo were rolling on the grass when he shut the gate, apologising to Hammer who was watching him hopefully on the chance of them going out for a ride. He was raking the yard to get rid of the hoof marks scuffing the red earth surface by mid morning, the sun now bright overhead. There was always a deep sense of peace to the hard, physical every-day work here, and it felt good to work again. Work here always involved touching, lifting, movement, more to see and smell and feel and hold in five minutes than you felt in a week at an office, that forced you to be present, real and alive and located in the now, with all the space and quiet you always had here when you were working alone. And there was a kind of pride, almost a possessiveness in doing this when it was work on your home and the home of people you loved, when you were part and parcel of it and doing it for your own use, instead of spending your time and effort on something that someone else cared about. So much more of yourself went into it. The mountains on the horizon against the green pastures weren’t just white capped this morning; winter was visibly drawing nearer. The snowline was lower and the air brought with it the smell of pine and a crispness Dale wasn’t familiar with, but made him keep breathing it to catch the scent.

He was about to run out of work too.

Dale put the rake back in the tool shed and stood for a moment in the now immaculate yard, stretching until his shoulders cracked. The obvious thing to do now was to go and help the contractors; they were making rapid strides with the fencing. And it would probably be a good idea to go and check with Paul first that it was ok to do so. Dale dug his hands in his jeans pockets to warm them for a minute as he headed towards the porch, and wrapped his hand around the rough shape of the rose quartz crystal in his left pocket. It was warm from his body heat. Dale withdrew it, turning it in his hand to look at the now familiar planes of it, dusty pink with white veins through the stone, sparkling slightly where the light caught its many rough facets, like layered ice. Grown here on this land, a miracle of geology which could cultivate something like this within soil. His fingers stroked it automatically from habit, tracing the sides as he walked - and hesitated as something caught his eye on the grass at the back of the porch, beyond the house.

He wasn’t sure what. Even when he crossed the grass and stood there, he still wasn’t sure. And then carefully he began to pace an area, counting the strides, and after several times of checking the distance, he drove his heel into the grass at the corners, marking the area. The tool shed provided twine and the kindling box provided sticks. With Pythagoras in mind, Dale dug one stick in where one of his heel marks etched the grass, tied the twine around it, and began systematically to work out a properly geometric plot. When he was done, it was about twelve feet by eight feet, matching the very slight shading in the grass. Dale searched the tool shed for a spade, rolled his sleeves back and with care began to cut turf, lifting it in neat rolls and stacking it.

Paul brought sandwiches out on to the porch at lunchtime, calling to him and to the contractors. Dale caught a brief glimpse of multiple bubbling pots in the kitchen and the rich smells of jam, sugar and vinegar, which Paul couldn’t leave long enough to come outside. Taking a couple of sandwiches with him, Dale finished cutting the turf from his plot, exchanged his spade for a fork, and established as he’d expected that where the surrounding earth was hard, within the plot it was crumbly and malleable, easy to dig down into and turn over. When the whole area was turned over, Dale brushed off his hands, let himself into the study through the study outside door, and scanned the bookshelves until he found what he wanted, and took several books outside with him, sitting on the back porch steps to read and process the information.

When the contractors came to say they were leaving for the day, as the light started to go, Dale had finished digging the manure and straw removed this morning from the stable well into the first two feet of soil in the plot, and as they left he collected some of the old fence rails the contractors were stacking in the yard, nailing them three deep and settling the bottom rail well into the earth to provide a small sheltered, stable fence around the plot.

“Leave you alone for five minutes and I catch you playing in a sand box.” Riley commented around five pm, digging his hands into his pockets. His jeans and jacket were muddy and he looked as if he’d been wading in the river at some point today, but he gave an uncritical nod at the plot as Dale straightened up, hammer in hand.

“What are you building?”

“Excavating.” Dale ran his forearm over his face to push his hair back, and saw Riley catch on, his eyes lighting up.

“The vegetable patch? You found the old vegetable patch!”

“The grass was shaded differently, I could see the outline.” Dale moved over to let Riley step over the low, solid fence rail. “It must have been well used at one point, the soil’s still loose.”

“Wonder what they grew?” Riley picked up another block of rail and dug in the open tool box for another hammer, coming to help without need to ask what to do or where to do it.

“No idea.” Dale stooped alongside him to hold the rails in place while Riley joined the corners. “There were allotments at school, kitchen garden type thing – carrots, runner beans, potatoes, that kind of thing. I suppose it would be corn out here?”

“Soil is soil isn’t it?” Riley connected two more rails with a couple of powerful and accurate blows of the hammer that made Dale look at his deft hands and the line of his shoulders with definite appreciation. “I suppose you’d grow whatever you wanted to eat. I’ve got no clue, I never lived anywhere there was a garden. If you can’t graze horses on it I’ve got no idea.”

“Paul has.”

Paul had grown up in Maine with food picked from the garden and brought in from the sea, given prepared earth he’d known what to do with it and it would matter to him. Dale hammered the last rail into position without anything like Riley’s skill, and Riley stepped up onto the ledge, walking around it and using his weight to rock and stabilise it deep into the earth.

“A dollar says this has got right angles to it you could check with a protractor.”

Used now to Riley’s teasing, Dale grabbed up a handful of loose soil and flung it at him, and Riley ducked and fled, hammer still in hand, evading him by vaulting the porch rail and taking the short route into the kitchen.


“Boots.” Paul said automatically. An army of jars were lined up on the table and Paul was writing labels. Riley paused and frowned, hand against the door jamb.

“What’s the matter?”

“Nothing.” Paul looked up and smiled. Riley leaned against the door.

“No. You only cook like this when you’re upset.”

“I’m late starting bottling this year, and it was a good day to get a lot done.”

“Rubbish.” Riley said shortly. “Did you and Flynn row this morning? Was that what he was being a bear about?”

Paul stuck the label on the jar and got up. “I don’t row with anyone. It was a good day for cooking, nothing more interesting than that. Take your boots off if you’re coming in.”

He felt Riley carry on looking at him, but took no notice, starting to pack the jars on the shelves in the pantry, and after a minute Riley cleared his throat.

“Come and look at this. Dale found the old vegetable plot.”

“He what?” Paul came out onto the porch with a tea towel still in hand, and followed Riley around the side of the house.

Whoever had first dug this patch had known what they were doing; sheltered by the house and by the fence, it would receive plenty of sun but be sheltered from wind and the harshest of the weather, and if you walked right around the porch to the back of the house, which they rarely did, and walked down the steps at the back - they led you right to the vegetable garden itself. Paul looked speechlessly at the carefully dug, carefully fenced plot.

“’Found’? I’m sure it didn’t look like that this morning and we’ve just been overlooking it!”

“The grass shading was a slightly different colour, and it was raised.” Dale said lightly, suddenly and uncomfortably aware that he’d dug up a large patch of ground without stopping to think or asking any kind of permission. “That was all.”

That was all. Paul came down the steps of the porch and wordlessly pulled Dale over, giving him a tight hug.


Bandit was circling the quarry in the woods, the stone grey amongst the green of the bracken, the leaves and the grass that overgrew it. The stallion trotted, his high gliding trot, moving in and out of spars of sunshine that lanced down through the trees like a cathedral, and in the bright lines of sunlight he shone pure white instead of tan. The sun between two close together aspens cast two long, parallel shadows on the ground, but the woods were silent. No birds sang. Dale walked slowly over the uneven grass and climbed the stone ruins, hands dug deep in his pockets. He couldn’t see what the stallion was hunting or what he did, but Bandit went on circling at a distance, effortless over the rough grass, and it was too peaceful a place to mind much or to do anything but walk and look.

He heard the rasp of the chainsaw for some time in the distance before it held his attention enough to make him turn, and then to follow the path downhill through the trees. The light bathed the ground here too. Luath and Gerry were cutting down dead trees, ropes around them – a much younger Gerry and a slimmer, darker haired Luath whose shirtsleeves were rolled above his elbows. David was chopping some of the heavy branches on the ground and paused, axe in hand, to look straight at Dale. Bear had climbed into the fork of a tree to take down the branches, bare arms like hams, sweat making his skin glisten, and his deep voice was humming as he effortlessly wielded the saw. Dale’s stomach clenched at the sight of him and he froze on the path, knowing exactly what he would see and dreading it – the fall, the cries, the destruction –

He forced himself awake and gripped the quilt for a moment, trying to stop his own thumping heart. Flynn hadn’t moved beside him, and very, very cautiously, Dale eased himself over to look with a surge of protectiveness, not wanting to wake him. Flynn had come in too late for dinner, muttered something about finding no traces of the stallion and gone upstairs for a bath. Dale had quietly followed him with the books he’d taken from the study, sat with him while he bathed and after a while Flynn unwound a little and talked with him about what and how could be grown in a vegetable patch – casual, inconsequential conversation that touched on nothing sensitive, and after a while longer the books got set aside and Dale got more than slightly wet. It seemed to help. Flynn came to bed much nearer to his usual self, but Dale had been aware it had taken him a long time to fall asleep. He hadn’t stirred. Dale watched him for some moments while he overruled the last of the cold sweat and the breaths that wanted to come too rapidly, then moving very gently, slipped out from under the covers, picked up a sweater and headed quietly downstairs. A cup of tea and electric lights would provide good distraction from mangled bodies in woods, and David with that expression on his face.

The kitchen light was on and the door was pushed to, keeping the light from reaching too far into the family room, and Dale hesitated before he opened it, wondering who was up and whether he was intruding. Only Paul looked up, still dressed and sitting at the table with his dark hair dishevelled and his hands cupped around a mug. He gave Dale a good attempt at a smile but it was tired and heavy, and the expression told Dale a good deal. He shut the door softly behind him and stooped over the back of Paul’s chair, wrapping his arms around the older man’s shoulders. Paul put a hand up to hug him back, holding on to him when Dale would have tactfully let him go.

“Did you have another dream honey? The kettle’s hot.”

Dale picked up Paul’s almost empty mug and made two cups of tea, bringing both back to the table.

“It was Bear falling this time. Out of a tree in the woods, David and Luath and Gerry were cutting logs with him.”

“It always seems to involve David.” Paul said with sympathy.

Dale grunted as he sat down, with a wry recall of David’s eyes in the wood, looking hard at him.

Listen you idiot. Pay attention.

“Yes. And he never looks happy with me either.”

“In what way?”

“The way he looks at me for a start.” Dale said wryly. “As if I’m too thick to figure it out.”

“Do you think this is because you’re still worrying about the project?” Paul asked gently.

Dale shook his head, having gone over this a good deal himself. “I think that’s what Flynn thinks it is. I know these sound like plain anxiety dreams, but..... no, I really don’t think I am. I’m frustrated I didn’t find the information I wanted; I think there still is a solution to be found, but once Flynn said that was the end of it, that was it. I stopped thinking about it.”

They knew too well in this house how to make things stop, so they didn’t torture you. It worked; it had always worked here.

“David was a brat.” Paul put a hand up to his face, pushing fingers through his hair to comb it back with a tenderness in the gesture that went right through Dale. “If you’re having dreams about him bugging you, interrupt the dream and tell him to stop – or in the dream go and find me or Philip and we’ll make him stop. I know David’s a hero of yours but he wasn’t perfect, he didn’t have a lot of patience, he tended to get stuck on his own agenda and he assumed that everyone understood what he did without it occurring to him that he needed to explain rather than lose his temper. There were times he needed telling emphatically and in words of one syllable to stop.”

“Did it work?” Dale asked dryly. Paul smiled.

“If you were firm enough. He’d never intend to make you unhappy, love. He was brave, he was immensely caring and practical, and a quick thinker, but he was just someone who had to do what needed doing and didn’t pay attention to anything except his own values, and Philip’s. And like most people his biggest strengths were also his biggest weaknesses. You’re now listing your weaknesses, aren’t you?”


“Do you do that with clients?” Dale asked, partially to distract him. “Look at character like that?”

Paul sat back, sipping tea. “It’s a good way to think about what most gets in someone’s way. Like we quickly figured out that you were gentle and a gentleman in the sense Philip would have meant it, with no killer instinct in the way we’re used to seeing it in clients; that you’ve got an immense capacity for detail, analysis and perception and you tend to see things in a very pure form. That you’re very loving, you’re self-effacing, and a bit of a social chameleon. You’ve got the skill to observe what people are doing around you and to fit in, at least on the surface, by picking it up and blending in.”

Both strength and weakness. Dale saw that without difficulty.

“........Do you think that’s what I’m doing now?” he said as lightly as he could manage.

“With the project?” Paul said gently. “Yes, I did. You’re a natural learner, but I think there comes a point where you’ve learned as much as you can from other people and you have to have the confidence that you know what you’re doing, and make decisions on your actions by trusting your own judgements. You’re not Ri, or Gerry, or any of the rest of them, you can’t make predictions on the right thing for you to do by distilling what you see the rest of us do.”

“This is pathetic isn’t it?” Dale said wearily.

Define pathetic, Flynn would instantly challenge him.

Weak. Inadequate.

That’s the perfectionism talking. Damnit

“That’s not an irrational judgement, it drives me mad that I’m still only just starting to get this.” he said in exasperation to Paul. “I spent months learning this kind of stuff from you, it’s so basic. And the first work project that comes along I fall into the exact same traps I always do.”

Paul put a hand over his and squeezed it, smiling. “It baffles me you can see anything you do in such simple terms. Honey, you’ve done things I will never do, you’ve worked all over the world leading and developing some of the top people in your field, you’ve got a resume that would get you and job you wanted and you’ve made enough of a name for yourself that you can retire and free lance in your mid thirties. You are no kind of failure. As for that project-
all I know is that Flynn keeps telling you that it takes time to learn to use new skills under pressure. You’re used to learning so quickly, but this is a lot more than just figures and processes and I don’t think you can do it intellectually. And if you’d thought less about getting everything right by yourself first time, and more about doing it with us rather than trying to pre-empt needing help by restricting yourself first and worst – you might have had an easier time with it. We’re not as mean to you as you are. A lot of it was about avoiding taking risks, wasn’t it?”

If you keep it quiet, if you solve it yourself, if no one sees that you’re struggling, if you get it right first time -

You don’t let anyone down and you don’t get faced with consequences you’re afraid you won’t be able to handle. a = x

Anxiety = estimation of likelihood of consequences (probably overblown and exaggerated)
estimation of resources to cope with consequences (probably underestimated)

It was a formula Flynn had gone over with him plenty of times.

“I’m actually less upset about screwing the project up than I am about screwing the whole rotten brat part of it up.” he admitted out loud to Paul, who nodded slowly.

“That makes sense to me. And you didn’t screw the project up from what I understood? You just weren’t able to find what you hoped to find.”

Dale nodded slowly, absorbing what was said so simply and so gently and with a care that always rocked him to his core when someone spoke to him and touched him and looked at him as Paul was doing right now. Paul had the knack of making you believe that at this moment in time there was no one else on the planet that mattered but you, and that you were capable of anything. Sometimes he wondered what his life might have been like if he’d had the luck to have had Paul, or Flynn, or Jasper, or Riley in his life in his teens or his early twenties.

“Were you having a hard time sleeping, or did you not want to go to bed?” he asked Paul softly. Paul shook his head.

“I went to bed for a while. It didn’t go well.”

And with all of the hurt and worry keeping Paul awake, he was still sitting down here talking patiently to a particularly thick brat doing yet more whining while failing to learn. Dale swallowed, angry with his own insensitivity, and urgently wanting to comfort Paul even half as effectively as Paul was able to comfort him. He found himself watching Paul’s face intently, searching his eyes for clues as to what might help, and couldn’t find anything but what came instinctively to his lips.

“......What was Roger like?”

“He was a very sweet man.” Paul said whole heartedly, and Dale heard the affection in his voice. “Dreamy. Horribly absent minded. Not one ounce of spite anywhere in him, he didn’t know how.”

Dale said nothing, listening, and Paul finished his tea before he answered, talking almost half to himself.

“It took him a long time to notice he’d fallen in love with Luath, and Luath being Luath did the honourable thing and kept his mouth shut which drove the rest of us mad, but he didn’t want to take advantage. They were very in love, there was a real kind of peace to the two of them. I think that’s partly why Rog didn’t notice he was in love, he was just perfectly happy in the friendship they had. Rog wasn’t incredibly good at noticing things.”

Flynn was another such old fashioned man with powerful, good old fashioned chivalry at his heart, and the bond between him and Luath was equally powerful. The emotion Flynn had spent today containing would be as much for Luath as for Roger. Roger and Luath had sat here in this kitchen, just as he and Paul were doing now; had known this wooden table, the chill of the stone tiles under bare feet, the warmth of the stove at night.

“We both need to go back to bed.” Paul said, getting up and putting the empty mugs in the sink. “If you dream again about David harassing you, you tell him from me to leave you in peace, or else.”

“I’m sorry for whining at you.” Dale said apologetically. Paul held out his arms until Dale came to him, and Dale wrapped both arms around him, holding him as close as he knew how.

“You’re not whining, and you’ve got no idea,” Paul said against him, “How much it helps to talk about and think about something else. Go get some sleep sweetheart, it’s going to be ok.”

That was where the dynamic still rocked him. You could learn to come and ask for permission to do something, and understand why – and Dale would have followed an order from Paul without hesitation, or deferred to him with willingness based on many things including whole hearted and natural respect – but it was in the simplest things that it went deepest, like one man saying to another as if it was rational or something any adult male should need to hear; it’s going to be ok. And knowing, equally irrationally, that you believed him.


He dreamed for a while of a vague, uncomfortably narrow house – which he’d never previously been in and didn’t recognise – in which he hunted through narrow corridors and barely decorated rooms for something intangible, with growing anxiety as room after room failed to show it up, until an explosion from somewhere in the house he had not yet found informed him that he was far too late anyway, and that now through his carelessness, something awful had happened. Half stirring out of that dream and turning over, Dale refused to let his imagination go back there.

And then he was in the quarry again.

There was a sharpness and clarity, a quality that the house had lacked, and where in the house he had felt a steady anxiety but nothing else – here he felt no particular emotion at all, detached and observing, but the grass was soft under his riding boots and the trees were wet where they brushed against him, and the smell of grass and smoke intermingled, stinging the back of his throat. The stallion was still circling, and it had the feel of a place Dale knew well.

“No.” he said firmly, turning in a full circle to look at the clearing in which the quarry lay. “I won’t do this. I’m done with it. No falling, no screaming, just stop it.”

There was no one else in the clearing. No sign of David. Determined not to give in this time, Dale sat down on one of the shattered grey chunks of stone. Not walking anywhere, not leaving the clearing, not going down to the house which lay below, where Philip was working in the study and Paul in the kitchen, and the others in the fields – one of whom would be falling off something. Something pressed against him in his pocket as he sat down and Dale dug one hand in, expecting the rose quartz stone he brought out. And the wooden coyote, which he thought he’d laid on the nightstand beside the carved wooden ant.

It was a beautiful thing. The lines were simple and flowing, and to touch it was a connection to Jasper which made it comforting in itself. Dale held it, running a finger gently over the carved lines, the howling muzzle. Mist was rising from the damp ground and gradually thickening, making it difficult to see more than a few feet ahead and turning trees and chunks of stone into vague shadows. And yet the grass was green, it was peaceful and the sun shone through the mist in places, and there was nothing to hear. You could sit here forever.

It began a long way in the distance. The very faint roar of a power tool. Luath and the others, deeper in the woods. Dale heard it but refused to turn towards it. The mist was clustering around his boots, even around his hands, damp and faintly acrid. Beyond the roar of the chainsaw was the distant, rhythmic thud.....thud.... of a hammer where Wade fixed the roof, and even further away, the voices of the men playing baseball in the pasture. The stallion crossed in front of him, a shadow in the mist, and beyond him Darcy, in heavy winter wet weather gear, his hat pulled low and his jacket streaming with rain, clambered down the sides of the quarry with a saddle in his arms.

“No. No more accidents.” Dale said loudly, getting up and pocketing the coyote and the stone. “Enough.”

“Enough what?” Flynn said sleepily, beside him.

The phone was ringing. Dale sat up and Flynn put out a hand to stop him, drawing him back down under the covers.

“Jasper just went down to get it. If it’s Luath we’ll hear quick enough.”

Dale’s stomach chilled at the thought, even against the hard warmth of Flynn’s body. The ringing stopped as Jasper reached the phone. Flynn stroked Dale’s back, rubbing his palm up and down his spine.

“Were you dreaming again?”

“A much milder version. Paul suggested telling David to belt up, and I did.”

“And it helped?”

“I woke up.”

Jasper was coming upstairs. Dale turned over to face the door, dreading it, and Flynn leaned up on one elbow as Jasper opened their door.

“Dale, it’s a work call for you. A Peter La Croix from Montreal?”

Behind him, Dale felt Flynn’s muscles unknot.

“Peter runs an audit committee,” he said to Jasper. “For A.N.Z., he’s an old colleague.”

“Do you want to take it?”

Dale glanced back to Flynn, who nodded, and Jasper held out the phone. Dale pulled the pillows up behind him to prop himself.

“Peter? It’s Dale Aden. What can I do for you?”

Riley looked in through the doorway of their room a while later, half dressed and still looking sleepy.

“Who’s he talking to?”

Flynn came out onto the landing to put his shirt on. Dale, still in sleep wear, was walking up and down their room by the window; he often seemed to walk when thinking, and the conversation had moved from English to French, which he was now speaking fluently and too rapidly for Flynn to pick out recognisable words.

“An A.N.Z colleague. From what I can make out, it was someone wanting his advice on some risk management protocol they’ve found in an audit.”

“What’s that when it’s at home?” Riley demanded. Flynn shrugged.

“Search me.”

Dale seemed perfectly at home with it. Following the intonation, Flynn made out a series of questions being followed now by him explaining something, and he came downstairs, dressed and with the phone turned off only a couple of minutes after they started breakfast.

“Anything interesting?” Paul asked him, taking his plate out of the warming oven to hand it over. Dale put the phone on the counter and sat down with them at the table.

“Just a colleague wanting to check some theories. The corporate Peter’s team are auditing have companies in France and in Quebec, and the French don’t like how the Canadians do business – or really how anyone but the French do business, really – and Peter thinks they’re having a go.”

“At what?” Paul asked. Dale smiled at him, eating bacon.

“Trying it on. Having a laugh. Taking the Mickey. Trying to con the Canadian companies that they’re doing something one way, when actually-”

He stopped dead, and Paul, watching him, saw him go white. Jasper put a hand out towards him, covering his.


“Shh.” Dale said so sharply that they stared at him. Dale shut his eyes and leaned his forehead hard on his clenched fists for a moment, elbows propped on the table, then he grabbed the phone and erupted up from the table, dialling rapidly and going to pace by the kitchen door. Paul looked at Flynn, who’d pushed his chair back to see Dale clearly, but met his eyes and shrugged.

“Jerry?” Dale said sharply. “It’s Aden. I’ve got it. There’s a ghost company. A mirage. At least one in Guatemala, and we need to check for more. Who of the young execs isn’t tied up – yes, Grayson knows what he’s doing, get him and his team on a plane for Guatemala, I’ll email him what he needs to know. No fuss, no warning, just tell him to turn up at the main company in Guatemala city with a car and demand an escort to the liberated company. And then take the books apart. Then get the forensics team to look at every special entity on the list and get an independent visit made to every one of them, site and books. Yes. Yes, I’ll wait to hear from you.”

He clicked the phone off and the hiss he gave was of pure satisfaction.

“Got the bastards!”

“Got who? Was that the project?” Riley demanded. Dale’s eyes were alight, Flynn could see the energy in his pacing.

“Yes. This is one of the big corporate empires in their field with a wide brief and companies all over the world, a lot of them in less developed countries, which is in part why it’s been such hell to analyse properly and why corporations like this get to think they’re untouchable. That’s what the board of this corporate have been relying on all along. When you’re dealing with multiple countries all with different business ethics, it gets difficult to have the in-house technical capacity and the will to properly monitor and record what goes on. We’re used to it in investigations, we expect to see it, and getting data from companies in multiple countries is always hell for reasons just like France won’t co operate with Canada. A lot of what I did with the data for Jerry was put it together to establish what pieces were missing and what we could infer that those gaps might contain from the information we did actually have.”

“Ow.” Riley commented, pushing his plate away although he was watching Dale with fascination. “Does this come with pictures or anything?”

“It’s not that complicated.” Dale paced around the table, picking up his cup to knock back tea. He was barely containing the excitement by pacing. “The plants operating in poorer countries often work cash in hand and don’t keep employee lists or proper payrolls, so a lot of the data from those companies is poor even though the production from those companies is vast. There’s all kinds of ways to make what’s actually happening to the money very difficult to establish, and that’s what I was taking apart with the records I had here. Financial statements not detailing operations and finances with shareholders and analysts; business models so complex they stretch the limits of accounting; complex holding structures which make it even harder to establish what’s happening and why; there are also acceptable accounting strategies for certain types of business that allow forecasted figures to be reported as income which enables corporates look bigger and richer than they actually are, and those forecasts can be spread to areas of business which shouldn’t qualify but it’s hard to spot, especially if you’ve paid people to look the other way. And then there are Special Purpose Entities which are limited companies created within a corporation for a short term specific purpose, and they can be used to hide loss and overstate earnings. This corporate used hundreds of them, justifiably, because of the nature of the financial risks they were taking. I went over them very carefully and I thought some of them were fishy but I couldn’t establish why. At the end of the life span of the entity various things can happen including selling them off to stand alone as independent companies outside the corporation. It’s been known for corporates to ‘sell off’ an entity as a financing vehicle, liberate it, so on paper the company’s doing business with them, buying from them– but the company is still actually within the corporate, so it’s loans made to look like sales, passing assets back and forth. This corporate’s gone one better, in that at least one of those entities only exists on paper. There is no company there. It’s just a paperwork exercise, set up and then ‘liberated’ so it looked independent. On paper it’s doing a lot of high revenue raising business with them just like plenty of others. Wages are being paid, overheads being paid, there’s all sorts of ways its raising and appearing to use money, but it’s just a way to pass assets and paperwork back and forth to raise money without costs, relying on the poor data and the corporation accommodating mixed international ethics.”

“So what tipped you off?” Flynn asked with interest. Paul looked at him, eyebrows raised.

“You followed any of that? Dale, you seriously know this information for hundreds of these entity companies? That’s as well as the standard ones?”

“Peter talking about the problems negotiating between different national business styles. They hid it in plain sight alongside the valid company in the area.” Dale said cheerfully. “There’s data coming from two companies, but it’s smoke and mirrors – one is a mirage. The data’s poor from both companies, and it all checks out, but when I thought it through I finally saw it. There’s a few suspicious things: one company shows fluctuation in their overheads and the other doesn’t. No change in workforce, no repairs, no unexpected expenses, it’s flat. And there’s a regular pay check at senior level that doesn’t pan out, but that’s fairly small potatoes in an investigation this size in a not so regulated country, until the pattern starts to suggest it’s more than it seems.”

“A bribe?” Flynn suggested. Dale nodded.

“Probably to some local official.”

“And suspicion is enough?” Riley asked. Dale grinned at him, draining his tea.

“Call it a leap of faith. I know that paperwork inside out. It’s a seven hour flight to Guatemala City, we should hear something by early evening.”

“When you were talking about it to us, you made it sound at about the level of a Sudoku puzzle,” Paul said, shaking his head. “I don’t believe you can hold that much information in mind.”

“I was just looking for gaps in summarized reports on all aspects of the corporate, the hard work had already been done,” Dale said dismissively.

Which apparently included holding in his head the statistics and figures for several hundred separate companies. It was amazing there was room in his head for anything else.

“Sit down and finish your breakfast.” Paul said, catching his hand and pulling. “You can go back to saving the world later.”

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