Chasing the dream, I tapped the thin whip on the mare’s left shoulder. She switched leads and opened up down the stretch. Wind blew her mane into my face.
The dirt track ahead was empty, and I could hear the field battling for second place behind us. The first murmur of the grandstand roar teased my ears. I could almost smell the mare’s determination.
Then the vision fragmented, dissolving as my eyes slid open.
The bedside clock read 12:45 A.M. My twisted sheets suggested a whirlwind had whipped through the bed, leaving my jaw tight and strained. Sleep remained a longshot. I pulled on some jeans, shrugged into a T-shirt, grabbed the Toyota’s keys, then paused in midstride.
A framed photo stood on my dresser. Me, Nikki Latrelle, aboard a muscular Thoroughbred, my face lit with a laser-bright smile. My first win. I saluted the picture and said, “Make it happen tomorrow.”
The beautiful mare of my dream, Gilded Cage, was my ticket. Incredible that I’d be viewing the racetrack between her classy ears the next day. Her regular jockey had broken a collarbone eight hours earlier, and I’d captured the ride. I didn’t like the circumstances behind this miracle, but wild horses couldn’t drag me from a chance like this.
I worked as a daily exercise rider for Gilded Cage’s trainer, Jim Ravinsky. When the mare’s jockey fell in the ninth, Ravinsky talked the owner into putting me up on the big horse in the $200,000 Venus Stakes race.
I grabbed an elastic band and stuffed my dark hair into a ponytail. I needed to see Gilded Cage, the mare we all called “Gildy.” Wanted to feel her proud confidence, let my fingertips vibrate with her magical energy. Maybe then I could settle down and sleep.
Outside my apartment the August night enveloped my skin like warm molasses. Somewhere in the tree canopy overhead, a cicada reached a crescendo, paused, and began again. The dream had left me thirsty, and after deciding on a detour for a diet soda at the 7-Eleven, I climbed into my blue Toyota and cranked the engine. Late-night treats were okay as long as I didn’t slide over racing weight.
Inside the shop, a thin-faced guy with a gold earring stared as I walked in. He leaned against the counter, giving me a long appraising look that settled on my chest.
Oops. I’d pulled on the thin white cotton T-shirt, forgetting to wear a bra. Exasperated, I clutched my purse to my chest, marched to the soda dispenser, and pushed the Diet Coke lever. A candy stand lay in wait between me and the cashier. My resolve crumpled. Hershey’s, cheap but effective. Besides, Gildy was the favorite and carried top weight in the race tomorrow. I grabbed a chocolatewith-almonds and paid the woman behind the counter.
The guy with the golden earring moved closer. As I left, he said, “Beautiful evening, really sweet.”
The unwanted attention stirred up the past. I double-timed it out to my car, drove down Route 198 to Brock Road, and entered Laurel Park’s backstretch after flashing ID at the startled security guard. Nobody hung around this late. Only the horses sleeping in the dark stables laid out like
dominoes along the paved road. Dirt paths intersected the pavement and disappeared in the darkness toward the vast, mile-oval track. At night, the race course remained invisible, but I could sense its expanse.
Closer to Ravinsky’s barn, cooler air spilled through the car’s window. A reminder of coming winter and the frigid northwest winds that cracked my skin in the predawn cold. I shivered, then braked suddenly.
A light glimmered halfway down Ravinsky’s barn aisle. No one should be there. A finger of fear touched me. The horses.
I left the car and hurried across the wet grass into the shedrow, the rich scents of hay, manure, and sweet feed saturating the night air. Nearing the stall spilling light into the darkness, my senses heightened. Gildy’s stall.
A man’s silhouette emerged from the glow, then froze. I paused. “Who —” I demanded.
He ran straight at me. Before I could get out of his way, he knocked me down hard. Air whooshed from my lungs.
Rolling over, I sucked in a gasping breath, then climbed to my hands and knees. His back vanished into the darkness.
“You son of a bitch!” I gasped. What had he done?
Scrambling to my feet I jerked open the door to Gildy’s stall. The mare was down, not moving.
I sank to my knees and placed my cheek next to her nostril. No warm breath, nothing. I pressed my ear to the fur on her rib cage. No heartbeat, only silence.
With a half sob, I ran to Jim’s office. My key unlocked the door. With fingers fumbling, I punched the phone number for security. Five long rings before they picked up. Voice stammering, I told them what had happened.
They came running. I met them at Gildy’s stall. They stared at the mare and called the police.
An Anne Arundel County officer with close-cropped hair had me sit in his cruiser while he filled out a report. The scent of stale cigarettes clung to the upholstery.
“Can you give me a better description of the person who knocked you down?”
“He came at me so fast.” How could Gildy be dead?
“Was he heavy? Tall?”
Who would do such a thing? “Average, average. You’re making me feel inadequate here.”
The officer shifted in his seat, his leather holster squeaking, keys and cuffs jangling. He smiled for the first time. “I’ve had worse descriptions.”
His radio crackled; he paused, listened, then chose to ignore it. “Got to tell you, a dead horse, even one as valuable as you say this one is, won’t be a high priority. I’ll check with track security tomorrow evening and see what the vet’s necropsy reveals.” He handed me a card. “If you
think of anything else, call me.”
I slid from the car and watched the taillights on his cruiser disappear. One of the track security guys, Fred something, lingered outside Gildy’s stall. He walked over.
“Tough break. Wasn’t you riding her in the Venus tomorrow?”
“Listen,” he said, “Ronny’s gonna be back with some crew and the truck. You might wanna leave before they put the winch on and drag her out.”
My lips twisted. “I don’t want to see that.”
My legs shook going back to the car. Another shattered dream, and not just for me. I still had to call Jim.
At six the next morning, Ravinsky’s shedrow seemed strangely quiet. Usually Jim’s barn overflows with noise, color, and motion. Bits jingle, hooves clatter, and chestnut, bay, and dappled gray coats gleam in the sunlight. The grooms and hotwalkers gossip and joke while consuming quarts of coffee and boxes of doughnuts. They wash the bright-colored leg-bandages and saddle-towels as steam from the hot water rises in the air. Laundry hangs in strips of color along the shedrow to dry in the morning sun.
Today the picture played in black-and-white, the sound muted.
Two grooms stopped their quiet talk when they saw me. I nodded at them and headed toward the office. Jim sat at his desk sipping a 7-Eleven coffee. I’d gotten used to his taciturn manner, but today a gloom enveloped him that stopped me in the doorway. The usual clutter of vet bills, Racing Forms, and bloodstock magazines littered his desk. A bottle of liniment, some halters, and a stopwatch sat one one of the metal office chairs. The other chair was occupied by a fat orange tabby cat, currently comatose.
“I know how much Gildy meant to you,” I said.
He stared at his Styrofoam cup. Behind him, confined by glass and picture frames, a row of horses, members of the racing Hall of Fame, gazed at me from the past: Secretariat, John Henry, Citation, Man o’ War, and the lone female, Gallorette. A chestnut mare. Jim always said Gildy reminded him of this classic racehorse from the 1940s who somehow beat the leading male horse, Stymie. Beat him three times.
Jim crushed his cup, tossed it into the trash. “Gildy might a been the best horse I ever trained.”
He was tall and thin. Today his shoulders appeared stooped, his eyes hollowed. Bushy brows, sprinkled liberally with gray, were easily the most expressive feature on his face. Rogue hairs strayed up his forehead, and there’d been times I’d swear they were waving at me. The light filtering through the dusty office window revealed features shadowed, and drawn tight with pain.
“You said you saw the bastard?”
“I don’t even know if it was a man or a woman.” I slid the snoring cat over and slumped into the remaining chair-half. A sharp tangy scent from the liniment bottle drifted in the air. “Have you heard if the vet found —”
“Necropsy results might come in this afternoon. We’ve got other horses to get out.” He nodded toward the door, pushed his bent frame from the metal chair behind the desk, and went out. He’d finished talking.
A few minutes later I rode out onto the track with Kenny Grimes for the morning’s first set. Kenny was small, wiry, and sat his horse with easy skill and confidence. He’d had a jockey’s license and ridden races for a while, but had found the game too rough. Now he just rode as an
exercise rider in the mornings.
“Don’t do it,” he’d told me when I first planned to get a jock’s license. “Those boys will cut you off and box you in. You get a live mount, they’ll gang up on you. Being a girl won’t cut you any breaks.”
I’d ignored him and, though people said I had magic hands and a reckless courage on horseback, I’d had a tough time. After the first jock’s room brawl, I’d bought some steel-toed boots and used them on a particularly obstructive, testosterone-laden rider, earning some respect and maneuvering room. But I wanted to rise above that. Winning on Gildy would have boosted my career.
I snapped back to the business at hand as we approached the half-mile pole. Kenny and I sat lower in our saddles, our hands and heels getting real busy asking our mounts for speed. A stiff breeze whipped at us from the infield, carrying an earthy scent that lingered on the nearby,
freshly watered turf course.
The rhythm of the Thoroughbred’s gallop usually lifts my spirits with a high only surpassed by racing. Today, as we rounded the turn and accelerated down the stretch, I felt a heaviness. No joy, only regret. And beneath that, anger.
My jaw tightened. I white-knuckled the reins, telegraphing rage to the colt beneath me who bolted forward in sweeping strides. I wanted to know who’d killed Gildy. I wanted to get the bastard.
End, Chapter 1
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