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Chapter One: A Hot Beginning
"Look at that gorgeous horse!" Bess Marvin exclaimed as she looked out the passenger side window of Nancy Drew's Mustang.
Nancy slowed the car and glanced at the horse being led along the grassy edge of the gravel drive. It was a sleek chestnut with rippling muscles.
As they drove past, the horse pranced sideways. "It is gorgeous," Nancy said. "I'll bet we see a lot of beautiful horses this weekend."
Nancy and Bess were at the Illinois Horse Park to attend the week-long Midwest Grand Prix Dressage Championships. They were meeting Bess's friend Lee Anne Suna. It was Friday morning, and Nancy and Bess were going to bunk with Lee Anne for a long weekend.
For the past year Lee Anne had been working for and training with former Olympic rider Klaus Schaudt at High Hills Farm. Nancy and Bess had had lunch with Lee Anne a week earlier, and she'd spent the entire time talking about the equestrian sport of dressage. Intrigued, Nancy and Bess had decided to attend the competition, and Lee Anne had insisted they stay at the motel with her.
Ned Nickerson, Nancy's boyfriend, was also meeting them at the show. His plan was to spend time with Nancy and Bess before his college semester got too busy.
"Too bad George couldn't come," Nancy commented.
"I'll bet she's having a great time teaching at the soccer clinic," Bess said as she scanned the showgrounds. She pointed to a large gray building. "There's Barn C. That's where Lee Anne said she'd meet us. All of the horses from High Hills Farm are there."
"It's good she told you exactly where we should meet her," Nancy said. "I had no idea the horse park was so big."
"And crowded," Bess added as a huge van rumbled by, enveloping the Mustang in a cloud of dust.
The parking lot was filled with horse trailers, vans, and pickup trucks. Nancy drove around for a few minutes before she found a spot.
After she climbed out of the car, she shaded her eyes from the hot September sun and surveyed the grounds. From the lot, she could see the indoor arena, a cross-country jumping course, and a few barns, which seemed to Nancy to be the size of warehouses.
"The riding rings must be on the other side of the barns," Nancy said.
Bess gave Nancy a teasing look. "In dressage you ride in an arena," she said with a laugh.
"Well, excuse me for being so dense," Nancy shot back, then both girls burst out laughing.
Nancy reached inside the car and pulled out her baseball cap. She put it on over her reddish blond hair, pulling it down low to shade her face from the sun. Then she locked the car and joined Bess.
"How many horses did High Hills bring for the competition?" Nancy asked as they headed for Barn C. Both girls were prepared for the warm weather, wearing shorts, sneakers, and sunglasses. They'd also packed jeans and sweatshirts for the cooler evenings.
"I'm not sure. But the farm must share the barn with other competitors. The building looks big enough to hold fifty horses."
"At least," Nancy said after they stepped through the double doors. Before them stretched a long aisle with a concrete floor. Nancy guessed there were about fifty stalls on either side of the aisle -- a hundred in all.
As Nancy walked down the aisle, she peered into the stalls. From each one a handsome horse looked back at her. Some were draped with coolers or fly sheets -- lightweight covers to keep the flies off. Others had wraps only on their legs.
The stalls were spotless and thickly bedded with straw. Ceiling fans whirled overhead.
"Wow," Bess said. "This is like a fancy hotel. I wonder if this place has room service.
"Bess! Nancy!" a voice called.
Nancy looked over her shoulder and saw Lee Anne jogging down the aisle.
"Hey, you two," Lee Anne said. "I'm so glad you made it."
Bess's friend was small and slender. She wore cutoff jeans, a T-shirt that said "Dressage is my life," and paddock boots. Her brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail. Since she wasn't wearing makeup, Nancy thought she looked about twelve years old instead of nineteen.
"Lee Anne!" Bess gave her friend a hug. "We thought we'd never find you in this palace."
Lee Anne giggled. "Wait until you see our side of the barn. We really fixed it up."
"You mean there's another side?" Nancy asked.
"Amazing, isn't it?" Lee Anne said. "Barn C holds two hundred horses. There are over six hundred horses competing this week."
Lee Anne grabbed Bess's hand. "Come on." She began to tug her friend up the aisle. "I want you to see Aristocrat, Zanzibar, and Curio. Then I want you to meet Klaus and -- "
"Michael?" Bess teased.
At lunch the week before, Lee Anne had talked a lot about a rider named Michael Raines, who was competing in the Grand Prix. From the way she'd described him, Nancy thought he sounded like a combination movie star, prince, and sports pro. Nancy and Bess couldn't wait to meet him.
Lee Anne blushed at Bess's teasing. "Of course you'll meet Michael. He's getting ready for a test, so you're just in time."
"Test?" Bess grinned. "Like multiple choice?"
"No, silly. His riding test. Dressage is a sport where the rider and horse perform a test made up of movements and figures. Michael's riding Intermediate Two tests. That's really advanced, but this fall he hopes to be riding Grand Prix, which is the highest level."
"Dressage seems pretty complicated." Bess said. "I hope I'll be able to follow what's going on."
"Don't worry. You'll understand after you've been here for just a day." Lee Anne glanced at her watch. "We'd better hustle. Michael's on in forty-five minutes."
Lee Anne set a pace that made and Nancy and Bess jog to keep up. Halfway down the aisle, they turned right into a cross aisle that led to the other side of the stable.
When they rounded the corner, Lee Anne said, "There's Michael with Curio."
A young man stood beside a horse at the end of the aisle. The horse was a glossy bay. Its mane was braided and its hooves polished. It was bridled, and a lightweight blanket covered it from head to tail.
The man was elegantly dressed in a double-breasted black coat with long tails, a black top hat, and white breeches. High black boots reached to his knees.
"He looks as if he's going to a wedding," Bess joked in a low voice.
"That's called a shadbelly coat," Lee Anne said as she rushed up to Michael.
When he saw Lee Anne, Michael frowned impatiently. "Where were you? We've got to hurry. Curio needs a long time to warm up."
"I went to meet Nancy and Bess," Lee Anne explained. "You remember -- the friends I told you about?"
"Nice meeting you." Michael gave them a polite glance before turning his attention back to Lee Anne. "Meet me in the warm-up arena in fifteen minutes. And don't forget the fly spray."
Clucking to his horse, he left the barn, his boots echoing on the concrete floor.
Lee Anne flashed her friends an apologetic smile. "Sorry. He's really tense. This is his first time competing Curio, and his ride on Thursday in the warm-up class was just okay."
"Where's his regular horse?" Nancy asked.
"Midnight Blue's owner decided to show him herself."
"So Michael doesn't have a horse of his own?" Bess asked.
Lee Anne shook her head as she bent to put a jar of hoof polish into the grooming box. "Many dressage riders don't have horses of their own. Horses competing at Intermediate and Grand Prix levels cost a lot of money, so riders like Michael are at the mercy of the owners. He was ready to compete Midnight Blue this summer when his owner moved the horse to another stable."
"That doesn't seem fair," Bess said.
"It isn't. Curio's a fine horse, but still, Michael's had to start all over," she said gloomily. "He's trying to rack up enough good scores to qualify for the Pan American team. But now I don't know."
She pulled a spray bottle from the grooming box. "We've just got time to see Aristocrat before I have to meet Michael."
"That's Klaus Schaudt's horse, right?" Nancy remembered Lee Anne talking about the stallion at lunch.
Lee Anne's face brightened. "Right. Klaus has been competing him in Grand Prix since last year. They've done well, too, scoring in the sixty-five to seventy percentile range. They were even on the cover of my favorite horse magazine."
"So we're meeting a celebrity?" Bess said.
"Kind of," Lee Anne said. "Lots of dressage fans have come by to see Aristocrat up close and to get Klaus's autograph. Gilly's been busy."
"Gilly?" Nancy asked.
"Aristocrat's groom." Lee Anne walked over to a stall. "She even sleeps next to the horse."
The door to the stall was open, and Nancy glanced inside. A cot stood in one corner, a sleeping bag, duffel bag, and pillow neatly laid on top. Bales of hay filled up the other half of the stall.
"Gilly must be with Klaus," Lee Anne said. But here's Aristocrat."
Nancy joined Bess and Lee Anne in front of a steel-mesh door. In the stall, a brown horse was eating hay. When Lee Anne made a clucking noise, he turned his head to stare calmly at the trio. His coat gleamed, and his mane and tail were neatly brushed. Nancy was surprised that the celebrated horse looked like all the other brown horses in the barn.
"He looks like a horse even I could ride," Bess said, echoing Nancy's thoughts.
Lee Anne chuckled. "In Aristocrat's case, looks are deceiving. When Klaus rides him into an arena, it's as if a spotlight hits him. He might look like an ordinary horse, but he's worth about two hundred thousand dollars."
"Wow," Nancy said. "That is a lot of money." She looked closer, trying to imagine the horse leaping and prancing. Aristocrat only snorted.
Bess wrinkled her nose. "I guess we'll have to take your word for it."
"You don't need to take my word for it. Tomorrow you can watch him perform."
Anxiously, Lee Anne checked her watch. "Well, I'd better go help Michael. You guys should come and see his test. It'll be awesome, and I can explain what's happening."
"Sounds great," Nancy said as they headed up the aisle. "I'm really curious about dressage."
"Nan and I have been riding since we were about eight," Bess told her friend. "But we don't know very much about dressage."
As the three girls neared the cross aisle, Nancy stopped and sniffed the air.
Bess and Lee Anne stopped, too. "What's wrong?" Bess asked.
"Do you smell smoke?" Nancy asked.
There were No Smoking signs posted everywhere. Still, some careless person could have dropped a match or sneaked a cigarette in a stall, Nancy thought.
Lee Anne lifted her chin and sniffed, too. "I smell something. We'd better find out where it's coming from. With all the hay and straw in here, this place would go up like a bonfire."
Nancy turned in a circle, trying to figure out where the smell was coming from. When she moved down the aisle toward the other side of the barn, she noticed that the odor grew stronger.
Breaking into a jog, she took off for the other side. A curl of gray smoke wafted up from a stall to her right. A horse danced in front of the closed mesh door, its eyes wild with fright.
Nancy raced over to the stall. The horse whirled crazily, but Nancy spotted flames leaping up from a pile of hay in the far corner.
"Fire!" Nancy screamed.
Copyright © 1998 by Simon & Schuster Inc.