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At Risk

At Risk

5.0 8
by Kit Ehrman

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At 21, Steve Cline seems too young to be in charge of a major stable in Maryland's horse country. When he's hijacked early one morning along with some of his horses, his escape turns him into a killer's target.


At 21, Steve Cline seems too young to be in charge of a major stable in Maryland's horse country. When he's hijacked early one morning along with some of his horses, his escape turns him into a killer's target.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Both horse lovers and crime fans who've never stepped into a stirrup will relish Ehrman's riveting debut, set on a Maryland horse farm. When his successful surgeon father disowns him after he drops out of college, 21-year-old Stephen Cline takes a job as barn manager of Foxdale Farm, which specializes in the training and boarding of thoroughbred jumpers. In the middle of a late February night, Steve visits the stable to medicate a sick horse only to stumble on a horse theft in progress. Haunted by the events of that night after barely escaping from being kidnapped and murdered, Steve resolves to track down the perpetrators before they find him. In spite of the warnings of state police detective James Ralston, he continues his search to unravel what becomes a suspenseful mystery, but not before he puts himself in grave peril. The cold, wet Maryland spring vividly turns to summer amid the smells of horses, hay and sawdust as the plot gallops forward. As a former groom, veterinary assistant and barn manager, Ehrman treads Dick Francis territory with a sure foot. From Steve's girl-crazy friend, Marty, to the motherly farm manager, Mrs. Hill, to the ruthless villains who leave more than one body in their wake, she has created a memorable cast. The sensitively drawn relationship between Steve and the alluring Rachel, a boarder at Foxdale, is one of the novel's highlights. With his youthful zeal and perseverance, Steve Cline makes a captivating hero and sleuth, one readers will be eager to see again. (Oct. 1) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
At 21, Steve Cline is among the youngest barn managers in Maryland's horse country, and he loves the job, loves being good with animals. It's the two-legged species that sometimes unsettles him. Steve's people problems get rapidly worse when, during a nocturnal break-in at Foxdale Farms, seven horses are hijacked along with one human-Steve, of course, attempting to forestall three men in ski masks who take turns whaling away at him before tossing him into a van, to be dealt with further at their leisure. But Steve, as resourceful and resilient as a Dick Francis hero, wriggles free of his bindings, overcomes the agony of broken ribs, and escapes his captors. Is it a case of plain unvarnished larceny? That's his question when Detective James Ralston of the Maryland State police comes calling. The answer isn't obvious, Ralston acknowledges, though it's clear the crime was not isolated. A few months earlier, he tells Steve, a nearby stable owner was beaten to death after having seven (!) horses stolen from him. It's hardly a stretch, then, Ralston says, to conclude that Steve is lucky indeed to be living and breathing, however painfully. Next, a favorite cat is hanged showily, and vandals strike and leave threatening messages aimed at Steve. Is all this a cover-up for some convoluted scam? Or is it, Steve wonders, as personal as it's starting to seem? Ehrman's lively debut is not without its rough spots-mostly in the plotting-but the smart money could make the unusually likable protagonist a favorite in the Francis Stakes.

Product Details

ibooks, Incorporated
Publication date:
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4.24(w) x 6.76(h) x 0.82(d)

Read an Excerpt

At Risk

By Kit Ehrman

Poisoned Pen Press

Copyright © 2002 Kit Ehrman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1590580362

Some mornings, before darkness gives way to light and a cold wind howls across the pasture and presses against the barn like a giant hand, I wonder what in the hell I'm doing working on a horse farm.

A week earlier, the jet stream had ferried a wall of Canadian air down the eastern edge of the Allegheny Mountains, and the mercury hadn't crawled out of the single digits ever since. I yanked a second sweatshirt over my head and walked into the kitchen.

The barn's crossbeams and rafters creaked and groaned like a Spanish galleon on the open seas while familiar sounds filtered up through the floorboards. Rustling straw, the hollow thump of a hoof knocking against a wooden plank, a bucket rattling.

I opened the drawer next to the kitchen sink. Buried among a Phillips screwdriver, a past due Gas and Electric bill and a stack of old bank statements, rubber bands, paper clips, and everything else that cluttered the junk drawer, I found a dirty manila envelope with the flap crimped shut. I turned it over in my palm. My boss had printed Stephen in bold black letters on one side along with the horse's name and detailed instructions that I knew by heart. Inside were tubes of ophthalmic ointment that couldn't be left in a cold barn. I tucked the envelope in my pocket and shrugged into my coat.

Fronds of ice feathered across theinside of the windowpanes like a crystal-growing experiment gone wrong. They might have been pretty if they didn't mean I'd be freezing my ass off in a minute or two. I scratched at the frost with my fingernails, then squinted through the glass. The thermometer read two below zero.

There were a half dozen good ways to spend my time at three o'clock in the morning, and this wasn't one of them. But corneal ulcers had to be treated aggressively, because a horse that can't see, can't jump. And at Foxdale Farm, jumping's the name of the game. Hunters, jumpers, three-day eventers. Only the dressage horses kept their feet on the ground.

Outside, I took the steps two at a time, swiped the ice scraper across the windshield, then slid behind the wheel. The vinyl creaked under my weight, and the duct tape I'd plastered over a rip in the seat shifted and stuck to the seat of my pants. I huddled over the steering wheel and cranked the engine. Listening to the starter grind, I wondered what I would have been doing if I'd stayed at college. Sleeping more than likely. Better yet, I'd probably be in Florida on spring break where the locals would be inclined to think two below zero was the name of a rock group.

When the Chevy finally coughed to life, I coaxed the truck onto the road and, ten minutes later, pulled onto Foxdale's long gravel drive. The headlights cut across the metal walls of the indoor riding arena as I swung around into my usual parking space. To the casual observer, the arena and two huge barns farther down the lane might have looked like warehouses if not for the warren's nest of paddocks radiating outward like the spokes of a wheel.

I cut the engine, and Bach's Brandenburg Concerto Number 3 in G Major died at the start of the second movement. The sudden quiet was overwhelming. So was the dark. High above me, the sodium vapor lamp was an indistinct shape against the bulk of the building. I made a mental note to have Dave replace the bulb, then I grabbed my flashlight from under the driver's seat and climbed out.

My boots scrunched on the gravel as I rounded the southwest corner of the indoor arena. When I switched on the flashlight, nothing happened. I slipped off my gloves, tightened the housing, and fiddled with the switch. Still no luck. I glanced toward the barns and froze.

A pickup and horse trailer were parked farther down the lane where they had no business being, not at three in the morning. A broad shaft of light poured from the truck's cab and reflected off the barn's metal siding, but what sent a shiver down my spine was the overall absence of light. Both sodium vapors were out.

I stood still in the cold air and shifted my weight from one foot to the other. Mrs. Hill was too efficient to have forgotten to tell me that someone was going to pick up a horse. And it was the off season. No one was showing. Certainly not in Maryland.

Besides, no one loaded horses in the dark. Not if they could help it.

There was a pay phone in the arena by the bleachers. A call to the police seemed like a good idea. Prudent anyway. I opened the door and peered inside. Couldn't see a damn thing. I stepped over the threshold and ran my hand along the wall, feeling for the phone. When my fingers touched the receiver, I heard a muffled noise behind me.

Something heavy glanced off the back of my head and crashed into my shoulder. A searing pain slammed into my brain as specks of light flashed in a dizzying are behind my eyes. Someone grabbed my wrist and wrenched my arm behind my back. He shoved me face-first into the arena wall, into dust and dirt and cobwebs. The door slammed shut.

"Shit." I clenched my teeth.

He leaned into me and readjusted his grip. "Got that right, punk. And you just stepped in it."

"What are you gonna do?" someone behind us said. A male voice, high-pitched and tense. "You ain't gonna pop 'im, are ya?"

The guy holding me felt my muscles tense and yanked my wrist higher between my shoulder blades.

Farther back in the building, a flashlight switched on. "No. Not yet, anyway." His voice was ordinary, calm, as if he were discussing what to do with a stray piece of equipment. The beam moved down the wall and focused on our backs. "I know. Get the keys to his truck."

Iron Grip twisted my wrist and increased his leverage, then the tense guy stepped around us and clumsily searched my pockets. When he leaned forward to check my left front pocket, I got a look at him. He'd pulled his ball cap low on his forehead, but judging from what I could see of his face, I'd never seen him before.

"They ain't on him," he said.

"All right, then. Turn him around."

They yanked me off the wall. The one with the flashlight shone the beam in my eyes as he adjusted something on his face, and I realized he was wearing a ski mask. I glanced at the guy on my right. His mask's eye holes were circled in red, and the skin at the corners of his eyes crinkled as if he were smiling.

I stood there stiffly, feeling heat seep from beneath my coat collar. Except for my breathing, I could hear no sound. Not even a car on the road.

The guy with the flashlight stepped closer. "You got lousy timing, kid," he whispered. "Lousy for you, that is. For me, now, it's a whole different ball game." He paused. "I ain't got my workout today."

The guy on my right sniggered.

The blast of light shifted as he crossed over to the bleachers and balanced the flashlight on one of the planks, bathing the wall behind us in a dull wash. When he turned around, the skin on the back of my head contracted. There was nothing but malice in his eyes, his intent all too clear.

I briefly considered asking them what they wanted or telling them to let me go but knew I would get nowhere with either line. I kept my mouth shut.

He took off his gloves. As he methodically folded them and stuck them one at a time into his coat pockets, it occurred to me that he was dragging it out, trying to make me sweat. And it pissed me off. He shoved his right hand into his jeans pocket and pulled out something metallic. I couldn't tell what it was until he slid it down over his fingers and made a fist. He clenched his hand, and light glinted off the top edge of the brass knuckles.

I tried to yank my right arm free and got my wrist wrenched behind my back for my trouble. Iron Grip had a way of applying leverage that told me he knew what he was doing, that I was out of my league.

The leader stepped closer and rolled his shoulders. "You interrupted me, boy, and you're gonna pay."

I aimed a kick at his groin. It took him by surprise, and I would have done some serious damage, except the asshole on my right pulled me off target at the last second. I must have gotten the leader pretty good, though, because he groaned and doubled over as I slipped my left arm free. Before I could get away from Iron Grip, he latched onto my coat collar and flung me into the bleachers. My head hit one of the metal supports, and I slumped to the ground.

Iron Grip was on top of me almost before I'd hit the ground. He jammed his knee into my lower back and twisted my arm around. Pain stabbed through my shoulder and radiated toward my elbow. He increased the tension, and after a while, I was aware of little else. When they finally yanked me to my feet, the talkative guy wasn't talking.

Before I could react, he hit me in the stomach ... hard.

He landed two more punches. I doubled over, and the only thing that kept me from falling flat on my face was the hold they had on my arms.

I gritted my teeth. "Bastard."

After what seemed like forever, I straightened up.

A mistake.

He clipped me with a backhand I didn't see coming. Before I could regain my balance, he punched me in the nose. Blood flowed down my face and dripped off my chin.

I spit a mouthful at him. "Goddamn bastard."

He nailed me with another backhand that landed above my eye. The ground tilted suddenly and slammed into my face, and I heard his voice, faint in the background.

"That'll learn ya," he said.

* * *

I was rolling downhill in a clanging metal drum, and my head was spinning. When I opened my eyes, memory returned along with a flood of pain. I was half-sitting, half-lying in a horse trailer, and I wasn't alone. Seven horses were crammed into a trailer designed for six, and I was in danger of being stepped on.

I shifted. Pain splintered through my side and snatched the breath from my lungs. Busted ribs. I'd done it before and knew the drill. I closed my eyes. I couldn't move anyway. My hands had been tied behind my back, latched together around the metal post that formed the lower portion of the stall divider.

The metal was cold. I was cold, stiff.

I pushed myself into a sitting position and rested my head against the post. The horse behind me snorted, and I realized that the big gray was Gulf Coast. One of my favorites. Lines of worry crinkled the skin above his eyes, and he was standing so close, his warm breath trickled through my hair.

"That's a good boy, Shrimpy. Everything's going to be all right," I whispered. He lowered his head in response to my voice and fluttered his nostrils. In the next stall, Steel, an open jumper, leaned against the stall partition. A good bit of white shone round his eyes-never a good sign-and his skin was stretched taut over tense muscles. His coat was patchy with sweat. Steam curled off his chest and neck and rose toward the ceiling, back-lit by the only overhead light fixture in the trailer that wasn't broken.

As I listened to the whine of tires on smooth asphalt, I realized I hurt in more places than I should have. More places than I recalled taking a hit. Then I remembered the crack about getting in a workout.

Damn him.

Why had they taken me, anyway? Why hadn't they simply left me in the arena? Something to do with my truck. Did that mean they knew me well enough to know that I drove a truck, or had they just seen me pull in off the road? I had no idea.

One thing was certain, they hadn't kidnapped me to collect a ransom. Although my father had a ton of money, few people knew I was the son of Robert J. Cline, M.D., cardiovascular surgeon extraordinaire. One of Johns Hopkins' elite superstars. If that had been their plan, they wouldn't have bothered with the horses. And they couldn't have known I would show up at the farm in the middle of the night. But if they wanted to kill me, why not just do it while I lay helpless on the arena floor?

I decided I didn't want to hang around and find out. I yanked at whatever was binding my wrists. The horse across from me lowered his head and pawed the floor, and Steel, who was high-strung to begin with, pulled against his chains. They wouldn't hold him if he lost it, and a horse, panic-stricken and loose in the trailer, I did not need.

I reconsidered my options. What was knotted around my wrists felt like nothing more than baling twine, which I knew I could break under normal circumstances. But this was anything but normal. Between the twine and the cold, I had already lost feeling in my fingers. I jammed my fingertips into the half-inch space between the rubber matting that covered the floor and the metal post, hoping to find a way to dismantle the partition. I couldn't find a bolt to unfasten or a lever or mechanism of any sort.

I wanted out of that trailer more than I had wanted anything in my life. I drew my feet beneath me, braced my back against the post, and pushed with my legs. My side felt like it was splitting open. I clenched my teeth, gripped the post with both hands to steady myself, and made it to my feet.

I stood there shaking and sweating, swallowing against a wave of nausea. After a minute or two, I braced my legs, and when I thought I wouldn't be thrown off balance by the trailer's movement, I twisted around and examined the partition. It was made to be dismantled, but not by someone tied up in the dark with hands stiff from the cold.

The trailer lurched around a bend, and I went down on my knees. The truck slowed to a stop. I held my breath and listened. No doors opened. No one came to see if I was awake, and in a moment, the truck pulled off, swept into a wide turn, and picked up speed. I exhaled slowly as the vibrations in the floorboards increased, and the metal shell of the trailer rattled so loudly, it was hard to think. We had left the highway.

I spread my wrists and got to work on the twine.

Ten minutes into it, one of the fibers gave way and then another, so when they finally separated, I overbalanced and crashed against the horse tied in the aisle. I patted his shoulder, then ducked under his neck and squeezed around to the other side. Most older trailers have emergency exits, and this one was no exception. I gripped the lever that latched the door into place and pushed upward. It was jammed, frozen with rust and disuse. I crouched down, put all my weight behind it, and tried again.

Without warning, the lever snapped off.

I dropped it on the floor, leaned against the cold metal wall, and felt the vibrations go right through me. If I didn't get out, I was dead. I pushed myself upright and studied the door. It had been damaged in the past and no longer hung flush with the opening. Through a crack, I saw that the hinges were simply bolts slid into grooves on the trailer's frame. With a tool of some sort, I could push the bolts up and out. But what tool? I looked at the lever lying at my feet.


Excerpted from At Risk by Kit Ehrman Copyright © 2002 by Kit Ehrman
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Kit Ehrman has worked as a groom, veterinary assistant, and barn manager at numerous horse facilities in Maryland and Pennsylvania and currently lives on a horse farm in Columbus, Indiana. A second Stephen Cline mystery is in the works.

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AT RISK 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have been missing Dick Francis since his wife died. I found this book to be every bit as intriguing and exciting as one written by Mr. Francis. I would recommend it to any fans of Dick Francis or any one else who just enjoys a good mystery.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Get mustery novel with a horse twist. I thoroughly enjoyed the story
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have a horse and love anything horsey. Love going to bed early with this or one of the others in the series. Soooooooooo sad I'm reading the last one now. Hope there will be a new one soon!
nannaof2007 More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was skeptical of this book at first, but after the first chapter I couldn't put it down. The description of the barns and shows had me captive being a rider and competitive in show world. It was great to read about a familiar setting. I will be buying his other books as well.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was a great book, and I was unable to put it down once I started reading. It is perfect if you like horses, mysteries and a touch of romance. This book has it all!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
She-kit center post name dicription and if you have them, powers