Undercover agent Fia McKee returns in The Dark Side of Town, another thrilling mystery by Sasscer Hill and set in the seamy underbelly of horse racing.
Fia McKee, now officially employed by the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau (TPRB), is sent undercover to Saratoga Racetrack to investigate Mars Pizutti, a racehorse trainer whose horses’ wins are suspiciously luckyand lucrative. Fia’s bosses believe Pizutti’s success is based on illegal drugs and deceitful methods, and they want Fia to work inside his barn to ferret out the truth.
But after witnessing the tragic and inexplicable suicide of a jockey, Fia discovers the rider’s death is only the tip on an iceberg involving the mob, a crooked racing hedge fund, and threats to the lives of another jockey and his young sister. Fia must find out who’s connected to who, and what shadowy forces are at play before someone else dies.
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Dense fog enveloped the backstretch at Saratoga Race Course that morning, leaving the Oklahoma Training Track virtually invisible. Still, I could smell its sandy dirt and sense the expanse of the mile oval stretching away from me.
Jogging the gravel path that paralleled the track, I shoved my hands deeper into the pockets of my jacket, hugging the black denim tighter around my rib cage against the dawn chill.
Out on the dirt, the pounding of hooves drew closer, the sound muffled in the moisture-laden air. Beyond the rail, the horses flying past me were ill-defined, almost ghostly.
The sudden, deafening crack of a handgun was neither muffled nor poorly defined. My years as a Baltimore street cop left no doubt as to what I had heard. I stood still, eyes and ears straining.
Ahead, someone screamed, "Oh, my God!"
I raced forward. The high-pitched wails of the woman grew louder. As I drew close, I could make out her thin body and pale face staring at a form splayed on the ground at her feet. The acrid scent of gunpowder floated past me. The coppery stench of blood was unmistakable.
I closed the distance between us. "Hey," I said, heading off her next cry. "Maybe you should step back. You don't want to mess up the scene, right?"
Though she'd stopped screaming, she didn't seem to hear me. She stared at the figure on the ground, her body shaking. I stared, too. Male, the back of his head blown out, his hand still clutching a revolver. Suicide?
The woman moaned. I could almost see another scream rising in her throat. "Do you have a phone?" I asked, trying to distract her. "Hey, look at me!"
She did, her eyes huge and round.
"Do you know him?"
"I, no. I mean, I've seen him before. At the track."
Gently, I grasped her arm. "Come on. Don't look at him. We need to get help. Do you have a phone?" I asked again.
She nodded numbly.
"Okay, good. Call 911."
I had almost pulled my own cell to make the call before I'd stopped. Though no longer a street cop, I was working undercover and needed to keep a low profile.
As the woman talked to the dispatcher, she grew more focused, giving her name, saying a man had been shot — or maybe had shot himself — at the Oklahoma Training Track just inside the East Avenue entrance to Saratoga's backstretch.
"No," I heard her say, "I ran over here when I heard the gun go off, and I saw —"
The dispatcher must have sensed her rising hysteria and said something to divert it. As they are trained to do, he kept his witness on the phone.
The mist began to break up and rise toward the treetops and spires crowning the historic wooden barns to my right. I eased away from the woman, stepped into a lingering column of fog, and glanced back. Good, I could barely see her. I shouldn't be involved here, so I double-timed it toward my original destination, the barn where I worked as a hot walker.
In the distance, a police siren wailed. The sound drew closer as I hurried away.
* * *
Later that morning, I led a hot, sweating racehorse named Bionic along my barn's dusty aisle and listened for more gossip about the shooting everyone was saying was a suicide. The guy had apparently been an apprentice jockey from South America, only no one knew much about him. They said he'd just arrived from Ecuador, or Chile, or maybe Uruguay.
"Whoa back," I called to Becky Joe, the groom who led her horse behind me.
I stopped Bionic to allow him a few sips of water, and as he sank his lips into the bucket hanging from the shedrow rail, I rolled back his cooler sheet to see if his reddish-brown coat was drying out. Thirsty, he sucked up the water until I pulled him away. He was still too hot to drink much, and I rolled the sheet back over his neck so the cool air hitting his wet coat wouldn't cause muscle cramping.
I glanced back at Becky Joe Benson. Maybe sixty, she was short, wore high-heeled cowboy boots, and a brown suede Stetson years past its glory days. I turned back and headed down the shedrow with Becky Joe behind. At this track, the two of us were nobodies, yet we led a couple of horses worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
This was my first time in Saratoga. I'd been on the job at this barn a week and hadn't figured Becky Joe out yet. She had a drinking problem, used to be a jockey, then was an unsuccessful trainer, and had fallen down the ranks to groom. But she was smart and unquestionably well educated. No doubt she had a story. Everyone at the racetrack did.
Her filly was further along in the cooling process than my colt. She was dried out enough that Becky Joe had already removed her sheet. When I glanced back, Becky Joe let the filly empty her water bucket, then led the horse into a stall to see if she wanted to pee.
I walked on, passing equine heads that peered over stall gates or snatched bites of hay from the nets fastened outside their stalls. The sharp tang of liniment stung my nose, and somewhere, a metal-shod hoof struck the wood inside one of the stalls that had been there since 1863. Many legends had raced at Saratoga.
I tried to concentrate on these things, but my mind wanted to play games with me, flitting back to the acrid odor of burnt gunpowder and the metallic reek of blood. The image of the jockey's blown-out head, the terrible smell of death. What darkness had made him give up on life?
Turning the corner at the end of the aisle, I was so lost in my thoughts, I almost ran into Stevie Davis. Skinny and young, Stevie might reach five foot three, if his socks were thick enough. During the few days I'd worked at Saratoga, the gaunt lines on the kid's face seemed to have increased. It made no sense to me. His frame was so scrawny, he didn't need to starve himself to make jockey weight. Something else was eating him.
Catching my eye, the seventeen-year-old did an about-face and walked alongside me and Bionic. "Fay, you hear about that guy that shot himself?"
I almost corrected him, since my real name is Fia McKee. But at Saratoga Race Course that summer I needed people to believe I was Fay Mason. Using aliases for undercover work in the past, I'd found it safer to stick with my own initials.
"It's all they've talked about all morning," I said. "Why do you think he did it?"
"I don't know. Whole thing creeps me out." But his lips curved upward and the troubled look in his eyes receded a moment as he smiled at me. He was a good-looking kid, with light brown hair, clear, intelligent eyes, and a honed face with good bones. Still, he carried worry lines that shouldn't be there. Stevie was the stable jockey for the Saratoga trainer I'd been sent to investigate, a thug named Marzio (a.k.a. Mars) Pizutti.
As we walked on, I could smell Bionic's sweat, hear the breath blowing from his nostrils, and see where the flesh immediately above his eye was slightly sunken with exhaustion. His bright reddish-brown coat was offset by jet-black legs, mane, and tail, the classic markings of a blood bay.
"He doing okay?" Stevie asked, staring at the horse. "He's supposed to race in a few weeks, and I'll get the call."
"Pizutti knows more about that than me," I said.
Stevie had just worked the colt five-eighths of a mile, and Bionic's cardiovascular system was not recovering as quickly as Pizutti probably wanted. Personally, I thought the horse would have been better off working three-eighths with a gallop out at whatever speed he was comfortable with. But as a lowly hot walker, my opinion was irrelevant.
At the end of the shedrow, Pizutti — cocky, rotund, and egotistical — emerged from his office.
I thought I heard Stevie say, "Oh, shit," under his breath. As much as I disliked what I knew about Pizutti, I had to admit he had an uncanny connection with his horses. He had a soft round face, was a little jowly beneath his chin, and his expression, as usual, was bland, making me wonder what it was about the man that made Stevie so uncomfortable. Pizutti glanced at Bionic, then flicked his gaze over at me.
"Hey, what's your name again?"
"Fay," I said.
"Yeah, right. Let me see that horse."
"Yes, sir." You'd think the guy would know his horse's name. I hadn't spoken to him much in the few days I'd been here. Mostly he'd fired off instructions and I'd nodded and gotten on with it.
I led the big colt to him, and stopped. Stevie edged away and stood against the wall as Pizutti placed his palm on Bionic's chest to see how much dampness and heat remained.
Pizutti glanced at me. "I tell you what, Fay. It's kinda like a fine line, you know? Too much or too little. I think he maybe did too much today." He pursed his lips as if annoyed with himself. "Keep him going, okay?"
"Yes, sir." I could smell stale beer on him.
"Hey," he said, "I keep telling you. Lose the 'sir' stuff. Call me Mars. Right?"
His voice held a whining quality, the volume always soft, like maybe he'd been unhappy as a kid and hadn't wanted to draw attention to himself.
"Okay, Mars," I said.
I clucked to Bionic and moved forward. Stevie started to follow.
"Hey," Mars said, crooking a finger at the kid, "wait up. Need to talk to you 'bout something."
While the jockey paused, I headed down the shedrow with Bionic, thinking how my work for the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau (TRPB), sometimes placed me in risky situations. I believed in the agency's mission to protect the integrity of horse racing, but with the immense sums of money involvedand the endless cash pouring into online betting outlets, we fought an uphill battle. The lowlifes that would do anything for money were never far away.
This big picture didn't affect me emotionally. A jockey eating his gun did. And smaller things struck a heartstring, too. Like the haunted eyes of Stevie Davis, or the game-on face of a racehorse determined to annihilate his competitors. The exalted, shouting bettor trading high fives with his buddies because he'd won, or the slumped shoulders and frightened face of a man who just bet borrowed money and lost. That's the stuff that touches my soul.
Bionic snorted as a calico stable cat darted across the aisle in front of the colt's hooves. The horse stopped, lowered his head, and blew gently on the cat. She arched her back and bumped it against the horse's nose before streaking into a stall.
I clucked to my horse, and as we moved on, I considered my personal goal — protecting the people and animals that make racing such a phenomenal sport. And they needed protecting from Mars Pizutti.
The guy was backed by powerful people, and his horses won a lot of races. Too many races. He'd had numerous infractions and suspensions. He'd filed false times for works and managed to place fictional ones in the Daily Racing Form, leaving the bettors to believe the horse was less talented and capable of winning than he actually was. He used body-building anabolic steroids like stanozolol and anti-inflammatory corticosteroids like prednisone.
The New York Racing Association (NYRA) had difficulty regulating steroids as they are naturally occurring and are present in low levels in most horses. Current regulations allowed for the presence of steroids like stanozolol and anti-inflammatory corticosteroids like prednisone if the horse was on the vet's list. This prohibited the horse from racing until the high levels dropped to natural levels.
But Pizutti was a magician at keeping those levels on the edge between legal and illegal. When he did get caught, he'd always gotten off with a fine and been back in his barn within days.
The NYRA had finally suffered enough and had solicited the TRPB to plant an agent in Pizutti's barn.
As a hot walker, I was almost invisible as I led horses each morning. No one would notice me watching, listening, or using my cell phone to record and photograph the goings-on in the trainer's barn.
By now, Bionic and I had walked past the long row of stalls on the rear side of the barn and turned the corner back to Pizutti's side. The trainer was talking to Stevie at the far end of the aisle. The jockey had his arms crossed over his chest, and though I was still thirty stalls away, his stance appeared defensive.
Since Bionic had been the last horse out on the course that day, it was now late in the morning. Much of the help had finished up and headed to the track kitchen for lunch, leaving the barn quiet, the morning bustle noticeably subdued.
Two stalls down, Becky Joe stepped onto the shedrow holding a tote stuffed with grooming tools, hoof picks, a bottle of liniment, and rolls of Vetrap. Her other hand held a tub of poultice. Apparently, she'd just finished "doing up" her filly's legs.
As she stopped and waited for me and Bionic to go by, I heard raised voices. A quick look ahead showed Stevie shaking his head.
"Been in that boy's shoes," Becky Joe muttered. "Didn't like it then, don't like seeing it now."
"What's going on?" I asked.
She stared at her scuffed leather boots. "Couldn't say."
I walked on, growing close enough to hear Stevie's next words.
"I won't do it!"
"You goddamn will!"
"No, I —"
"Shut up," Mars said. He'd seen me coming. Whatever they were arguing about, he didn't want me hearing it.
And angry shade of red stained Stevie's cheeks. The worry lines around his eyes were starting to look like canyons.
The image of the dead apprentice jockey was freshly stamped in my brain, and now I saw desperation in Stevie's eyes. Like Becky Joe, I didn't like it.
Staring at the ground, I passed by Mars and Stevie, careful to leave my face expressionless. I could feel the tension between them, but pretended to be oblivious. Instead, since the stable's talented and famous colt resided only four stalls ahead, I looked toward his stall as if my only desire was to catch a glimpse of him.
Ziggy Stardust did not fail me, pushing his dark bay head out over his door as Bionic and I approached. The three-year-old colt rarely disappointed anyone, having won two-thirds of the recent Triple Crown, the two-year-old Breeders' Cup Juvenile race the previous fall, and millions of dollars in purse money for his owners. Of course, Mars had received a fat percentage of the cash as well.
But a thorny question still chafed his fans, the racing handicappers, and network talking heads. What had happened to Ziggy Stardust in the Belmont, the third leg of the Triple Crown? Inexplicably, the horse had stopped running after the first half-mile. The battery of after race tests provided no clues. I suspected Mars had given the horse an untraceable drug, turning him into a slug so his trainer could bet every other horse to win. Ziggy Stardust had gone off at nine-to-five odds with the world hoping, that after decades without one, they would finally witness a Triple Crown winner.
I had been at Belmont that day, and the uproar of anger and disappointment from fans had threatened to bring the grandstand roof down on our heads. Mars, who always bet big on his horses and bragged about it, kept his lips zipped that day, hurriedly removing himself from the public's wrath by making a quick dash into the restricted backstretch.
Now, as Bionic and I drew close, Ziggy's luminous eyes studied our progress. He squealed once, then nodded his head up and down, making the large star on his forehead shimmer. Beneath it, little spangles of white cascaded down his face, reminding me of stardust pictures from children's storybooks. The famous dots were Ziggy's trademark. The public loved them.
Mars planned to run the colt back in the Jim Dandy at Saratoga in the coming weeks. If that went well, he would race in the one-and-a-quarter-million-dollar Travers Stakes at the end of August. Both the New York Racing Association and the TRPB wanted to keep a close eye on him and Mars between now and then. It wouldn't do to have bettors believing the top races were rigged.
After we passed Ziggy and circled the end of the barn, Bionic and I ambled past the thirty stalls on the barn's far side that belonged to one of Saratoga's few female trainers, Maggie Bourne. She was standing outside a stall talking to one of the track vets. Her conversation, apparently about the chestnut filly inside, appeared serious, yet Maggie glanced up and smiled at me. I liked that about her. She didn't treat stable help like something that crawled out of the manure pile. Inside the unlighted stall, I glimpsed the back of a man with long dark hair, and a frisson of recognition coursed through me, but I passed by and the moment was gone.
Bionic and I traipsed on until a bantam rooster, flaunting a fine set of glossy, blue-black tail feathers, interrupted our progress. Perched atop the wooden rail that enclosed the shedrow, his yellow feet and sharp toenails clutched the wood. Raising his red comb, he looked at us with disdain, then flapped his wings furiously. I tightened my hold on Bionic's lead shank as the horse shied backwards.
The way the rooster pumped himself up with air as he prepared to crow reminded me of Mars. I glared at the arrogant bird. "Don't you crow, or I'll put you in a stewpot."
Of course, there was no stopping him, and the raucous cry that burst from his open beak warranted earplugs. Bionic ripped the shank from my hands, rocketed down the shedrow, and reaching the far corner, disappeared from sight.
Excerpted from "The Dark Side of Town"
Copyright © 2018 Sasscer Hill.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Sasscer Hill does it again in "The Dark Side of Town". The characters are well developed. The story pulls you in, then builds to an exciting crescendo with an ending that doesn't disappoint! More Fia McKee please!!