Although 23-year-old barn manager Steve Cline doesn't expect to stray far from the horse world, he has enrolled in a private investigations course and is working on the final project. But when his father, racehorse trainer Chris Kessler, invites him to Louisville on a two-week, all-expense-paid vacation that will culminate with the running of the Kentucky Derby, how can he refuse? Except, it isn't really a vaction. Kessler has a Derby runner and needs a reliable fill-in when one of his employees is injured.
With only two horses to care for, the workload is light, and Steve decides to get that class project out of the waya simple records search. But the very act of initiating the project triggers a chance encounter that plunges Steve into the world of the ultra rich. A world where greed and revenge and ambition drive some men to commit unspeakable acts amid the pageantry and glamour of thoroughbred racing.
In quick order, Steve finds himself the prime suspect in a murder investigation and the target of brutal thugs. From the relative security of the backside to the Derby festivities that transform downtown Louisville into Party Central to the opulence of a Lexington horse farm, Steve deals with his own personal demons and strained relationships as he attempts to stop a murderer before a power play culminates in shattered dreams and a bloody triple cross....
About the Author
Kit Ehrman is a veteran of show barns and breeding farms in Maryland and Pennsylvania. Visit her website: www.kitehrman.com
Read an Excerpt
By Kit Ehrman
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2006 Kit Ehrman
All rights reserved.
The assignment was simple enough. Pick a random subject and learn as much as you can about him. Name, address, phone number. DOB, mortgages, and property taxes. Car description and plate number. VIN if you didn't mind being obvious. A simple assignment if I'd been in Maryland. But I was six hundred miles from home, standing within eyeshot of the famed Twin Spires of Churchill Downs. Logistics would be complicated, but nothing I couldn't overcome.
First and foremost, I needed to select a subject. But on the backside, with all the "Slims" and "Ricos" and "Willies," figuring out someone's real name was a tricky proposition at best. Track employees were supposed to keep their photo IDs displayed at all times, either dangling from straps around their necks or clipped to their shirts, but most backsiders found the practice cumbersome and ended up slipping them under T-shirts or stuffing them in back pockets. And whoever I chose needed to have at least a tenuous tie to the community. On the backside, that could be a problem, too. Of course, I could have picked a jockey or a trainer or a local celebrity, but I wanted someone who wasn't in the news. Someone ordinary. Normal.
Yet I suspected there was nothing ordinary or normal about this place or time. Not in the town of Louisville, and certainly not in the barn area at Churchill Downs. Not fifteen days before the running of the Kentucky Derby.
Even before the sky had brightened, and the lights illuminating the Twin Spires lost their brilliance to the new day, traffic on Fourth Street had increased until the whine of tires on asphalt pushed through the chain-link fence that separated the backside from the rest of the world.
Today, it seemed like that fence wasn't doing any damned good.
Owners and trainers and the press hustled to make a connection, to latch onto the next big deal that came down the pipes. And it seemed to me that anyone who could beg, borrow, or steal a pass onto racing's hallowed ground had done just that.
Gallant Storm, my father's Derby runner, edged closer as I led him down the shedrow in barn four, one of Churchill's receiving barns. He leaned against me, and I could feel the sweep of his massive shoulder as he strode over the loam and sawdust path. I nudged him off, knowing he would inch back given half the chance. He was a big rangy colt. A dapple gray with a long back and razor sharp withers that topped out just shy of seventeen hands or, in layman's terms, sixty-eight inches.
Storm had done a great deal in his short life, but nothing could have prepared him for the degree of excitement that permeated the backside. It seemed to vibrate in the air around us like a summertime mirage. And it jacked up the day's tempo and resonated in the voices that carried between barns.
Like any horse, he focused on his handler's emotions in an effort to gauge his surroundings. So I kept my shoulders relaxed, my grip on the leather shank firm but elastic, giving to the rhythmic sway of his head as if I were grasping a set of reins instead of his lead. I needed to keep him calm and under control. A bump or bruise today could ruin his chances on the first Saturday in May. A catastrophic injury could end his career. Or his life. And then, there was the inconsequential fact of the horse's worth.
The buzz floating round the backside was that Mr. Utley, the horse's new owner, had forked out a little over twenty mil when he'd decided at the last minute that he had to have a Derby contender. I don't know how Utley had come to secure my father's services as trainer, but I had every intention of keeping the horse safe, even if his owner was a condescending prick.
Up ahead, Jay Foiley, Kessler's groom, stepped out of a stall. "Yo, Steve," he said to me. "Hold up next time round."
I nodded, and as we walked past, Storm cocked an ear toward Jay and ground his teeth on the brass chain that ran through his mouth like a bit.
As we rounded the corner and entered the short aisle, the track office across the lot came into view. Storm pricked his ears and lifted his head as his gaze shifted beyond a group of men talking outside the office and focused on a stocky chestnut quarter horse who stood dozing in front of the long narrow pony barn. The gelding flexed a hind leg, and the flank cinch on his heavy western saddle brushed his belly.
"See how relaxed he is?" I said. "You need to follow his lead."
Storm extended his neck, and an ear-splitting whinny erupted from his throat.
I chuckled. "Guess not," I said under my breath.
We continued to our side of the barn where a security guard leaned against the concrete block wall with his knee bent and his heel wedged into a mortared groove.
Jay was waiting for us. He bowed his head and squinted as he studied the horse's gait. "That him hollering over there?" he asked as we drew closer.
"Yeah. Thought he saw somebody he knew."
Jay set a tub of Uptite poultice by Storm's hoof. As he squatted, he tucked a leg wrap, bandage, and roll of plastic wrap between his thigh and belly to keep them off the ground where they'd pick up debris that might irritate the horse's skin. He scooped out a handful of poultice and coated Storm's foreleg from knee to hoof. The chalky white clay oozed between Jay's black fingers. His movements were quick and precise and gentle. He covered the poultice with plastic, smoothed the leg wrap around the horse's cannon bone, then wound the bandage around the works. Ten minutes later, all four of Storm's legs were encased in bulky standing bandages that protected his sleek bones and tendons.
"Put 'im up," Jay said. "I gotta find some Bowie mud to pack his feet with."
I turned Storm toward his stall, and the feel of the bandages caused him to snatch up his hind legs as he stepped forward.
"Think he'd be used to that," Jay said as I led the colt through the doorway.
It was eight o'clock on a Friday morning. We were temporarily stalled in Churchill's receiving barn, and most of the horses' attendants had completed their chores. A wiry Hispanic groom had stretched out on some bales farther down the shedrow, and a stooped old man cleaned tack near the entrance. Two girls were finishing up on the other side of the barn. Their voices filtered through the row of back-to-back stalls as they debated the outcome of some reality show.
The fact that I was here at all was a fluke. I'd worked for Kessler last summer, so when one of his employees was injured at the last minute, he had offered me a two-week, all-expense-paid "vacation." I would have been crazy to have turned him down.
I tossed the lead onto a bale and noticed that Jay's backpack had tipped over. His CDs had fanned across the ground. I righted the pack, and as I scooped up the CDs, movement at the edge of my field of vision caught my attention. I turned my head as a woman entered the barn.
She paused in the aisle and chewed on her lower lip as her gaze flitted between a sheet of paper gripped between her fingers and the bay colt that stood in the stall next to Storm's. She shot me a cursory glance, then canted her head and peered at the horse's legs.
She'd tied her sandy blond hair in a simple ponytail at the base of her neck, and she looked neat and professional in a pair of creased chinos and sky blue polo shirt tucked at the waist.
I blew the sawdust off Jay's CDs, and as I slipped them into his backpack, I noticed that he'd come better prepared for the job than I had. Besides his CD player, he'd brought bottled water and protein bars, beef jerky and animal crackers. A Ziploc bag was stuffed with candy. I lifted it out of his backpack and held it at eye level. Hershey's chocolate, Butterfingers, Nestlé Crunch Bars. Man. Jay was a regular Boy Scout. As I replaced the bag, I sensed the woman watching me.
When I looked at her, she scrunched the sheet of paper into her front pocket and moved toward me, away from the bay colt.
Her gaze flicked over a strip of masking tape that stretched across the upper portion of the Dutch door. Someone had scrawled "Gallant Storm" on the tape with a black felt marker. "Are you his groom?"
"No, ma'am. I'm just helping out."
Her mouth twitched at my use of ma'am. She held out her hand. "My name's Nicole."
"Nicole." I gripped her hand. "Steve Cline."
Her palm was smooth and damp, and color had risen to her cheeks. She was short, maybe five-three, and petite. Her age was difficult to judge. From behind, I could have mistaken her for a sixteen-year-old, yet the fine lines that radiated from the corners of her mouth and eyes skewed that assessment. I put her in her late twenties, early thirties, knowing I could have been off either way.
She indicated Ruskie, Kessler's other runner, with a nod of her head. "Is he yours, too?"
"Yes. He's a four-year-old. Entered in the Churchill Downs Handicap next Saturday. You work for Churchill?" I said, noting the signature logo embroidered on her shirt and the brass nameplate pinned below her collar. Nicole Austin was etched into the metallic finish.
She folded her arms under her breasts, looked at Storm, and nodded slowly. "Marketing. This time of year, I do tours."
"Hmm." I could see why they'd chosen her for the job. Attractive, fit. Good for PR. "You like it?"
Storm quit picking at the haynet that hung outside his door and stretched his head toward Nicole. She smiled and cupped her hands under his chin, then smoothed the pad of her thumb over the fine hair edging the corner of his mouth.
A group of men and women walked past the barn, their voices and laughter carrying under the eaves. The women wore tailored dresses and elegant wide-brimmed hats that shaded their faces. Across the alley in Barn 5, two backsiders followed the women with their eyes while one of the guys in the group checked out Nicole's ass. I turned back toward her as she pressed her face alongside the bridge of Storm's nose and took a deep breath. Her eyes were pale, the color of a washed-out sky.
"Most of the time, I like it," she said, referring to her job.
I jerked my head toward Storm. "You miss working with them?"
Nicole cocked an eyebrow. "How'd you guess?"
"Not a guess," I said. "Familiarity. Most people unaccustomed to horses would be counting their fingers right about now."
She smiled as she gave Storm a final pat and placed her hands on her hips. "What's his breeding?"
"He's by El Prado out of Ladyruin, by Storm Cat."
"Hmm. Impressive. Who trains him?"
"Chris Kessler," I said, naming my father, a man whose name I did not share. I had met him for the first time last June, after the man I'd believed to be my father for twenty-two years of my life had been killed in a car accident. I'd worked for Kessler on and off since then and had grown to like him a great deal.
"Kessler," she said slowly. "He's not based in Kentucky, is he?"
I shook my head. "Maryland."
"Thought so." She smiled. "You have this ... accent."
I raised my eyebrows in surprise. Guessed accent was relative, because if anyone around here had an accent, she did with her Southern drawl that in my opinion sounded exceedingly feminine.
Footsteps scrunched on the packed ground near the barn's entrance. I glanced over Nicole's shoulder and recognized both men as she turned toward the sound. While Bill Gannon and his groom strolled toward us, the muscles in Nicole's arms tensed as she clenched her hands.
Like any trainer, Gannon's suspicions were heightened at the sight of someone standing near his horse's stall. He looked prepared to chase her off until recognition lit up his face. "Nicole." He hustled over and clasped her hand. "My God, it's good to see you. I had no idea you were working here. Why didn't you tell me?"
"It's good to see you, too, Bill." She withdrew her hand and smoothed her palms down the front of her chinos. Her fingers brushed against something that crinkled, and I looked down in time to see her tuck the corner of her notepaper deep into her pocket. She cleared her throat and crossed her arms. "Congratulations on your Derby runner."
Gannon smiled. "Something else, isn't it? Making the cut after all these years? Here, come see him." He placed his hand on her shoulder and guided her to the bay colt's stall. The same colt she'd studied earlier.
Farther down the shedrow, Snoopy Sanchez, Bill Gannon's groom, drifted over to the clothesline that stretched between roof supports. An assortment of leg wraps and bandages hung from the line. He crimped one of the bandages to test its dryness before his gaze slid back to his boss and Nicole.
Gannon's arm rested across Nicole's shoulders in a partial embrace, and it wasn't a stretch to imagine him pulling her close. He was a handsome man in an outdoorsy kind of way, with deeply tanned skin that clashed with his blue eyes and head full of shocking white hair. And he was certainly fit, but the guy was old enough to be her father.
I watched Nicole fidget with her hands as Jay paused alongside me with a tub of Bowie mud wedged against the crook of his elbow. He followed my gaze and clucked his tongue approvingly.
"You ever want to get back with the horses," Gannon was saying, "I'm always looking for good help." He smoothed his palm down the back of her arm as he lowered his hand.
Good help, my ass.
Nicole worried her lower lip with her teeth and nodded thoughtfully as her gaze returned to the bay colt. "Thanks, Bill. I'll keep it in mind."
Gannon stared at the back of her head, and for the briefest second, his expression seemed choked with a strong emotion I couldn't place.
I turned to Jay. "What can I do to help?"
"Grab that white bucket and fill it a quarter full with hot water."
I scooped up a bucket that used to contain sheetrock joint compound about a million years ago. The green and red logo had faded beyond recognition, and the plastic sleeve over the wire handle was brittle and cracked.
When I straightened and glanced over my shoulder, Nicole and Bill Gannon looked toward the track. A group of men had strolled around the far end of Barn 5 and were heading our way.
One voice in particular stood out. "I told Ripa, I didn't know what he was thinking, buying that colt. Shit. I could run faster than that colt." Edward Utley. Kessler's new client.
Beside me, Jay turned and squinted against the bright morning sunlight.
Men and women of the press followed Utley, listening to his nonstop commentary while Kessler walked silently beside him with his hands shoved in his pockets. I pivoted on my heel and headed for the faucets at the end of the barn.
"Coward," Jay said under his breath.
I grinned and held the bucket out as if to say I was just following orders.
I was halfway down the shedrow when Nicole jarred my arm as she jogged past. Two strides farther down the aisle, she glanced over her shoulder and almost tripped. I had expected her to say something, but instead, her gaze cut toward Utley and his entourage. She spun back around and stumbled out of the barn as if her knees had turned to Jell-O. The old man had switched from polishing bits to smoothing a cloth across an exercise saddle. His weathered hand stilled as he watched Nicole squeeze between the barn and a wooden barricade draped with a row of saddles.
I stepped outside.
"What was that about?" he said.
I shrugged and moved beyond the wall. Nicole strode down the lane, skirted the grass apron at the end of Barn 3, and disappeared around the corner. From there she could have been headed to Barn 1 or 2 or the track kitchen or just about anywhere.
I filled the bucket as instructed and returned to the shedrow.
The members of the press had split up, some choosing to interview Utley and Kessler while the others zeroed in on Bill Gannon and a pale young man who had just entered the barn. As I approached the group, I felt my facial muscles contract in a grim stare.
Because of Kessler, I had toyed with the idea of getting into racing fulltime but had yet to convince myself that being a trainer was a life I wanted. And Utley's arrogance pretty much confirmed that my misgivings were dead on. Kessler was forced to put up with his bullshit, and I supposed he had the temperament for it, largely because he stayed focused on the horses. He'd grown up in the industry, and it was an industry filled with contrasts. Wealthy owners dropped a million bucks without giving it a second thought while the men and women who tended their horses often couldn't afford basic human necessities.
"He's got super pedigree top and bottom. You can't ..." Utley continued in a voice that boomed under the rafters.
Excerpted from Triple Cross by Kit Ehrman. Copyright © 2006 Kit Ehrman. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Twenty-three years old Maryland barn manager Steve Cline is working with his dad as they prepare their horse Gallant Storm for the Kentucky Derby. His father trainer Chris Kessler feels he has a solid shot of winning the most prestigious racing event and many pundits agree. Steve joins him in Louisville.----------------- However, Steve has plenty of idle time on his hands as the race is two weeks away and his time serving on the racing team is minor. To his credit he avoids race groupies as he remains faithful to his girlfriend Rachel. However, he fills his time studying from the mail order private investigator course he is enrolled in as he tries to make practical applications while hiding what he is doing from Rachel, who detests Steve¿s aspirations to become a sleuth. He soon finds himself in the middle of a real homicide of a woman whose relationships leave behind plenty of people with motive, means and opportunity.-------------- Steve is a roguish charmer who readers will like in his fourth appearance (see COLD BURN and DEAD MAN¿S TOUCH) and the horse racing sequences especially the preparation for a race insightful and clearly a winner. However, the murder mystery track is muddy as some conclusions seem questionable. Still Dick Francis would enjoy racing with Steve as he tries to complete his correspondence class project without getting killed.---------------- Harriet Klausner
He gets up from his crouch and looks at ty." Whoare you?
*he takes out a sword and it has five different designs in it. It in its normal form*