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Authors: Steve O'Brien

Tags: #horses, #horse racing, #suspense mystery, #horse racing mystery, #dick francis, #horse racing suspense, #racetrack, #racetrack mystery

Bullet Work

BOOK: Bullet Work



Bullet Work



Steve O’Brien



A & N

Washington, D.C.





© 2011 Steve


Created in the United States
of America.

All rights reserved. No part
of this book may be reproduced or

transmitted in any form or
by any means, electronic or

mechanical, including
photocopying, recording, or by an

information storage and
retrieval system—except by a

reviewer who may quote brief
passages in a review to be printed in a magazine, newspaper, or on
the Web—
without permission in writing from the publisher.
For information, please contact A & N Publishing,
3150 South Street, NW Suite 2F, Washington, D.C. 20007.


This book is a work of
fiction. Names, characters, places and
events are products of the author’s imagination or are

fictitiously. Any
resemblance to actual events, locations or persons, living or
deceased, is purely coincidental. We assume no responsibility for
errors, inaccuracies, omissions, or any



First publication



LCCN 2010913972



discounts are available on bulk purchases of this book for
educational, gift purposes, or as premiums for increasing

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Special books or book excerpts can also be created to fit specific
For information, please contact A & N Publishing,
3150 South Street, NW Suite 2F, Washington, D.C. 20007.




To Nick and Alex




Part One



Out of
the Gate



One second changed

One second altered fate
for a lifetime.

The winner zigged; the
loser zagged.

One glance spotted true
love, the next was blocked by a city bus. The victor reacted; the
vanquished hesitated. Some called it luck. Some called it a gift.
But it was just the second.

The second didn’t

The second was

The second was waiting.
It always waited, like a street mugger on a drizzly night. It
waited in the shadows, emotionless.

The second was

A series of seconds
made a lifetime,
two billion or more. Five, maybe six of those seconds altered one’s
life forevermore. Would they come in the beginning or at the

The second wasn’t fair;
it wasn’t orderly.
It would come on its own schedule, never revealed until it was too

Who would be wealthy,
who would be poor? Who would have fame, who obscurity?
Who would be loved, who scorned?

One moment a man
cruised along a
sun-drenched highway in a sporty convertible. The second appeared,
and the car careened down the canyon wall, end over end,
awaiting the explosion.

The second was

The second was

There was no bargaining
with the second. It tested the strong and the weak alike.

Into each life the
second would come, without warning, without hint. It could not be
It could only be endured.

Life became the
response to the second.

In hindsight the second
could be seen, dissected, and analyzed. Being in the second was
like being in the eye of the hurricane: eerily quiet and completely
beyond control. Only after the wind subsided could the story be

This is that story.



Chapter 1

The boy was a ghostlike
creature—just a child. He and the mare circled the shedrow. Dan
spotted him for an instant as he crossed the end of the barn and
disappeared around the far side.

He’d be back around in about two minutes.

Dan swirled the stale coffee in his Styrofoam
cup, then splashed it on the ground. He yawned and stretched his

The boy wasn’t that different from most
backside help. All lacked a certain degree of cleanliness. But
there was something memorable about the boy. His limp wasn’t like
others. He’d rotate on one side and swing his leg on the off
stride. The right side was near normal; the left, a carnival ride.
Nothing too striking, Dan thought—if you spent enough time around
1,200-pound thoroughbreds, one way or another, you wound up with a

His was different, though. Something caught
Dan’s attention. The boy wore a tattered T-shirt with ripped jeans,
just a shade lighter. The cardboard edge of his baseball cap was
peeking its way out between the red fabric. Maybe it was his size,
so small in comparison to the mare. Perhaps it was that someone so
tiny in comparison to the horse could possibly be in control of the

Walking hots was the lowest level of the food
chain on the racetrack backside. Hotwalkers were just that,
walkers. They stretched and paraded race horses either as the day’s
regimen of exercise or to cool out after returning from a workout
or race.

A good hotwalker allowed the horse to take
the walk, but he’d also pause when the horse wanted, let the horse
graze when it wanted, and generally kept it from harm’s way.

Hotwalking included talking, too. The best
talked constantly. It calmed and reassured the horse. It also
provided someone who would listen to the hotwalker.

Hotwalking was a safe harbor between dreams
and reality. The steps didn’t take either participant closer to
anything; they were just steps.

The boy came around again. Fourteen, maybe
fifteen, he was quickly obscured by the massive mare as he crossed
the end of the shedrow again. Always walk on the inside. That way,
the horse can see the hotwalker while being led into the turns.

Another odd thing—he held the shank in his
left hand and had his right hand on the horse’s neck, patting,
stroking, sometimes just still. Certainly this wasn’t the most
comfortable way to walk a hot. A bond or closeness was apparent
between the two, also not uncommon on the backside.

Dan watched as the boy went by again, then
turned to walk toward the backside kitchen.

Jake Gilmore came out of his stable office
and fell in step alongside Dan.

“Who’s the kid?”

“Where?” Jake muttered while staring at
something on his boots. He scrubbed the stubble on his neck and
surveyed the area.

Gilmore stood just a shade over six feet. In
the last decade of his fifty years, the once powerful upper body
had melted around his waist, now supported by a sturdy leather belt
and oversized rodeo buckle. Guy could give himself an appendectomy
just sitting down wrong. Jake’s eyes betrayed recent sleepless
nights. For those like Jake who rose well before the sun each day,
it wasn’t out of the ordinary.

“The kid hotwalking the mare.” Dan nodded
toward the adjacent barn.

Jake looked over. “Don’t know.” Two or three
steps later: “Just some kid.” More silence. “Dick Latimer’s

“Recognize the mare?”

He looked over, turned back, and spat on the
ground. “Nope. Latimer don’t have nothing in his barn. Bunch a
loose-legged claimers and two-year-olds he’ll tear up ’fore the
meet’s over.”

It didn’t matter whether it was true or not.
Trainers had to protect their relationships with owners and feed
them information that prevented the owners from even thinking of
moving their stock to a competitor’s barn. It was all part of the
game. Dan had learned the game.

Dan ran his fingers back through his short,
dark hair and scratched the back of his neck. He was a good five
inches shorter than Gilmore but significantly more athletic in
tone. In contrast to the customary wardrobe on the backside, Dan’s
blue pinstriped suit pants and crisp, open-collared dress shirt
said “owner.” His well-groomed, youthful appearance said “new
money.” On the latter count conventional wisdom would be wrong.

A frenzy of activity dominated the backside
from 5 a.m. to 11 a.m.; then, just as quickly, it became a sleepy
little village. There was a system and rhythm to the chaos of the
backside. Some horses going to the training track, jockeys and
trainers discussed the latest workout. Jock agents hustled the
latest Willie Shoemaker, just trying to get their boy a decent

Vet vans parked in the roadway, with their
doors hanging open, displaying the meds and appliances necessary to
keep the warriors in the game. Wraps hung on a makeshift
clothesline. Stable hands mucked out stalls. The dull smell of
manure and urine mixed with pungent hot salve.

The ever-present sound of water running
provided the soundtrack. Stable hands washed down horses, filled
tubs, or simply knocked down dust in the shedrow. The clip-clop of
hooves on the narrow asphalt roads signaled horses crossing to and
from the track. Pickups hummed as they crept along slowly enough to
hear the gravel pop and churn as it was spit out by worn tires. The
breeze carried a joke, laughter, and shouts of instruction. In many
corners it was reunion time.

Today was Tuesday. But it was not just any
Tuesday. It was Tuesday before opening day. The backside had been
empty thirty days ago. Now a vibrant community had sprung up. Three
hundred small businesses occupied the backside, complete with
bosses, employees, payroll, and equipment. The most important
assets of the businesses rolled in on fifth-wheeled trailers.

For the past three weeks the assets had been
rolling in, some coming from campaigns at other racetracks, some
from training farms, some returning from injury, and, this time of
year, late summer, some were babies. These were the two-year-olds
who would soon learn about their new environment and routine, far
from the calm, consistent life of the training farm. For them, this
was the equine version of culture shock.

Dan and Jake stepped onto the wooden landing.
Jake pulled open the screen door to Crok’s Kitchen. It resembled
many other backside kitchens. The décor was totally utilitarian,
filled with metal folding chairs and laminate-topped tables, none
of which stood level to the ground. Each wobbled the direction of
the newest elbow that rested on it. All random and disordered atop
an uneven concrete floor.

Time stood still in backside kitchens.
Revelations about cholesterol hadn’t arrived yet. A remarkable
place where the taste served as the only discriminator and fat
grams were ubiquitous.

Crok was a seventy-something short order
cook, by choice, and kitchen manager by default. She hovered like
some relic left behind in an unexplained time warp. Barely five
feet on her best day, Crok graced the kitchen like a blocking dummy
on legs. Her gravelly voice bounced off the walls as she barked at
customers. A black net pressed her gray locks down onto her head.
Smiling wasn’t her strength. All paid full fare, but she made sure
those who were down on their luck had a meal. It might involve time
served at a sink full of dishes, but no one was turned away if they
were sincere.

The kid came in as Dan and Jake sipped
coffee, surrounded by tables of similar groups, all talking about
the meet, the stakes schedule, but mostly about how they were going
to make money.

The boy limped through the line, filling his
tray with biscuits, gravy, and grits. A large glass of milk
finished the meal. Crok smiled and whispered something to him as he
completed his journey through the stainless steel line. The kid
didn’t spill a drop of milk as he counteracted his limp across the
room to one of the only empty tables near the door.

Jake continued his explanation about the
outcome of throat surgery for Dan’s three-year-old, Hero’s Echo. A
release of the trapped epiglottis required six weeks of rest. That
meant six weeks of vet and boarding bills with no opportunity to
recover costs. The surgery was needed and would hopefully move him
to the next level. Jake was mapping out the recovery process as the
noise level elevated in Crok’s.

Three wiry grooms in muddy boots and
weathered T-shirts had surrounded the kid as he sat alone at the

“Hey, retard,” the tallest one spouted.
“How’s breakfast?”

The kid didn’t look up. He just stared down
at his plate.

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