Authors: Cynthia Baxter
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths, #Detective and Mystery Stories, #Mystery Fiction, #Murder, #Private Investigators, #Women Veterinarians, #Long Island (N.Y.), #Horses
I didn’t let on that my heart was beating wildly. In fact, I was glad the seagulls shrieking in the sky above made it difficult to hear. “And?”
“The key word here is ‘common,’ ” he went on. “Meaning that the tests only screen for the most likely candidates. See, the simple fact is that most people aren’t very creative when it comes to murder. If they decide to poison someone, they generally use something obvious. Something that’s found around the house, or at least pretty easy to get hold of. And that’s usually a substance that the M.E.’s office can easily identify. However, this was not the case with Eduardo Garcia’s murder.”
“Go on,” I prompted, keeping my voice even.
“The toxicologists ran a routine procedure called paper chromatography,” Forrester continued. “Basically, you use a special machine to run a sample of the victim’s blood through paper. Different chemicals have different ‘partition coefficients,’ which means they migrate at different rates. Then you compare the migration rates of the substances you found in the blood sample with the migration rates of ‘known’ chemicals. If nothing matches, you can conclude that none of the usual substances—the most commonly used poisons, in this case—are present.”
He paused—for effect, no doubt. “In other words, they’re convinced Eduardo Garcia was poisoned, but they don’t know with what.”
“So his murderer was fairly crafty,” I mused, thinking out loud. “At least, crafty enough to poison him with something that would be difficult to detect once he was dead.”
“And given Eduardo’s activities the night before, it looks like the murderer was also clever enough to pull it off at a function that was attended by hundreds of people,” Forrester added, “making it really difficult to reconstruct exactly what happened.”
The wheels were turning in my head. “Wait a second. How do the police know the poisoning wasn’t accidental?”
“It’s not impossible. But no one else who attended the same party experienced any symptoms, so they’ve ruled out tainted food. And the cops did a thorough search of his house, a little place in Morgan’s Cove about a ten-minute drive from the Meadowlark Polo Club. They didn’t find anything to indicate that he’d inadvertently poisoned himself. No bottles of prescription drugs, no strange chemicals, nothing questionable in the refrigerator.”
So the cops covered that base,
But something else nagged at me, a question I wanted to ask even though it hadn’t quite formed in my mind.
Before I had a chance to figure out what it was, Forrester added, “I’ve learned a few other interesting tidbits, too.”
He looked at me expectantly.
“Okay, out with it,” I finally said. “You know I’m dying to hear whatever you’ve got.”
I hated the look of satisfaction that crossed his face. But I figured that was the price I had to pay.
“I’ve also been doing some research on polo,” Forrester announced. “And I’ve dug up some pretty incredible stuff.”
“I know a little about the game’s history,” I volunteered. “A friend of Andrew MacKinnon’s, Winston Farnsworth, gave me a quick lesson on ‘the game of kings.’ ”
“Hah!” Forrester returned. “How about ‘the game of barbarians’? Did you know one of the first fans of the sport was Genghis Khan? His Mongolian troops played polo using the heads of their enemies—which they’d personally chopped off. I think they were more interested in sending a message than having fun out on the field. And from what I’ve been learning, the equipment may have changed, but the spirit can be just as brutal.”
“Sounds a little harsh,” I observed. “I thought polo was nothing more than a few guys on horseback hitting a ball.”
“It is. Except that these particular guys usually happen to be some very rich and very powerful individuals. You should see how they live, Popper,” Forrester said. “Some of them have estates that stretch on forever, with five polo fields on each—and the regulation size is one hundred fifty by three hundred yards, even bigger than a football field. They can own as many as one hundred fifty polo ponies. Horses start at twelve or thirteen thousand dollars, but the good ones go for thirty to fifty thousand.
“The mansions on their estates look like castles. But in addition, there’s always a swimming pool, tennis courts, the whole works. Then there are the stables and the grooms’ quarters. Most of the time, they’re just as luxurious as the main house. White stucco walls, red terra-cotta roofs, palm trees and flowers planted everywhere . . . You or I would probably be perfectly happy living in one of the stalls—and I’m not exaggerating.”
“How many people actually live on this scale?” I asked.
“Only about thirty. They’re mostly American, but they come from all over the world. A few are well-known movie actors, but the majority are industrialists. One owns the Down Under restaurant chain. Another is a member of the family that owns the biggest soft-drink company in the world. Then there are two brothers who are part of a famous beer family.
“Then you’ve got the internationals. One Frenchman is from a famous family of art collectors. Another guy, a South African, has his own polo fields and horses, but never competes. He just plays for fun on his own estate—like playing croquet in your backyard. Know where his money comes from?”
“I can’t begin to guess.”
“He owns an army, Popper. His own private army, complete with mercenary soldiers, fighter jets, tanks, the whole kit and caboodle. If you’re the president—or dictator—of a country and you need an army, his is for hire.”
I didn’t even try to hide my astonishment. “I had no idea that kind of thing even existed!”
“Yeah, no kidding. Anyway, a lot of the patrons are from Argentina. Their families have been playing polo for generations. One patron from South America owns a bank, an oil company, a car manufacturer, and a couple of other little side businesses. He has an estate in Wellington, Florida, a ski chalet in Utah, a mansion in the city of Buenos Aires, and a thirty-million-dollar polo complex somewhere else in Argentina. It’s right on the ocean, but it also has a three-and-a-half-acre swimming pool. Three and a half acres, Popper. He’s also got a couple of yachts with their own helicopters and helicopter pads and two full-size jets that go for about thirty million apiece. He happens to like cars, and he’s got a red Enzo—a Ferrari—that cost one and a half million dollars. They’re special-edition supercars, and the company only built three hundred ninety-nine of them. Compared to that, the hundred-thousand-dollar Porsche he owns looks like a weekend station wagon.”
“In other words,” I interjected, “when we’re talking about polo, we’re talking about major money.”
“You got it. And the stuff I’m telling you about is just the tip of the iceberg,” Forrester went on. “Even these guys who have multimillion-dollar estates in Wellington mostly just play on the weekends. They fly down to Florida in their private jets on Sunday morning, play a couple of hours of polo, have a drink or two, and fly back home.
“Of course, not everybody is involved with polo on the same scale. There are people who have a couple of polo ponies and play occasionally. For them, it’s more like a hobby. You’d recognize a lot of the names. Some rock stars, a whole bunch of actors, a television producer who used to have his own talk show, a Broadway producer who was behind one of the biggest musicals of the late 1960’s.
“But then there’s a whole subculture of people whose entire lives revolve around polo. The polo players, of course. They’re on salary, working for the patrons. It’s not uncommon for them to get paid a million dollars a year. Some of the better players get paid five thousand dollars a game—which comes to about thirty thousand a month. But some of them only get five hundred bucks for each game. And of course they all have their own horses and grooms.”
“Sounds expensive,” I commented.
“Sure. A lot of them end up having to do something else on the side, anything from training horses to modeling. Whatever they can do to make a buck. Not all of them get paid on the scale that MacKinnon paid Eduardo. I heard his salary was a million a year.”
“I heard that, too—from MacKinnon himself.” I added, “Speaking of Andrew MacKinnon, what’s his story?”
“Nothing suspicious there—at least, not that I’ve been able to uncover so far,” Forrester replied. “He grew up wealthy, right here on Long Island. He’s the son of a successful entrepreneur who started a company that manufactures machine parts. Fasteners, fittings, those boring little pieces of metal that make the world go round—or at least the world’s machines. Andrew joined the company at a young age, learned the business, and took over when Daddy retired. All he had to do was keep the family business running smoothly. It’s a feat he’s managed nicely, from what I can tell.”
“What about his relationship with Eduardo?” I asked. “Was he really as enamored of him as he claims?”
Forrester shook his head. “That sounds like a subject you know more about than I do.”
“He seems sincere,” I mused. “He did make kind of a strange comment, though. Yesterday, right after the funeral, he said that losing Eduardo would have been a great loss to the game. Then he corrected himself and said that losing Eduardo
a great loss to the game. It just struck me as odd.”
Forrester shrugged. “Probably just the grief talking. People get confused.”
“Could be.” I frowned. “But there was something else. I heard MacKinnon arguing about Eduardo with that man I mentioned—Winston Farnsworth. Do you know anything about him?”
“No. But I’ll see what I can find out.” He jotted down the name on his pad of paper. “What kind of argument?”
“I only caught the tail end. But I heard Farnsworth say something like, ‘We’re talking about a tremendous amount of money!’ ”
“Money, murder . . .” Forrester muttered. “The two often go hand in hand.”
“As seems to be the case in Eduardo Garcia’s murder,” I added. I sighed, suddenly overwhelmed by what we were trying to wrap our heads around.
“Could be. Especially since we’re dealing with a bunch of people who aren’t exactly the nicest guys around.”
“Lifestyles of the Rich and Felonious,” I muttered.
“Some people might say ‘rich’ and ‘felonious’ are synonymous,” Forrester commented. But he said the words so softly I wasn’t sure I was supposed to have heard him.
“If you’re from such a privileged background,” I couldn’t resist asking, “how come you weren’t already an expert on polo?”
“Actually, my sister’s the equestrian in the family. And she was into dressage.” He shook his head, as if he was still having trouble taking it all in. “This polo thing is really over the top.”
“I agree. Which doesn’t make investigating Eduardo Garcia’s murder any easier. Where do you suggest we start?”
He grinned. “Welcome aboard, Popper. Glad you decided to join the team. It just so happens there’s a polo game at the Meadowlark Polo Club tomorrow at three. I think you and I should both be there.”
“Sounds like fun.” I made a point of adding, “I’ll bring a date.”
Forrester looked startled. “If you must. But don’t forget that we’re there to work.”
“You’re making it sound like so much fun.”
“Don’t worry, Popper. It’ll be fun.”
Even though Forrester had turned out to be a much more engaging companion than I’d expected, I suddenly found myself glancing around the restaurant’s outdoor dining area. It wasn’t that I noticed anything extraordinary. In fact, the thing that struck me happened to be extremely
Looking around, I spotted a young couple sitting at one table, sharing a plate of fried calamari. At the table beside them sat two female friends, laughing together over a pitcher of margaritas. Behind them was an older couple, barely speaking but looking surprisingly comfortable in their shared silence. In the back corner, three men gathered at a round table, talking loudly. The question that had been nagging at me had finally come into focus.
“Forrester,” I said, “what about
He frowned. “I’m not following.”
“Falcone seems pretty convinced that Eduardo was poisoned at the party. And that certainly strikes me as a strong possibility. After all, the occasion provided the perfect opportunity. Crowds of people, loud music, a lot of different things going on at the same time . . . Given all the noise and activity, slipping something into his food or a drink probably wouldn’t have been that difficult.”
I leaned forward. “But what if he wasn’t murdered at the party? What if he actually ingested the substance that killed him
the party? Over lunch or dinner . . . or even coffee with a friend?”
“It’s possible.” Narrowing his eyes, Forrester demanded, “Okay, Popper. Where are you going with this?”
With a shrug, I explained, “I’m simply thinking that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to reconstruct exactly what Eduardo did—where he went, who he saw—the entire day before he died.”
“I’m sure the police are doing that.”
“Maybe.” Then again, I thought, Lieutenant Anthony Falcone has been known to miss seeing the obvious. Maybe that came from having such a swelled head.
“Look, Popper,” Forrester continued, “I encourage you to follow your gut. If you think you’ve got some lead that the cops are likely to miss—”
“Could you please stop calling me Popper?” I interrupted, not even trying to keep the irritation out of my voice.
calling you Popper. You
like a Popper.”
“And exactly what does a Popper seem like?” I couldn’t believe we were having this conversation.
“Tough. Tenacious. Smart as a whip.”
“Sounds like you’re describing an Airedale.”
He laughed. “They are pretty tough, aren’t they? Speaking of which,” he went on, “I’m hoping that one of these days, you’ll tell me about the other murder investigations you’ve been involved in.”
“Maybe,” I said loftily.
He leaned forward and gently brushed a strand of hair away from my face. “How about over dinner? I could swing by and pick you up in a few hours. I know this terrifically romantic little place that most people have never even heard of—”