Read Lead a Horse to Murder Online

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

Lead a Horse to Murder (3 page)

BOOK: Lead a Horse to Murder
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Mr. MacKinnon’s study drove that point home. As I stepped inside, I was enveloped by a room that had the restful feeling of a hideaway, created by the skillful integration of rich textures and intense colors. The walls were painted the same dark green as a billiard table, with dark mahogany wainscoting all around. The deep, masculine tones were echoed in the couches and chairs, which were upholstered in brown leather the color of creamy milk chocolate. I placed my hand on the back of a chair and found it was as thick as a saddle but as soft as a kitten’s ear.

The walls were covered with pictures, hung at every possible height. Whether they were big or small, framed photographs or signed lithographs or huge oil paintings with gilt frames, they all featured horses. And most of those horses had polo players on their backs, their expressions grim and determined as they leaned forward to whack the ball.

I couldn’t help being curious about the man who had amassed enough wealth to buy himself such an impressive playground. I had pictured Andrew MacKinnon as a suave James Bond type, wearing a burgundy-colored silk bathrobe and carrying a brandy snifter. Then I shifted to a slick Mississippi River boat gambler with a waxed mustache and a string tie and the distinctive gleam of greed in his dark, beady eyes. Next, I tried on a dignified Anthony Hopkins in a gray morning coat, smoking a cigar and reading the
Financial Times

None of the personas I’d invented for Andrew MacKinnon came even close to the paunchy man in his early sixties who stood up as we barged in, unannounced. Instead of the shiny, slicked-back hair of my riverboat gambler, he hardly had any hair left at all. What there was of it was almost completely gray, barely hinting at the fact that a decade or two earlier, he had been a red-head. He had a ruddy complexion to match, and pale blue eyes rimmed with nearly colorless lashes.

And forget the string tie. Ditto for the silk bathrobe. This particular captain of industry was dressed in wrinkled khaki pants that sagged in the back and a loosefitting lemon yellow golf shirt marred by a small but distinct stain. His abundant stomach protruded like Santa Claus’s, stretching the knit fabric more than I suspected its designer had ever intended.

It certainly wasn’t easy picturing him riding the princely Braveheart, galloping across a polo field with a team of muscular young horsemen like the one I’d seen stick-and-balling earlier that morning. In fact, I had to remind myself that this undistinguished businessman actually owned the castlelike estate that surrounded us: the mansion, the cars and trucks and trailers, the stables, the polo fields, and of course the magnificent horses I knew were worth plenty.

“How’s my horse?” he demanded, dropping the
Street Journal
he’d been reading onto his chair.

“You’ll have to ask Dr. Pepper,” Johnny Ray replied sullenly.

I could feel my blood starting to boil. I’ve been called Dr. Pepper more times than I can count. But being mistaken for a rival to Coke and Pepsi was usually accidental. The sneer on Johnny Ray’s face made it clear that his slip was completely intentional—and that he wanted me to know it.

I decided to ignore him. “Mr. MacKinnon, I’m Dr. Popper,” I said, stepping forward and shaking his hand. “I checked out Braveheart, and it looks as if he’s suffered some minor structural damage on the back of his right leg—”

A piercing scream, accompanied by the sound of quick footsteps across the marble floor, stopped me mid-sentence.

“What the hell ...?” Andrew MacKinnon muttered, stepping out into the hallway.

“Meester Mac! Meester Mac!” Inez cried. “Come quickly! It’s Eduardo! He fell off his horse—and he’s not moving!”

Chapter 2

“It is not enough for a man to know how to ride; he must know how to fall.”

—Mexican Proverb

he four of us—MacKinnon, Johnny Ray, Inez, and I—raced through the hallway and out of the house, sliding on the slippery marble and probably looking like the Keystone Cops. The fact that Max and Lou joined in, loping alongside us through the grass and barking, only added to the situation’s feeling of unreality.

“I was looking out the window,” Inez gasped, “and I see Eduardo fall off his horse. I thought he will get up, but he—”

“I have my cell phone,” I volunteered. “I’ll call nine-one-one.”

“Not yet,” MacKinnon insisted. “It could be nothing.”

As soon as we reached Eduardo, I could tell it wasn’t nothing. The polo player lay perfectly still on the ground, his muscular body twisted into an unnatural position. What was most horrifying was the strange angle of his head, which was frighteningly at odds with the rest of his body. His face was ghoulishly pale, made even whiter by its contrast with the thick black curls that framed it.

“Stay!” I instructed my dogs, my tone serious enough to prevent them from dashing over to Eduardo’s body. Without even bothering to glance at MacKinnon, I pulled out my phone and dialed.

“Officer Spinelli, Tenth Precinct. Where’s the emergency?”

“Heatherfield, an estate at twenty-five Turkey Hollow Road in Old Brookbury. A man’s fallen off a horse. We need an ambulance—fast!”

I hastily gave him directions, then knelt on the grass, next to Eduardo. I pressed my fingers against his neck, trying to feel a pulse. Nothing.

I glanced up at the others to tell them the sickening news. But my throat had closed up, making it impossible for me to speak. It didn’t matter. When I saw their stricken expressions, I knew the look on my own face told them everything.

“He may be in shock,” I finally managed to say, even though I suspected I was being overly optimistic. “Someone should get a blanket.”

“I go,” Inez volunteered. As she turned and ran toward the house, Johnny Ray took off his flannel shirt and tucked it around Eduardo’s torso.

“How could this have happened?” MacKinnon wondered aloud, sounding dazed. “The man’s been around horses practically since he was born. He’s the best rider I’ve ever come across in my life!”

The police arrived fifteen minutes later, trailing an ambulance that bumped across the field before stopping just a few feet away from where we stood. The driver and an EMT jumped out of the vehicle and sprinted toward Eduardo’s inert body. Meanwhile, the two uniformed police officers who had emerged from a pair of white-and-blue Norfolk County police cars sauntered over to the three of us.

“I’m Officer Gruen.” The burly man with dirty-blond hair hitched up his navy blue pants. “So what happened here?”

“Eduardo Garcia works for me,” Andrew MacKinnon said in a low, even voice. “This morning, he was stick-and...he was riding that mare over there.” He pointed to the white horse, which was being led away by a dark-haired young man I assumed was a groom. “Next thing we knew, he’d fallen off his horse. My housekeeper, Inez, happened to look out the window, and she saw him lying on the ground.”

“Ed-uar-do Gar-ci-a,” Officer Gruen repeated slowly, writing down the name. “You say he works for you?”

“That’s right.”

“What is he, a groom or a stable boy or something?”

MacKinnon stiffened. “He’s a polo player. One of the finest in the world.”

“Okay, but you said he works for you. What exactly does he do?”

“He plays polo for me.”

“Yeah, I got that. But what exactly does he—?”

I left the two of them to sort things out, heading over to Inez. Studying her for the first time, I saw how young she was—probably barely twenty. Long, straight black hair hung limply around a gaunt face that was pretty enough, although hardly striking. Her thin arms were wrapped around her slender waist, and a pair of spindly legs stuck out from beneath an ill-fitting skirt. Her only outstanding feature was her eyes, dark brown and slightly almond-shaped. Standing out here in the middle of the expansive field, hugging herself and wearing a distraught expression, she seemed extremely fragile.

“Are you all right?” I asked.

“Ees such a terrible thing! Eduardo, he is so young, so talented, with such a wonderful future ahead of him!” She looked as if she were on the verge of crying.

I patted her shoulder distractedly, shifting my focus back to the EMT worker. I was standing far enough away that I couldn’t make out what he was telling the two police officers.

But the words didn’t matter. The expression on his face told me my assessment had been correct.

Eduardo Garcia was dead.

I glanced at Andrew MacKinnon. All the color had drained from his face, and even though I guessed he easily weighed over two hundred pounds, he looked as if a mild breeze could have knocked him over. As for Johnny Ray, he was impossible to read. He simply wore the same ornery expression he’d had since I arrived.

Inez figured it out, too. She let out a cry, covering her face with her hands. Sobbing, she ran toward the house, her shoulders shaking and her thin legs zigzagging across the field.

I stood frozen to the spot, watching the ambulance crew take Eduardo’s body away. MacKinnon and Johnny Ray followed them a few paces behind. With shaking hands, I pulled out my cell phone, stepped farther away, and dialed Nick Burby.

I knew perfectly well that he was consumed by his first weeks of law school. As a first-year student, he was taking four demanding courses plus an informal workshop in legal writing. Then there was the newness of his situation. Learning to think an entirely different way while digesting the details of hundreds of legal cases would be difficult enough at any stage of life. Given the fact that he hadn’t been a student for a full decade made the experience even more daunting.

But this was an emergency.

If he’s in class,
I told myself as I listened to it ring,
he’ll have turned his phone off. I’ll probably get his
voice mail, so I’ll just leave him a—

“Nick?” I cried as soon as he answered with a cheerful hello. “Can you talk?”

“Hey, Jess! Sure. For a minute, anyway,” he replied. “I’m walking from one building to another.” He hesitated. “Anything wrong?”

“I’m on a call at a horse farm.” I had to struggle to keep my voice from shaking. “Actually, I’m on somebody’s estate. The owner plays polo, so he has fifteen or twenty of his own horses...Anyway, about a half hour ago, one of his polo players fell off his horse. Nick, he’s dead!”

“Oh, my God!” Nick breathed. “Jessie, are you okay?”

“I’m fine. But Nick, the whole thing is so bizarre! I mean, I was standing in a field, watching him practice, just a few minutes before it happened. I was completely mesmerized. He and the horse were practically one being, you know? They moved together with such assurance, such smoothness—”

“Look, we’ll have dinner tonight and you can tell me all about it, okay? Sorry to cut you off, Jessie, but I’ve really got to go.”

“How about you?” I asked quickly, wanting to talk to him just a little bit longer. “How are they treating you at law school?”

“You wouldn’t believe how much I have to do,” Nick grumbled. “I’m already overwhelmed by how much work Criminal Law is going to be. My Contracts class is going to be even worse. And everybody’s telling me how important it is to be part of a study group. They say it’s the only way to get through the first year. From now until the winter break, I’ll be lucky if I have time to take a shower.” He paused. “It’s really cool!”

I couldn’t help laughing, even though the sound that erupted from my throat was a cross between a chuckle and a sob. “Glad somebody’s having fun,” I told him. “See you later, Nick.”

When I hung up, I became aware of an empty feeling that had settled deep in the pit of my stomach. Nick suddenly felt so far away—not physically, but as if he was so tied up in what he was doing that there wasn’t much room for anything else.

Eduardo Garcia’s death had hit me in way that surprised me. It was strange; I’d never even met him. In fact, I’d never heard his name until that morning.

But I’d seen him on a horse, in his element. His youth, his strength, his agility...He was like someone’s fantasy, come to life.

Now, he was gone. Dead. Without warning, without reason, and way before his time.

I was glad I’d rescheduled my morning appointments, pushing them back later in the day since I hadn’t known how long I’d be at Heatherfield. I desperately needed a cup of tea—and a long, comforting conversation with the person who was an expert at brewing it.

I could feel the tension in my neck and shoulders as Max, Lou, and I turned off Minnesauke Lane and drove up the long curving driveway that led to my cottage in Joshua’s Hollow. Unlike much of Long Island, the quiet community on Norfolk County’s North Shore still retains its rustic feel. The area has a rich history that dates back to the Revolutionary War, when it was the home base of a well-known spy ring that supplied General George Washington with crucial information about the movements of the British. Every once in a while, I can’t resist squinting my eyes and peering into the dense woods, trying to picture a musket-bearing patriot in ragged clothes hiding behind a tree.

Housing on Long Island is insanely expensive, but I’d had the good fortune to hook up with a first-rate real estate agent named Mitzi, who had found me a charming stone cottage on an estate that had been built nearly two centuries earlier. The mansion on the property, which I affectionately call the Big House, was built by the grandson of one of the Culper Spy Ring’s key members, Major Benjamin Tallmadge. While the older Tallmadge had dedicated his life to fighting for freedom, his descendent had spent
life benefiting from it, becoming a prosperous industrialist who owned several mills in the area. Every day, I thank my lucky stars for this place.

Usually, just pulling up in the circular driveway in front of the Big House fills me with a sense of peace. But today was an exception. I was haunted by the image of Eduardo Garcia lying on the ground, his handsome face ashen and his muscular body lifeless. As I put the van into park, I realized my hands were trembling.

BOOK: Lead a Horse to Murder
2.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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