In this scene from “Racing from Death,” Nikki Latrelle, her friend Lorna, and two grooms have arrived at Colonial Downs racetrack near Williamsburg, Virginia after hauling six race horses from Laurel, Maryland. They are driving through a darkening backstretch, searching for barn 23.
The sun had set a while back, and the few pink clouds riding the western horizon dimmed to a purplish blue. I thought I’d reached our stable, but it was only number 21. I kept going, not happy when the trees closed in around us, tall pines crowding against the edge of the paved road. The path curved, and I was relieved to see space open up, even if only two barns remained before the asphalt dead-ended at a dark expanse of forest.
No lights. No cars. Nobody.
“This place gives me the creeps.” Lorna’s fingers fussed with the rip in her jeans.
“Meet hasn’t started,” I said. “Most people haven’t shipped in yet.”
“I don’t see why we had to get here so early.”
“Jim likes the horses to get acclimated.” When the truck headlights picked up the number 23 painted on the end-wall just below the roof, I rolled to a stop beside the last barn.
Ramon, who’d been patiently following, stopped his truck and trailer behind ours. We got out, groping our way through the dark since the truck lights lit the darkness ahead, not the building to its side. Like most racing stables, the rectangular barn held about 60 stalls, 30 per side, backed up, with doors facing out. Wood posts supported a roof overhang that sheltered a dirt aisle outside the rows of stalls. The short ends of the rectangular building had rooms for tack, storage or a cot for a groom. The dirt path continued here, circling before these rooms, too.
The barn, or section of barn that housed a particular trainer’s horses and supplies was commonly called a “shedrow,” possibly a shortened version of row-of-sheds. Maybe not found in most dictionaries, but the name’s been around forever.
I stepped carefully into this one, my fingers scrabbling along the wall outside the nearest stall for light switches. I found one and flipped it. A single bulb cast a dim light onto the dirt path outside the nearby stalls. The second switch flooded the first two stalls with light. Now we were in business. I soon had our stalls located, with lights blazing all over the place.
Still, Ramon gestured at the woods. “Why they put us here? I don’t like. Is so far away.”
“Hey, they bedded us down.” Lorna stared with relief inside the first stall.
Jim had arranged for supplies with a local feed company. They’d agreed to bed our stalls with straw before we arrived, but you never knew. We had enough work to do without having to shake out sixteen bales of straw.
“They put the hay here.” Ramon held a wooden door open, peering into a stall about halfway along our shedrow. He disappeared inside, emerging with a handful of green hay. He sniffed it for mold, then shoved some in his mouth, tasting the quality of the dried grasses. His white teeth flashed. “Is good.”
I could almost hear a collective sigh of relief. It was one thing we wouldn’t have to worry about.
Manuel and Ramon set buckets, wire-and-metal gates, and rubber-covered chain ties outside each stall. We got a system going where I wound screw eyes into the inside walls, Lorna snapped buckets on them, and Manuel set up a hose and filled the buckets with water. Ramon worked on hanging the gates across the stall entryways.
Forty-five minutes later, we unloaded the six horses and led them into their stalls. Lorna and I unwound their shipping bandages, feeling through the hair on their legs for scrapes or unexpected heat. Ramon and Manuel loaded feed pails with late dinners. The horses picked up its scent, sweet and fragrant with molasses. They pawed and nickered, impatient for their grain.
Hellish prowled about her new lodgings, inspecting her fresh water, snatching hay from the rack filled with timothy and alfalfa. She shoved her head over her stall gate and stared briefly into the night, finally relaxed and got serious about her feed tub. Her contentment soothed me as few things can.
A moaning cry rode the pine scented air. It came again, soft, pitiful, and far away. I heard a rustling noise, as if something moved through the trees in our direction. A clank sounded just inside the pines, like metal striking a stone. The mournful wail echoed again deep in the woods, stirring the hairs on my neck.
Horse heads emerged over stall doors, their eyes boring into the woods, nostrils flared.
“What the hell was that?” Lorna stepped closer to me. Manuel picked up a metal pitchfork. Ramon whipped out a knife from his jacket pocket, and I grabbed the long metal bar I’d used to turn the screw eyes.
Armed and scared. Welcome to Virginia.
Meet the author
Mystery author Sasscer Hill lives on a Maryland farm and has bred racehorses for many years. A winner of amateur steeplechase events, she has galloped her horses on the farm and trained them into the winner’s circle. Sasscer’s first novel, “Full Mortality,” was a 2011 finalist for both Agatha and Macavity Best First Awards.
RACING FROM DEATH, the second in the “Nikki Latrelle Racing Mystery” series, came out in 2012 to rave reviews from the “Baltimore Sun,” “Mystery Scene Magazine,” and the “Washington Post.”
Hill has completed the third in the series, “The Sea Horse Trade,” due out in 2013. Sasscer is the author of several short stories available in the “Chesapeake Crimes” Anthologies. Her articles have appeared in numerous magazines.
Books are available at retail and online booksellers.