Disclaimer: This story is in no way affiliated with UPN or Pet Fly Productions. The characters are their property and this story is not meant to infringe upon their copyrights in any way.
Many thanks to Wolfpup for her assistance in proofreding (ahem!) this story and her valuable suggestions which enabled me to make it flow better and be more understandable. Oh, and thanks for posting this to your web page too.
Thanks to my Dobermans, Dixie and Colonel, and my own 17 hand black horse, Indigo, for inspiration. But my parrot is Sentry and, as of now, does not talk, although he does a very good imitation of a telephone ringing.
Comments and criticisms are welcome. Please email to MoBecker@aol.com. We aim to please and can't do that if we don't know what you'all want. Now -- on with the show.
"He's PERFECT, Simon! Just PERFECT!" Miriam Templeton turned to Captain Banks and clasped her hands before her beaming face. "When you said you had just the right detective for the job, you weren't kidding!" Smiling, she laid her hand on Banks' arm as she leaned toward him. "And here I thought you were just snowballing me."
Banks rolled his eyes to heaven in exasperation as a smiling Blair Sandburg bounced in excitement. "Wow, man. I've never been perfect before!" he enthused.
"And you still aren't!" Banks growled, pointing a finger at the young man. "What the hell are you doing here, Sandburg? Where's Jim?"
"Don't know. I thought he might be in here with you."
"Well, you were wrong. Now get out!"
"Simon," Ms Templeton looked crushed as she glanced from Sandburg to Banks and back again. "You mean this isn't the officer you were telling me about?"
Banks sighed. "Miriam, he's not even an officer."
"Uh, I'm an official observer, mam'm." Sandburg offered with his hand raised.
She studied Sandburg closely. "But you have an ID." She turned to Banks. "He has an ID. Why isn't he undercover?" Slightly out of her element in the police department, she really wanted to be able to understand the complexities. She hated being out of control and now she'd just placed her absolute trust in Captain Banks. Her piercing hazel eyes narrowed with a frown that crossed her aquiline features. Still a beautiful women in her early forties, the healthy glow to her skin was mute testimony to her outdoor life.
"He's not a police officer. He works with the detective I was telling you about, but it's Jim Ellison I want to put on your case."
"Does Detective Jim Ellison look like ..." She stared at Sandburg's ID for a moment. "Mr. Sandburg?"
Blair Sandburg couldn't help but laugh out loud at that remark even though he knew he would be awarded a heavy glare from the captain. "Oh man. Oh man." Sandburg gasped, getting his laughter under control. "Not hardly."
Ms Templeton stood straight, glanced at Captain Banks and squared her shoulders. "Then, it's settled. Mr. Sandburg will take the case."
Banks shook his head. "I'm sorry, Miriam. I just can't. Sandburg is a civilian. I can't assign him to a case."
She turned to the young man standing just inside the captain's office door. His long, brown curls fell in a frame around his face and she could just make out the glint of an earring hiding behind the curls on one side. He was short, not much taller that she was. He had the enthusiasm of youth, but still showed a hint of maturity lurking within his expressive blue eyes. She'd made her decision.
"How much do you make as an observer?"
"Um... you mean money?" Sandburg stammered.
"That's what I thought." Ms Templeton shot a glance in Banks' direction. "How much time do you spend at the station?"
"Well, maybe 20, 30 hours or so." Sandburg was beginning to look uncomfortable as Captain Banks began a slow boil.
"I see. I would imagine that to be a minimum, of course." She took a firm, decisive step toward Sandburg. "I want you. It's as simple as that. All you need to do is observe -- and I will pay you for it."
"Miriam ..." Banks interrupted.
She waved him into silence with one hand, not even taking her penetrating hazel eyes off her quarry. "I will pay you 200 dollars a day."
"200 DOLLARS?!" Sandburg gasped.
"All right ... 300, but that's my final offer. You will receive three full meals a day and lodge with the other boys in the dorm. Shouldn't take more than a week. If you don't find out anything within that time ... Well ..." She shrugged. "At least I made the attempt."
As soon as Miriam Templeton offered Sandburg 300 dollars a day for a week's work, Simon Banks knew he'd lost the battle with her and Ellison's young partner. There was no way he'd be able to convince Sandburg not to take the job.
"All right!!" Sandburg enthusiastically bobbed his head in agreement. His energy level was on overload and it was all he could do to keep it in check. He was already doing the math in his head and had most of the money spent.
A broad smile lit Ms Templeton's features. She'd won.
Just then, the door opened and Detective James Ellison stepped inside the room. "You wanted to see me, captain?"
Banks glared at him. "Not any more," he grumbled.
Miriam Templeton turned and stared at the six-foot plus frame of James Ellison that all but filled the door opening when he walked in. "Oh my. Simon, you weren't seriously thinking that I would be able to use this man?" She awarded an incredulous look to Banks. "Were you?"
"My god ... he's huge! No, no, no. Definitely would never work. He just wouldn't work, Simon."
Confused, Ellison looked at his partner. "What's going on here?"
Sandburg grinned and shrugged. "I have absolutely no idea -- but I'm perfect! And, I'm going to get paid!"
"Paid? By who? For what?" He turned to glare at his captain. "Sir? What's Blair talking about?"
Miriam Templeton pulled herself to her full height, which, in heels, made her slightly taller than Sandburg as she addressed the large detective. "Mr. Sandburg will be working for me for a week beginning tomorrow..."
"Not alone, he isn't." Ellison stated with certainty.
"Not with you, he won't." Ms Templeton countered. "You're too big! Period. End of discussion."
Ellison shook his head. "No it's not. We're a team. You'll just have to think of a way for me to fit in somewhere." Frowning, he looked at Captain Banks. "Speaking of which ... where is somewhere?"
"My place." Ms Templeton said as she strode over to get a closer look at Sandburg. "High Corner Racing Stables. I need a young man to infiltrate, sounds like such a conspiracy, the ranks of my stablehands. Last month I had to put down a circuit show jumper when he broke his leg too severely to be repaired. At the same time, a very responsible stablehand ... left. I maintain he is missing, but unfortunately, many of the boys have checkered backgrounds and when the time suits them -- they just pack up and leave. The police are treating it very lightly since he is over 21 and there is no foul play suspected."
"Do you think the injury to the horse and the missing man are related?" Ellison asked.
Miriam Templeton paused and took a deep breath before continuing. "In my opinion -- yes. The horse was in a slump. He hadn't won or placed in competition for almost a year. The owners were in it strictly for the notoriety and the money it would bring them with future sales." She allowed her penetrating gaze to touch on each man before continuing. "Gentlemen, that horse was insured for $300,000."
Sandburg released a low whistle, then he remembered something and excitedly began to speak as he paced the room. "Wait a minute, hasn't there been quite a scandal lately about insurance fraud and the killing of valuable horses?"
She smiled. "I see I picked the right man for the job. Yes. The scandal rocked not only the racing industry but show jumping as well. Some very well known and respected people were implicated in very shady dealings. It was all the sadder for those people were supposed to have feelings for those horses in their care. Some beautiful animals were destroyed for money."
"But wouldn't the insurance company be interested in your suspicions?" Ellison asked.
"Oh, they sent a man out. He wandered around and asked the required questions. When he left, I got the distinct impression that he was satisfied it was an accident."
"You don't think so?" By now Sandburg had stopped his pacing.
Ms Templeton leveled her gaze on the young man. "No. I don't. I think someone caused the colt to break his leg and I think Terry stumbled upon whoever did it in the act. Terrence Hammer was a responsible person and he loved those horses. He would never leave without a damn good reason and he would've told me before he left."
"But, what is it you want me to do? Surely the insurance investigator would've found any clues." Sandburg ran a hand through his hair, arguing it back in place.
"Just listen. You'd be surprised what you can find out in idle chatter. The boys will talk to me, they'll confide in me, to a point, but when it comes to just being one of them -- I can't be. I'm their employer. I need someone on the inside, to become one of them, to join their inner circle, and just listen to the behind-the-scenes talk. I need you, Mr. Sandburg. You're already an established observer, you know police procedures, and you definitely look the part. You're small enough to be a frustrated jockey ..."
"Frustrated?" Ellison wondered. He was following the gist of the conversation and he had to admit, he would be much too big for the assignment.
"Yes. Mr. Sandburg is almost small enough, but not quite. If we were in England, he could be a steeplechase jockey, but in the United States the only money is in Thoroughbred racing. Of course, he could lose the weight and ride oversized, but he'd look like a skeleton. Frustrated." She repeated. "Too small for present society norms and too big for the world of racing."
"Frustrated," Sandburg muttered low enough for only Ellison's heightened hearing to detect. "Thanks for pointing that out."
Ellison grinned in spite of himself. "Ah, Ms Templeton, as I stated earlier, we're a team. Where Sandburg goes -- I go. And you don't have to pay me, I come reimbursed from the taxpayers."
She scanned him from top to bottom, appraising, evaluating; finally she sighed and pulled two business cards from her purse. "Oh, all right. But there's only one place you'll fit in."
"Fine." Ellison agreed, taking a card and handing one to his friend.
"I'll have to introduce you as my latest lover."
Sandburg choked on suppressing a shout of laughter and covered his mouth with both hands as he watched his partner's blue eyes enlarge to the size of swimming pools.
Miriam Templeton shrugged. "It's the only way. The boys are used to a parade of different men wandering in and out of the house. I'm in between now and they won't suspect a thing when you show up. You can stay in the upstairs bedroom overlooking the barn area. The dorm where Mr. Sandburg will be staying is less than 30 feet from the main barn and is visible from there." She cocked her head at Ellison. "Satisfactory?"
"I guess it'll have to be." Ellison grumbled.
"Fine," she smiled, "I'll see you sometime tomorrow." Then she turned to Sandburg. "I don't know you. You don't know me. Just show up at the barn tomorrow morning as early as possible and ask for the manager. That'll be Mike ... and ask him for a job. Wear old jeans -- clean, but old. Ask, don't beg. Mike doesn't like begging. Be respectful. He likes that. No one's come forward to claim that opening Terry made and Mike's hurting to get all the chores done and all the training kept on schedule. Don't antagonize him and you're sure to get the job. Mike does all the hiring so it'll look suspicious if I hire you without his say so. Might cause some friction right away which you won't need if you're to fit in."
"Right," Sandburg nodded, quickly taking in all the information and storing it. When she paused for a breath he looked at her, his expressive face asking the question for him are you finished?
"Any questions?" she asked of both men. When they both answered in the negative, she nodded. "That's it, then." Turning to Captain Banks, she lightly touched his arm in friendly farewell. "Thank you, Simon. For everything." As she marched out the door, she gave Ellison and Sandburg one last glance. "See you boys tomorrow." And she was gone.
"Ahem." Rocking back and forth on his heels, Sandburg nosily cleared his throat, grinning at Ellison.
"Not a word," Ellison grumbled, pointing a finger at his partner.
Sandburg raised both hands in surrender, the smile still spread across his face. "Wouldn't think of it." But as he lowered his arms, he whispered so softly only a Sentinel would hear, "You could do a lot worse."
"SANDBURG!!" Ellison snapped.
"Ellison!" Banks nearly shouted. "You know this is partly your fault. If you had been on time..."
"I'm sorry, sir. But there was this traffic jam ..."
"I don't want to hear it. Next you'll be making excuses for being big."
"I'm perfect," Sandburg said as he bolted out the door.
Ellison lobbed a thumb at his partner's retreating figure, "Please, Simon ... he makes a case for justifiable manslaughter."
"Not in my office. What you do in the loft is your business." Captain Banks lowered himself into his most comfortable chair, removed his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Seriously, Jim, Miriam came to me a few days ago about this. She was pretty upset when Terry went missing and no one cared enough to give it more than a cursory nod. She was right though. Sandburg will fit in with the stablehands much better than you could."
"Yeah. I've gotta agree with her on that, too. But, Simon ..."
"Observation and listening to idle chatter. That's why I immediately thought of you, Jim. Hell, who's better at listening than you are? You can hear a snake going through the underbrush a mile away."
"I hear it, but that doesn't necessarily mean I'm listening. Now, Blair listens. The kid's a walking sponge."
"Hum-m. Well, with the two of you working this case, if there's a scrap of evidence of foul play I know you'll find it."
"Yeah. Blair'll find it," Ellison muttered softly as he opened the office door to exit.
"You say something, Jim?" Banks asked absentmindedly as he started to shuffle papers from the left side to the right side of his desk.
"We'll find it, sir," Ellison said louder.
"Keep in touch."
Blair Sandburg drove his trusty old Volvo through the open front gates of High Corner Racing and Combined Training Stables and tried not to stare at the paved road unwinding in front of him for an unknown distance. How could one person have so much property? he wondered to himself. I can't even see the house or barns from here. On either side of the road, the pastures, carefully mowed and tended, were a uniform green prompting Sandburg to wonder if the greenskeeper used to work on a golf course.
A group of yearlings paused in their mock fighting to stare at him as he drove slowly past the white wood fences marking the boundaries of their pasture. Older horses, carefully segregated in their own white-rimmed worlds, barely offered an indifferent glance.
This place was so peaceful, so serene, he found himself cursing the evil that had dared invade it.
Finally, as if by magic, the house and barns appeared as he rounded a stand of trees and crested a small hill. To the left was the driveway to Ms Templeton's expansive, two-story, brown-trimmed white house, to the right, three large russet-colored barns stretched out to touch the horizon. Although it was only a few minutes after eight, most of the morning exercises had been ridden. The Thoroughbred racing stock didn't take long to breeze around the track. Only the stadium jumpers in need of extensive training on the flat were left.
The yard resembled an ant mound stirred into frenzied activity by an unseen hand. Wheelbarrows of manure were being carted out of now clean stalls, while other stablehands hosed off just-ridden horses, or loaded fresh hay into stalls, others cleaned tack or scrubbed water and feed buckets. Sandburg uttered a low whistle. So much for his peaceful, serene setting.
He added his car to the line of dusty, older cars, trucks, and station wagons and got out, scanning the activity for one person who looked as if he would be in charge. Everyone was working at his task as if they were robots -- efficient, quick, knowledgeable and a minimum of talking. Sandburg shook his head in wonderment. This was a whole new subculture of humanity that needed investigating. He must remember to take notes when the opportunity presented itself.
"Excuse me," Sandburg flagged down a worker ant as he passed by with a wheelbarrow load of hay. "But I'm looking for the manager."
He was quickly assessed by the worker ant and was awarded with a question. "You looking for a job?"
"Uh, yeah, I am," Sandburg told this casual acquaintance.
"Good. We can sure use some more help around here. Mike's the one to see." The worker ant squinted in the direction of the barn closest to them. Finally, he nodded and released the wheelbarrow in order to point at a short, red-haired man clad in brown jeans and a bright plaid shirt. The sleeves of the shirt were rolled up to his elbows revealing the long sleeves of a navy blue turtle-neck sweater. His round face was framed by errant locks of wayward red hair that he totally ignored as he concentrated on punching a hole in the cheek strap of a leather bridle. "That's him there. Better go see him before he messes up that bridle and puts himself in a foul mood."
"Thanks," Sandburg smiled as he and the worker ant parted company. The worker quietly and efficiently went about his business as if nothing had happened.
Dodging more wheelbarrows and horses being led to and fro, Sandburg finally reached his destination. He paused in front of the one pointed out as Mike Bragdon, respectfully waiting for an acknowledgment of his presence. When none was forthcoming, he cleared his throat. "Excuse me. But I'm looking for a job and I was told you were the one I should see."
Without raising his head, Bragdon raised his eyes to gaze at the young man, then returned to his mutilation of the leather bridle. "Kin ya ride, lad?" he asked in an Irish brogue.
"Sure." Sandburg smiled.
"I mean, kin ya ride? Not that ya bin on a wee pony on yer tenth birthday. Kin ya stay on, kin ya steer, and kin ya stop?"
"Yes sir. All of the above."
Bragdon now awarded Sandburg his full attention, the bridle forgotten and back into the tack repair bucket. "Would ye now be willin' to prove it to me before I sign ye up?"
"Ye see that black horse two stalls down?" Sandburg nodded. "She used to be a pretty good racer, did Lucy, but her heart's not in it now. She's not raced in months, not won in more'n a year. Tack her up and breeze her round the track fer me."
"Where's her bridle?" Heck, Sandburg figured, If that's all the proof Mike needs that I can ride a horse -- I'm in.
"Tack room's rite behind us, lad. Her bridle's on the post with her name on it -- Miss Lucy. Pick any saddle that suits you. Brushes are in buckets all over the place right now. I don't expect you to ride to win -- just ride to stay on."
"No problem, man," Sandburg muttered as he stepped up into the tackroom and was greeted by the aroma of leather. Wow. I'd forgotten how good leather smells. I wonder how Jim likes it. I wonder if he can tell the difference between the various types of leathers used in ... well, boots, bridles, saddles, half chaps, crops. I'll have to get him to wander down to the stables while he's here. Shrugging off the Guide mode and back to business, he found Miss Lucy's tack and chose a soft, comfortable saddle. Man, these things are a postage stamp. I've got more leather on my key chain. He grabbed a pair of well-worn half-chaps and buckled them around his legs. Half-chaps were great for breezing horses, they went on and off in seconds, covered the same amount of lower leg as a boot, and one size fit most all the stablehands since the chaps slipped over each man's own shoe. All right, Miss Lucy, here I come.
Sandburg popped out of the tackroom expecting Bragdon to still be arguing with the hole puncher and the leather cheek piece but he was nowhere to be seen. Well, maybe he decided to keep a low profile so I wouldn't get nervous. The young man sat the saddle on a piece of rounded off 4x4 that extended from the side of the barn just for that purpose. Actually, Mike could probably care less if I'm nervous. He's probably gone off to find a gun and shoot a hole in that piece of leather.
He spied Miss Lucy's worn leather halter hanging on the outside of her stall and quickly snagged it as he opened the door. Immediately, a huge black head swung down to appraise him, expressive brown eyes unblinkingly watched his every move. "Uh ... hi girl. Ho-l-y shit! But you're a big one, aren't you?" Sandburg quietly patted the soft sleek neck as he realized that standing alongside the mare, he couldn't see over her back. Deftly, he slipped the halter over her head and secured her to one of the tiedowns that were built into each stall just for that purpose. This would keep the mare from wandering around the stall while he groomed and saddled her. As he curried then ran the finishing brush over her coat, he kept up a continual chatter, knowing that the words meant nothing to a horse, but the tone was most important. The right inflection could be very soothing ... and Sandburg needed all the soothing he could find right about now. He was never more grateful for the lessons from the German riding instructor who had dated his mother for several months. At the time, he was not terribly interested in the subtleties of riding but right now he mentally crossed his fingers and hoped he remembered the most important parts.
Before he went outside to collect the tack, he affectionately rubbed the mare's broad forehead between the eyes, then slowly, so as not to startle her, he cupped her chin in his hands and gently blew into her nostrils. Her ears pricked forward. Sandburg smiled and gave her forehead another pat. "Well, let's see if I've remembered any of Erich's lessons."
He quickly and efficiently saddled and bridled Miss Lucy and then carefully, so that she would not catch either of the stirrup irons on the sides of the door opening, led her outside. With the saddle on, she looked even bigger than she had in the stall. Sandburg uttered a low whistle in awe... and was quickly met by one of the worker ants.
"You know, if you're going to whistle you'd better get her onto the grass and out of the aisleway," the stablehand offered as he stood by with a bucketfull of brushes.
"Excuse me?" Sandburg turned to see who had stepped up behind him but moved Miss Lucy onto the closely cropped grass anyway.
"But that's not the right tune."
Totally ignorant of what the other young man was talking about, Sandburg decided to play along. "Care to show me ... or whistle for me the right one?"
The stablehand shrugged and still clutching the bucket to his chest, began to softly whistle Pop goes the weasel.' Miss Lucy cocked an ear in his direction and in less than a minute she had parked out and was urinating onto the grass. Smiling, the young man said, "She still remembers. Once a racer -- always a racer, I guess. All the horses here are trained to that tune, but you really didn't need to empty her out just to breeze her, you know."
Sandburg nodded at him and hoped he could lie convincingly. "Right, but I figure it just keeps the horses in training if I do it everytime I ride."
Bobbing his head once in agreement, the stablehand started to move on.
"Um, Mike told me to breeze her, but he didn't say where and I could really use a leg up or a mounting block."
"You ARE new here aren't you?"
"As of about 15 minutes ago. This is my test ride."
"Well then, I know how that is. I've only been here five months myself. Go out to the end of these stalls -- the exercise ring is to your left. There's a couple blocks just outside the fence. I'd help you up but Mike doesn't like mounted riders within the barn area. Says it makes for accidents."
"Understand. And thanks." he called out to the stablehand's back as the man turned to continue his chores.
Sandburg turned to the big black head that was hanging down at his head level and gently rubbed the velvet nose. "Well girl, I guess that means we're on. Try to make me look good -- okay?"
Mike Bragdon watched from his office as the large black horse dwarfed the newcomer as they walked toward the ring and shook his head in wonderment. Suddenly, his door banged open as an excited stablehand popped his head in.
"MIKE, Mike!!!! Some fool's got Black Lucy out!!!!!"
Mike Bragdon turned slowly and smiled at the flushed face. "Easy lad or you'll spurt. Ah told em to, Ed."
"Mike?!!!" Now Ed didn't know who was the greater fool.
Turning back to view the horse and rider now entering the exercise ring and beginning a warm-up canter, Bragdon sighed, "Ah din't think e'd err git her oot o' the stall."
Carefully, Sandburg led the mare alongside the mounting block and lined up the block with the stirrups.
"Easy girl," he crooned in his best Sentinel-calming voice. "All I want to do is a light gallop. Well, just a walk for now would be good. Steady." Collecting the reins in his left hand he placed his left foot in the stirrup and easily swung onto the saddle. He drove his right foot in its stirrup as Lucy strode off toward the gate leading into the track.
Even though it had been years since he'd ridden a horse of Lucy's caliber, his body soon settled into the rhythm of the horse's long stride. He actually began to get comfortable and enjoy the sensation of horse and rider becoming one -- one motion, one mind.
Getting braver, he urged the mare into a light gallop. Lucy stretched forward and leaned into the gait, leading with her left. Sandburg rose out of the saddle to give free movement to Lucy's hindquarters and she responded by lengthening her stride without unduly increasing her speed.
The speed created its own solid breeze and he almost shouted in his excitement, but considering the normally high-strung behavior of a Thoroughbred, he opted for a broad smile. The pounding hoofbeats, the rise and fall of the shinny, black neck, and the typical Thoroughbred breathing/snort combined into a rhythm that was almost hypnotic. He had almost forgotten the thrill.
He was comfortable. He was excited. For a short time, he was as one with a totally different species. He was the wind itself ... he was Centaur ...
Gawd. Not now. Mike Bragdon turned toward Miriam Templeton as she stood in the doorway to his small office and forced a smile of greeting. "Eve'in, mum," he nodded to her. Then he noticed the square-jawed gentleman with piercing blue eyes who had rooted himself to the porch. He seemed to be using his own great height in addition to being on the second story landing to scan the grounds. Suddenly, he froze and locked in on Lucy and her rider galloping effortlessly around the track. After a moment though, he relaxed as quickly as he'd stiffened.
"Thought I'd check on how the horses are doing." Templeton walked up to the desk and eyed her manager expectantly.
"Just fine, mum. Just fine. If ye be givin' me a'minute, I'll hav'a full accountin' fur ye."
Flashing a quick smile and a nod, Templeton turned ... and through the glass-paned wall, saw a large black horse just coming down from a breezing gallop. Without removing her eyes from the picture window, she asked in a low voice, "Is that ... Lucy?"
Something in Miriam Templeton's tone -- Fear? Surprise? Anger? -- alerted Jim Ellison to pay closer attention to the upcoming conversation.
"I kin explain, mum..."
"Mike! How COULD you!!!"
Knowing he was not going to win any vocal argument, the manager turned to the window and nodded at the horse and rider lightly cantering toward the gate. "Look at er. Just take a look at'er. Like er ol' self, hain't it?"
Templeton shook her head in disbelief. "That's not the point, Mike. What the hell is someone doing on her?"
" E's a new and. She likes im, she does. Let im rite in er stall. I was watchin' all the time -- just in case ..." Bragdon turned from the window and watched the emotions flash across Templeton's face --pride, anger, relief, joy ...
"It won't do any good." She shook her head in defeat as she watched her beloved Lucy walk slowly to the barn, led by her undercover observer. "The commission will never let her race again."
"She looked pretty good out there." The deep, rich voice of the unknown man, reminded Bragdon of his presence. "What's the problem?"
Bragdon looked at him as if the man had just mounted a horse backward. "Ah do believe ye'd want to be askin' Ms Miriam bout that."
Jim Ellison awarded Miriam Templeton an inquisitive stare, but one that carried with it an unspoken order. She attempted to glare back at him, but the subject was obviously an emotional one for her and she tore her eyes away to stare out the large window.
"Lucy ... Miss Lucy was one of the best fillies to hit the dirt." She spoke softly, slowly never taking her eyes off the now empty track. "In 17 starts, she placed in the money in 14 of them. She built this place. It was her winnings that started all this -- and sometimes baled us out in a lean year or two." She paused, struggling to find the right words to continue. "It happened a little over a year ago ... the officials say ... Lucy ... killed ... my husband."
An invisible hand had suddenly reached into Ellison's chest and gripped his heart. "What!!" It came out a whisper, but a deadly one.
Templeton quickly moved to stand directly in front of the large man. "She didn't do it, Jim. I know Lucy and I know she would never, never have killed Warren. She loved him."
"Miriam, you're talking about a horse here ... not some jilted lover."
"Lucy was despondent when Warren died. She couldn't stand to be on the track. Terry was the only hand who could do anything with her. After he ... left, she went back into depression."
Ellison threw up his hands in frustration. "Miriam, you act as if you had a three-way marriage -- you, Warren, and Lucy. Horses are animals. They can't love ... or hate ... or be depressed."
Shaking his head, Bragdon walked over to Ellison and placed a broad, tanned hand on his arm. "If'n ye be want'n ta make enny progress with Ms Miriam, lad, best not ta be makin' rash statements like that. Enny true orseperson would tell ye that orses kin ave enny emotion we humans do."
Working hard to contain his anger, Ellison began to pace in front of the picture window. "Great! Next you'll be telling me she killed your late husband in a jealous rage!" Belatedly, he sensed he had stepped over the line with that remark, but the thought of his partner riding a horse that was branded a mankiller, had tipped his scales. He didn't want Sandburg undercover in the first place and now he finds out they were not given all the facts. He'd go down to the barns right now and pull the plug on this whole operation, if he didn't think Sandburg would ever forgive him for treating him like a child.
His pacing was abruptly stopped by a slap in the face. Ellison looked down at a very furious Miriam Templeton, her green eyes blazing with color. "Don't you *ever*, EVER speak that way about my husband or Lucy again. Do you understand?"
Ellison looked at her in surprise, then stared at a non-existent spot on the wall over her head, clenched his jaw muscles, and finally ran a hand over his short-cropped hair. He nodded once, begrudgingly. "All right. I'm sorry. I guess I did step over the line there."
"Damn right!" Templeton spat before she turned on her heels and marched out the door.
"Bloody ell, lad!!" Mike Bragdon breathed in awe. "If ye'd been lookin' fer a way ta get yer ars tossed oot, ye coon't ave done better. Now don't be angin' aboot ere -- go after er an' pologize."
Slowly, Ellison turned and allowed his gaze to follow the slim form stalking up the slight rise toward the main house. "I think I'd better let her calm down a little," he observed. Then, a corner of his mouth twitched upwards. "That woman has one hell of a temper." He winced and fingered the side of his face she'd slapped. "Has one hell of a right, too."
Bragdon wandered back to his desk and began to shuffle papers. "Yer lucky she lef' ye yer ead."
Cautiously, Ellison approached the stocky, little man. "Mike, what happened to Warren Templeton?" he asked softly.
The papers continued to move -- only now more slowly.
The papers stopped. Tired, gray eyes closed against the vision of the past. "I found em, I did. The guv'nor was en er stall -- is ead all bashed in. Lucy was pan'cked -- danc'in aboot er stall. She wouldn't let me in. Not then -- not now. I eld er off wid a crop while Terry dragged im oot." A lone trickle of water edged its way out from the corner of Bragdon's eye. " E was gone by then. All gone." He sighed, trying to push the past back where it belonged. "Ms Miriam took it ard, she did. Don't think she ever really acc'pted the guv'nor's death." Bragdon raised his head, opened his eyes and focused on the tall man in front of him. "Yer not the first, ye know." Ellison nodded, playing the part. "She's tryin' to find another Master Warren. Been lookin' fer the past six months. 'Ain't gonna find im the way she's goin' a'boot it."
Ellison gazed out the picture window and found the small, curly-haired figure washing off the enormous black horse. One looked to be as wet as the other. Sandburg was having too much fun, his partner thought to himself. He's liable to get careless -- and around that horse, it would be fatal.
"Your new hand," Ellison nodded toward the pair. "He knows about Lucy?"
Mike shook his head. "Ah'll tell im. E'd find oot sooner er later, enyway."
The big man nodded. Sighed. "I'd better go find Miriam." Without another word, he left the office, tapped down the steps and strode quickly across the grounds.
Bragdon watched him for a moment, then followed him down the stairs. He looked toward the long, wet brown curls that bobbed around the edges of an even wetter black horse. That young man didn't even know he'd been hired yet. Maybe after he found out about Lucy, he wouldn't want the job. The stocky manager stopped on the last step and allowed a brief smile to cross his face as the black mare meekly followed her new handler to a patch of tasty grass on the edge of the barn area. He hesitated to approach Sandburg while the mare was around him. Lucy didn't like the Irishman and she made her feelings all too obvious.
A long-haired, bottled redhead rounded the corner of the barn and Bragdon took the opportunity to flag her down.
"Julie, lass, com'ere. As yer walkin' that way, please to be tellin' that curly-haired youn' man wit' Lucy to see me in me office."
"Sure, Mike." Julie nodded and strode toward Sandburg. She caught a glimpse of intense blue eyes framed by dripping wet curls and smiled. The caliber of the workforce was definitely improving.
Sandburg placed the last of his meager belongings in the bottom drawer of a Salvation Army thrift store, close-out special. He stood up and arched his back to get the kinks out. He was going to be sore tomorrow. It had been a long time since he'd ridden a horse.
He backed up, sat heavily on the bed and surveyed his surroundings. All in all, this wasn't a bad room for a dorm.' The 12x12 rooms had been converted from the stalls of one of the little-used barns. The barn had originally been built with cement floors and with horses, that had been a major mistake. There was no give to cement and horses stalled on concrete floors developed foot and leg problems very quickly, no matter how much wood shavings were placed inside. Rather than tear up the floor, Warren Templeton had decided to renovate it into rooms for his stablehands who had nowhere else to stay. The idea worked far better than anticipated.
Tugging a stray wisp of hair into place behind his ear, he checked his watch. He had spied Ellison walking across the front lawn hours earlier and spoke softly enough so that he was sure no one had heard him but his Sentinel. Sure enough, his partner's extra-sensitive hearing had picked up the words, "Midnight. Woods behind the last barn row," and had stopped in mid-stride to acknowledge with a barely perceptible nod before continuing toward the main house.
There were three more hours to go before the appointed meeting time. He yawned and wondered how he was going to stay awake.
Reaching for his backpack, he tried to remember what books he may have brought with him that would be interesting enough to stave off sleep. Dumping the contents onto the bed, he was rewarded with the sight of his cellphone tumbling onto the top of the heap.
"All right!" he smiled broadly as he pounced on the instrument as if it would sprout legs and run away. Fishing Miriam Templeton's business card from his wallet, he quickly dialed the number at the main house. He was surprised when he heard his partner's deep voice answer.
"I was wondering when you would remember your cellphone."
"How'd you know it was me or are you answering all Ms Templeton's calls?"
"No mystery, Sherlock. I saw your number on the callback readout. I was watching for it."
"Wow." Sandburg was continually impressed with Ellison's deductive reasoning. Most people meeting the detective for the first time would mistake a man with his muscle for the old adage, "All brawn and no brains," but James Ellison could think as well as act. And he'd been thinking much clearer for the past three years.
"You're sure no one's listening, Blair?"
"I'm sure. The door's locked, most everyone seems to go to bed early around here, and I'm talking so low I can't even hear me."
"Too soon. Only impressions. The few people I've talked to so far all seem to have liked Terry. He was responsible, loved the horses, and was the main caretaker for this ex-racer, Miss Lucy."
"Blair." Ellison's voice and the atmosphere had suddenly changed -- gotten colder, more wary. "Did Mike Bragdon tell you anything about Lucy?"
Uh, oh. He knows. "Yeah. There's a pretty nasty story being told about her..."
"Story, Sandburg?" It wasn't a shout. The detective in the big man wouldn't let him raise his voice in a potentially risky undercover operation, but the intent was there, and Sandburg knew it. Especially when his friend used his last name. He quickly continued before Ellison blew his temper and canceled the operation out of fear for Sandburg's well-being.
"She's all right, Jim. Don't worry. I've worked with horses before. I was taught by a German master." For a whole month.
It was quiet on the other line, but it was far from silent. Sandburg could just envision the clenching jaw routine of his partner as Ellison quickly mentally analyzed his options. Thinking fast, Sandburg decided to give the detective something else to consider.
"Jim, the way I see it, there's one of two conclusions we can draw here. One, it's an inside job..."
"Chief...who's the detective here?"
Good. His mind is back on the case and off the horse. "Just stay with me for a minute, okay? Between the two Dobermans and the parrot..."
"Yeah. There's an African Gray in an outside aviary by the turn-around yard -- you know, where the horse trailers pull in. He screams bloody murder if he sees someone he doesn't know."
"I didn't hear anything."
Sandburg smiled at the phone. He knew his Sentinel would be thinking back over the day, trying to remember if he'd heard a bird squawking at some time. With his sensitive hearing, there would have been no way he would NOT have heard the parrot -- even if he'd been in the closed house.
"That's because Julie introduced us."
"Julie? A female stablehand?"
"It's not all that unusual, man. Get into the 21st century, okay?" Sandburg ignored the hrumpt! on the other end of the line and continued. "If you're not introduced to the parrot, his name is Richard, by the way..."
"A parrot named Dick," Ellison muttered softly.
"...By someone the parrot knows already, and you give him a peanut -- he LOVES peanuts -- if all the procedures aren't followed correctly, he screams. Ever hear an African Gray scream, Jim?"
"Well, they're loud, to say the least."
"I'm sure. Is this leading somewhere, Chief?"
Exasperated, Sandburg became more animated as his body language increased in volume to compensate for keeping his voice low. He bounded off the bed and began to pace, running his left hand through his hair in habit. "Jim! Think about it! Sherlock Holmes! What was remarkable about the dog in the night?"
"There was nothing remarkable about the dog! The dog did nothing when Silver Blaze was horse-napped! Jim, don't you understand?"
The young man could almost hear his friend's brain cells click into gear in the total silence on the phone. "There was no stranger who came to the barn." Ellison said slowly. "The dogs and the parrot knew the person..."
"...Who killed Terry and maimed the colt!" Sandburg finished quickly.
"Unless there is no mystery. Terry just got tired of being here, packed up and left. And it was just coincidence that the colt was hurt that same night."
"According to Freud, there is no coincidence," Sandburg countered.
"I thought that was Holmes."
"They were contemporaries."
"Holmes is fictional."
"Not to millions of his devoted followers."
"Chief, get some sleep. You had a full day today and it'll only be longer tomorrow."
"Yeah, you're right. Good night, Jim."
" Night, Blair." Pause. "Good job."
The long day started at 5 a.m. As far as Sandburg was concerned, it was NOT day. It was still in the middle of the night, but apparently Mike Bragdon and the entire crew were not of the same opinion.
Bleary-eyed and yawning, Sandburg staggered out of the reconstructed barn that served as the dorm and blinked at his surroundings, presently bathed in bright, artificial light. A chuckle off his right side only caused him to slowly swivel in that direction.
"Not used to the early hours, I see."
Sandburg shook his head.
"Eddie. Number two barn manager." The owner of the voice stuck out his right hand and smiled. He was almost identical in size to Sandburg, but probably twice his age. His dark brown, close-cropped hair was just starting to show the edges of gray tinge in front of his ears. Hazel eyes, permanently reduced in size by squinting at the sun, sparkled with life even at this early hour. "You're the new man."
Nodding, Sandburg pumped the offered palm as enthusiastically as he could muster at the early hour. "Sanderson. Bill Sanderson." Even though it would have been very unlikely for any of the stablehands to have heard of Blair Sandburg, it was always a good practice never to give one's real name while uncover.
"Well, Sandy, there's coffee and juice over in the feedroom..." Eddie laughed at Sandburg's puzzled expression and pointed to a well-lit building standing by itself at the edge of the barn row. "Breakfast, lunch and dinner. For now though, just coffee and juice. Can't ride on a full stomach, you know. I guess Mike didn't fill you in on the particulars."
"No. No, he didn't."
"That's normal. Come on. I'll walk you over. I need a wakeup, myself." Eddie glanced at his watch and uttered a low whistle. "Getting late. Almost 5:30. We'd better get moving."
LATE?! What does he mean -- late? It's not even dawn yet! "I'm just not used to getting animated before the sun comes up," Sandburg explained as they entered the clean, compact structure.
Eddie nodded, grabbed a large Styrofoam cup and quickly filled it with black coffee. "You'll get used to it." He waited as Sandburg poured his own, then led the way to the first row of barns. "I saw you on Lucy yesterday. Good ride. She's one-of-a-kind. Almost human. Has real definite likes and dislikes."
Sandburg nodded, sensing an opening. "I understand she really liked the guy that was here before me -- Timmy was it?"
"Terry." Eddie corrected, falling into Sandburg's trap to discuss the stablehand. "She'd do darn near anything for him. Can't understand why he'd up and leave so sudden like that."
After taking a sip of the steaming brew, Sandburg shrugged and unobtrusively watched for Eddie's reaction as he commented, "Well, you know, a lot of guys will do that. Just pack up whenever they want and move on."
"Not Terry. He had signed on at Rainier. He was going to get his degree in psychology and apply it to animals. He'd already gotten a two-year in animal tech." Eddie paused just at the edge of the barn and shook his head. "Hell, he even had a scholarship..."
Suddenly, Sandburg wanted very much to uncover what had really happened to the well-liked stablehand. Terry was (is?) close to his own age and from what he'd been able to discover, they had a lot in common. At first it was just the habit of constant travel, stay somewhere for awhile, make friends, move on. Now, there was the added fact that he was going for a degree. He sighed and flipped his empty cup into a convenient garbage can before catching up to Eddie. "What do you want me to do?"
"The first riders are saddling up. Go ahead and start cleaning the stalls at the end of Barn A. Don't take too much time per stall. Plan on five minutes. No more than ten." He grinned and pointed at the empty wheelbarrow. "Welcome to High Corner Combined Training Stables."
Sandburg smiled back. "Where things are picking up."
Jim Ellison had spent most of the afternoon wandering around the property with his senses tuned up, conducting his own form of investigation. Miriam Templeton had escorted him on a guided tour that morning and Ellison had used it to his advantage to display to the employees his position as Miriam's latest love. They walked through the barns with the detective's arm either around her waist or draped comfortably over her shoulder. Miriam didn't seem to mind and, truthfully, he didn't mind either.
He spotted his partner filling the hay racks in the stalls of his charges and, just as suddenly, the bond between them alerted Sandburg to his presence. The young man barely glanced in his direction before returning to the wheelbarrow for more hay. Ellison smiled as his hypersensitive hearing picked up his partner's whispers.
"Jim, Terry was accepted at Rainier on a scholarship. Psychology department. Check it out, okay?"
Although Ellison knew Sandburg would not be able to hear any answer, he knew he'd be watching. He inclined his head to acknowledge he'd heard as he faked looking at his watch. Then, he strode nonchalantly back to the main house to call Simon Banks.
Minutes later, the captain of Major Crimes was on the phone. "This is not good, Jim."
"Doesn't give much of a reason for Terry Hammer to leave town, does it?"
"No. No, it doesn't. It makes it look more and more like foul play. And Sandburg's right in the middle of it."
"He's fine, Simon. I'm keeping an eye on him." Ellison chuckled softly. "When this is over, I doubt if he's gonna complain about doing too much work at the station, anytime soon. He'll probably be very happy to sit down and do paperwork."
"Jim, just knowing something happened to Terry..."
"I know. We need a body, witnesses, something ... some kind of proof."
In his mind, Ellison could see his captain finger his ever-present cigar as he allowed a brief nod in response. "I'll check out the university. Good start." He paused. Sighed. "And you can tell Sandburg I said so."
Ellison smiled as he hung up the phone, knowing how much it had cost the captain to compliment his partner.
The rest of the week proved uneventful. Sandburg had fallen into the routine of a real stablehand and had uncovered nothing more of significance. Ellison had patrolled the entire grounds and, even with his senses tuned up, found nothing.
The university had confirmed that Terrance Hammer had received the scholarship and was registered to begin classes the next term. His address was given as High Corner Racing Stables so it was obvious that he had not intended to leave anytime soon.
Miriam Templeton had remembered that Terry had mentioned to her about reducing his hours to part time and she had agreed, but that discussion had taken place months ago. She had forgotten it. All in all, it only confirmed Ellison's suspicions that something had happened to the stablehand. But their week was almost up, and neither he nor Sandburg had uncovered any concrete proof of wrongdoing.
"Jim, what are we going to do?" Sandburg whispered into his cellphone late Sunday night.
"Go home, Chief. That's all we can do. We gave it our best shot and couldn't find any hard evidence."
"But you know Terry was murdered!"
"No, I don't know it. We have some circumstantial evidence, but that's all we've got."
"Man, this sucks!"
Sandburg heard the big man's audible sigh over the phone. "I don't like this any better than you, Chief, but that's how it goes. Simon wants us back in the office tomorrow to give a full report. I told him we'd be there after lunch."
"Yeah, okay, Jim." A wayward strand of brown curls fell across his face as he sat heavily on the edge of the bed and leaned his head into his hands. "I'll give Mike my notice in the morning and leave before breakfast."
"Blair," Jim said softly, "You did a good job. You uncovered more facts than the insurance investigator. That's nothing to be ashamed of."
"I know. It's just that..."
"We can't win them all, partner. See you back at the loft tomorrow."
"Yeah." Sandburg snapped his cellphone closed and tossed it into his backpack. A quick glance at his watch showed that it was after eleven. He'd been up later than usual and he was exhausted, but since he was leaving in the morning, there was one individual he had to say a special good-bye to. He stood and walked to the chest of drawers where he kept a stash of green apples for his favorite girl. There were two left. Pocketing the largest he shrugged on his old tan jacket and headed for barn C where Lucy was stalled.
"So." Miriam Templeton looked over from the kitchen sink where she'd been rinsing out two coffee cups. "You're leaving tomorrow." It was a statement tinged with the barest hint of sadness.
Ellison slowly fitted the phone into its cradle. "Yeah." He sighed and turned to her, unsure of what to say. He had failed. But worse, he had failed her. In a week's time he had grown comfortable in the main house -- comfortable living with a woman for the first time since ...was he ever this comfortable with Carolyn? He had no relationship with Miriam Templeton -- they were friends. That's all. Friends. Was he ever friends with his ex-wife? Maybe that's why she's an ex. Two people really need to be friends before they can be lovers.
"I'm sorry," he blurted out. Then he considered what it was he was sorry for -- not finding any evidence of foul play, not finding Terry, or for moving in and making himself a part of this woman's life.
"Not your fault." She forced a smile and turned from the sink to face him. "You and Sandy did your best. There just wasn't anything there to find. Thanks for trying."
"Yeah," He mumbled again and clenched his jaw. Why was this so awkward?
"I need to thank Simon, too. I feel I've traded unfairly on our friendship. After all, I only know him from his association with his race horse -- and that hasn't been all that long."
"Simon's a good man," Ellison stated to ease her guilt.
She signed and changed the subject. "Never did get a chance to show you the walking path."
"We were both busy." He felt like a schoolkid trying to decipher his next move -- not wanting it to be the wrong one.
"Yeah," she agreed, nodding. "It's a pretty little path. Well hidden in the woods. You could walk right by it if you didn't know it was there." Miriam waved a dishtowel at the expansive kitchen window. "It's a nice night. Good moon."
There's an opening for you, Ellison. Are you going to be an oaf or go for it? He smiled at her. "Do we need a flashlight?"
"I know where I'm going, but I'll take one just in case you need it."
He grabbed his jacket and waved his free hand toward the door. "Let's go then."
Sandburg had cut the apple into quarters before he entered the stall, now he chuckled as Miss Lucy gently wiggled her velvet nose against his oversized shirt pocket. "I can't fool you, girl, can I? No matter where I hide them, you always find the apple." He patted the broad forehead and offered her a piece in the palm of his hand. The nose wiggled against his hand and the fruit disappeared.
"Horses are one of nature's sentinels," he mused, fussing with her forelock. "Fantastic sight, ears that swivel like radar, you can smell a predator or water from miles away..."
He watched as Lucy's head picked up and she pricked her ears toward the far end of the barn as if listening... waiting... Slowly, Sandburg became aware of the distant sound of men's voices. They had apparently just entered the barn. Concentrating intently, he was able to distinguish the unmistakable brogue of Mike Bragdon. The other man was American but his voice belonged to no one Sandburg had met within the past week. At least, he didn't think so. Although they were speaking in hushed tones, the annoyance was obvious in the bruskness of the American's voice. Sandburg cocked his head as he'd seen his Sentinel do so many times in a vain attempt to make the voices clearer. After a while, he shook his head in defeat and met Lucy's curious gaze.
"Wish Jim were here," he muttered softly as he patted the broad forehead that'd been lowered to his face level just for that purpose. "I'd sure like to know what they're saying."
A little metallic click' followed by a whispered squeak alerted him that one of them had opened the tack room door close by Lucy's stall.
"Oh, man," Sandburg breathed as he willed himself to become one with the dark wood of the stall's front wall. He had no idea why, but instinctively, he knew he had to hide. Naomi would be pleased, the thought suddenly entered his conscious mind. He was reacting to a gut feeling.
The half moon floated low in the blackness, seldom obscured by clouds. Miriam walked the path as if it were daylight and even without enhanced vision, Ellison would have had no problem. Once, she stumbled, but the big detective decided it was a calculated trip since it landed her against his side -- where she stayed. Or where he held her, it was difficult to determine which, but the result was mutually agreed upon.
Dixie and Colonel, the two Dobermans, were alternating between running ahead or charging into the underbrush, then returning with wagging stubs and being extremely pleased with their world.
Ellison turned at the sound of Miriam's musical laugh. "What's so funny?"
She waved the question away as inconsequential. "Oh nothing. I've just forgotten how much the dogs love it out here. They only come out back when someone's walking the path."
"I guess you've been busy."
She nodded... suddenly quiet. "The last time was with Warren. Seems so long ago." The dogs suddenly voiced a low, happy yelp and took off after imaginary prey. Smiling, she watched them go. "Guess I need to get my life back in order."
Ellison allowed his heightened vision to follow the two Dobermans as they bounced through the wooded area -- and absently wondered if perhaps sometime in the future he would want to be a part of that life. He could imagine Miriam's pain at the loss of her husband... they were friends... best friends. His jaw clenched unconsciously. How would he handle the loss of a best friend? He automatically turned toward the barn, straining his senses to detect the familiar heartbeat, the familiar scent of his guide.
And caught a whiff of a totally unexpected scent...
"When I was wandering around the barn a few days ago, I noticed a couple of hands spreading a white chemical with a very faint smell in several of the stalls. What was that?"
"Oh, you mean lime?"
"Lime? What's it used for?"
"Well, frankly, to deodorize the stall. It breaks down organic material, like urine, so it doesn't smell."
"Would there be any reason for it to be out here?"
"Stay here. I'll be right back." Ellison strode off in the direction the dogs had taken, in the direction of the strong smell (to a sentinel) of lime.
He hadn't gone a dozen feet off the path when he heard the crunching of leaves underfoot. Turning, he faced Miriam Templeton, standing ramrod straight, flashlight in hand.
"You're just like an anthropologist I know. He doesn't stay put either."
"It's my woods."
Ellison sighed and turned his eyes heavenward. "I don't want you to see what I think is out here."
"Oh my god! You think it's Terry, don't you?"
He turned to award her with the intense blueness of his displeasure. "Will you stay put?"
"Of course not!" She stated firmly, pushing past him and directing her flashlight's beam into the wooded depths.
Realizing that he was losing control, Ellison quickly regained the lead and allowed his sense of smell to guide him. He didn't have far to go. The Dobies had already discovered the makeshift gravesite and were confused at the fierce smells of the area.
"Call the dogs to you," he commanded in his best no-nonsense tone.
Even Sandburg occasionally yielded to that voice and Miriam had no experience in ignoring it. "Dixie. Colonel. Come," she ordered. The dogs obediently ran to her side, turned and sat down, facing the direction from which they'd come.
At least something around here minds, Ellison thought fleetingly as he focused on the lime-covered lump half-hidden under brush and dirt. He crouched down and, using a nearby leafy twig, gently brushed away at the debris. There was not much body left. The lime had done its work and had eaten away most of the soft tissue. The big man frowned and his jaw began to work as he uncovered a skeletal hand. Here was the evidence they'd been lacking. He stood and turned to the woman standing nearby but just out of sight of the remains. She held her jacket tightly around her as her eyes begged Ellison to deny what they both knew.
"Just a guess, but I'd say we found Terrance Hammer." Ellison rejoined Miriam and gently turned her from the makeshift grave.
"Hurry up, you old coot!" The American's rough voice carried clearly even though the volume was turned down.
"I would dinna ave to urry a'tall, Cory, ifen ye'd brung a bag wit' ye to begin wit'." Mike's voice was soft, but irritated.
"Awh-h-h, button it."
" Ere." There was the quick rustle of plastic as if several heavy-weight garbage bags had been shoved into hands or pocket. "Be'gon' wit' ye! Ah dinna want ye aroun' the barn at tall."
"Don't worry about it. Everyone's in town -- it's payday."
"They'll be commin' bac' soon! It's near midnight, ye fool!"
"Watch who you're calling a fool." The voice was a low and menacing growl. "Or I'll give you the same what I gave that punk drifter."
"Terry wer' a good man. Ah fine, upstan'in youn' man." Mike's soft brough was tinged with sadness. "Tis disrespect ta be disturbin' is bones an' cartin' em aboot like they was so much trash."
Oh man! The piercing blue of Sandburg's eyes intensified with fear as he slid down the side of the stall and tried to make himself disappear into the bedding. Looks like I've discovered what happened to Terry.
Suddenly the side of the barn shook as a loud whump! echoed down the vacant aisleway. Sandburg instinctively flattened himself as he stared at the ever-widening opening as the vibration caused Lucy's stall door to gently swing open -- inch by inch.
The American had sent the Irishman slamming into the wall. His voice rumbled with a rage about to break out of control. "You want to join him, little man?"
"Cory..." Mike's voice was a soft wheeze. "I dinna' ken breathe..."
"Shut up," Cory hissed brusquely. "I think there's somebody in that stall..."
Miriam Templeton dragged in a deep ragged breath and shuddered against the body of the tall man now standing motionless beside her.
PANIC! FEAR! All the sentinel's five enhanced senses zeroed in on his partner's intense feelings more than a half mile away. He strained to see, to hear... but all he had for now was the faint sound of his guide's rapidly beating heart...and his sixth sense. That unknown bond that caused a screaming in his brain that his guide was in danger.
"Miriam, take the dogs, go back to the house and call Simon."
"Aren't you coming?"
Blue eyes bored into hazel ones, willing cooperation for once. "Go back to the house and call Simon. I'll be there shortly."
"Miriam!" It was more of a bark than he'd intended, but he needed to get to his partner quickly as well as get her out of danger. Just once, Ellison would like to have someone who would do as they were told, no questions asked.
Pausing only momentarily, she nodded in the direction of a little-used trail, barely visible in the darkness, as she handed him the flashlight. "That's the quickest way back to the barn. Go take care of Sandy. I'll call for backup."
Wordlessly, Ellison accepted the light and jogged off to find his partner.
"CORY! NO!! Not agin'!!" Mike Bragdon launched himself at the large American's gun arm as Sandburg dived for the far corner of the stall.
"He knows! He heard everything!"
Deep blue eyes widened in fear as the young guide watched from behind an increasingly panicky horse as an arm the size of a small tree easily shook off the clinging Irishman. Sandburg was trapped in a solid 12 x 12 box with the only avenue of escape blocked by a killer the size of a small boulder holding a .38 rifle. All right. Stay calm. What would Jim do in a case like this?
"Leave im, lad," Bragdon called from the opposite side of the aisle where he lay crumpled against the wall. E donn't know who ye are! Just GO!"
"Like HELL!!" Cory roared, raising the .38 and searching the stall.
"Jim, I could really use your help right about now," Sandburg voiced aloud as he saw the barrel swing in his direction.
Suddenly Lucy charged. Long, silky black neck stretched to its full length, her big head doubling as a battering ram and deadly vise as she lunged for the evil-smelling human, her mouth open and teeth bared. Sandburg gasped in surprise at the 180 degree change in his equine friend. She could indeed be the killer he had been told she was.
Cory yelped and jerked backward just in time to avoid having his arm ripped apart by an enraged thousand-pound plus animal.
"Lucy's protectin' im. Thinks es er foal, she does." Bragdon had staggered to his feet and stepped in front of the muscular young man, uselessly placing his hands on the broad chest to stop Cory's advancement. "Leave im. Let's go," he pleaded. "Ye canna get past Lucy."
A weathered face already battered by the elements, twisted in a misshapen grimace that passed for a smile. "Sure I can." He raised the rifle again. "I'll just get rid of that stupid horse first."
"Are ye daft, man? How d'ye spect to splain this?"
Enraged, Cory spun around to face the barn manger. "It's what I should have done a year ago! I should've shot that black devil after I offed Templeton. It's *your* fault I didn't."
So, Sandburg thought, Lucy didn't kill anyone afterall. While Cory's attention was momentarily diverted, the anthropologist used his small size to duck out from behind Lucy and scoot alongside the wall. Glancing up as he neared the partially-opened stall door, he willed himself even smaller and positioned himself just behind the door, out of sight of someone looking into the stall from several feet away.
"I be washin' me han's of ye." Sandburg heard Bragdon say, punctuated by retreating unsteady footsteps. Suddenly, the young man heard two loud thumps in rapid succession followed by the sound of a body striking the floor.
Uh, oh. Sandburg braced his back against the door and looked up, waiting for his opportunity. He glanced over at Lucy, now snorting and twitching with nervous energy. Suddenly, her attention became centered on the space directly above his head. Sucking in a deep breath, he momentarily closed his eyes to focus his energy, then threw himself backward against the stall door with all his strength.
Ellison had been running for the past several hundred feet. The ever increasing volume and tempo of his guide's heartbeat spurred him onward as he fought down the rising panic. The softly spoken words, "Jim, I could really use you help right about now," rang in his ears and he cursed his ultra-sensitive hearing. He could not afford to zone out now. His partner -- his best friend -- depended on him.
Suddenly the sharp report of a large-caliber rifle shattered the stillness of the night air.
He stopped... and became one with the trees as he searched for the familiar heartbeat as his own pounded relentlessly in his chest. Every heightened sense was trained on the interior of Barn C.
A chilled breath caught in his throat as he found a weak, thready beat. Ellison began to jog forward. There was a quiet, strong rhythm that the detective recognized as that of an unconscious man, and...
There it was. Sandburg's steady, thundering heartbeat. Ellison shook his head to clear it. When had time stopped? Had he zoned? How did he get to the double doors? He looked at the two closed 10 x 6 foot doors at the end of the barn and flattened himself against one as he slowly opened the other a few inches. Forcing himself into cop mode required that he not charge into the barn without first assessing the situation. He could place his guide in more danger than he was in already if he acted rashly. Slow down, Ellison. Check it out first, he kept telling himself over and over. Quickly he glanced through the partially-opened door -- and then slowly opened it.
"Chief?" Ellison's voice was tinged with awe as he took in the scene from a Karate Kid movie.
His young partner was kneeling next to the barn manager, crumpled against the wall. A .38 rifle was by his side as if he'd placed it there himself, then ignored it. Another man, a World Wrestling Federation wannabe, was sprawled out on his back in the middle of the barn's aisle.
Sandburg looked up quickly, concern evident on his expressive features as he started speaking nonstop. "Oh, hi Jim. Knew you'd get here. Mike needs an ambulance. I think it's his heart. Call Simon too. Cory over there killed Terry and Warren Templeton. He tried to kill Lucy too. Tried to kill me!"
"Okay, Blair, okay." The detective spoke softly and soothingly as he'd heard his guide do so often to calm his own sensory-crazed zone-outs. "Simon's on his way. Miriam called him. What happened here?" As he spoke, he strode over to the inert body, turned him over and cuffed his hands behind his back. In the distance, still too far away for normal ears to discern, the Sentinel heard the approaching sirens clearing a way to the stables.
"Cory killed Warren?" Miriam Templeton stood at the opposite end of the barn, her arms folded across her chest, her hazel eyes wide with shock.
Ellison stood and indicated the unconscious man. "You know him?"
She nodded. "He's Mike's son. I've seen him around. Never encouraged Mike to hire him, though. Didn't like his attitude." She turned her attention to the Irishman, uncertain of how to proceed. She'd trusted him explicitly, now it seems he'd betrayed her trust, murdered her husband. She moved no closer. "Mike?"
Worn, tired eyes found her. He sighed, coughed and tried to sit up.
"Easy, Mike," Sandburg admonished, laying a hand on his shoulder.
Shaking his head, Bragdon waved the hand away. "Sorry, lass. Ah ne'er indended't to end tis way. Cory it the guv'nor by accident. E ne'er wanted to urt im."
Miriam Templeton quickly turned her head, closing eyes now brimming with tears of a painful memory.
"But twere my idee ta put tha blame on Lucy. She ated me af'er. She'd seen w'at I did."
"Your son hurt that colt, didn't he?" Sandburg asked gently. "And Terry caught him in the act."
"Aye. Cory do ave a temp'r. E don't lis'en to me." Bragdon coughed again and clutched at his chest. " Tis the Irish in'em."
"Sir," Ellison knelt by the barn manager's other side, his demeanor now changed into medic mode. "You need to lay flat. You're straining your heart."
"Me bloody eart cin go ta ell! Ah ne'ar shoud've allowed Cory ta urt tha first orse years ago!"
"Years? Oh, man!" Sandburg rocked back on his heels and glanced back at Miriam as she slowly allowed herself to sit on a nearby bale of hay.
"How could you, Mike? After so many years working with horses -- how could you?" her soft plea was almost a whisper.
Bragdon fixed his tired, gray eyes on the woman who had once been his friend as well as employer. "Ah went wit Cory at first t'give the orse e'd bin ired to -- urt -- a local. The poor brute ne'er felt a'ting. Ah guess ah knew ah could ne'er stop im. Ah did try t'reason -- e dinn't listen. E ne'er listened." He closed his eyes and laid back against the cold brick aisleway. "Wish ah ne'er sired t'bugger."
Sandburg stared at the Irishman in astonishment and, for a brief moment, wondered if his own biological father felt that way about him. Perhaps that was the reason Naomi never told him who his father was.
"Blair..." Ellison tried to break into his partner's thoughts. It wasn't difficult for him to read the young man's face.
"Sandy..." Bragdon turned his head in the guide's direction. "Yer a good man, Sandy, if'n that be yer name." Sandburg nodded, oblivious to Bragdon's still unopened eyes. "Wish ah could trade ye fer Cory. Take care'o Lucy, mind ye. Don't let er down. Promise?"
"I promise, Mike," he muttered as his own eyes began to cloud over.
"Ye got t'touch wit'beasties, lad. On'y seen't once befor' -- inna ol' countr'." Bragdon's words became harder to discern as his heavy brogue began to slur. "Wer' on'y alad, meself. One'a them ad t'touch. T'ought on'y thaey cou'd ave't. Are ye one'a them, lad? Are ye?"
Blue eyes widened in surprise and puzzlement as Sandburg registered the old Irishman's words. "Mike?"
Jim Ellison gently edged his partner aside as the paramedics moved in. "Come on, Chief. Let the medics do their job."
"But... what'd he mean, Jim? Them? Who's them?"
Ellison shook his head. "Ramblings of a sick, old man. It means nothing, Blair."
As his sentinel laid a comforting hand on his shoulder and steered him past the incoming paramedics and police, Sandburg glanced in Miss Lucy's direction. The mare's ears were pricked in the area of the activity, but her large, brown eyes were fixed on him. A sense of completion... of justice... washed over him. He stopped and stared at her.
"Com'on, Chief." Ellison glanced in the direction of his partner's concern, then physically nudged him forward. "Don't worry. She'll be fine. You can come visit."
"JIM!" Sandburg protested. "You don't understand!"
"Oh, I do understand. You solved a year-old murder case, almost got killed, and now you'll be awake the rest of the night trying to discover who they are." The big man stopped and turned to face his guide. "I think Mike was right. You are tetched." He playfully cuffed the young man on the back of his head and strode toward Captain Simon Banks now walking through the opened barn doors.
"Ow!" Sandburg rubbed his head in mock pain, then trotted after his partner, talking in fast forward. "That was touched Jim. Not tetched. TOUCHED! And you're right -- I wonder if there's anything about them on the web? You know Ireland has a lot of legends -- and a lot of legends are based on fact -- or some sort of fact -- JIM! Wait up!"
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