It was heartless ten after six in the morning, riders on horses crowded the Bay Meadows track, and two hours of sleep spiked with a pint of bourbon kept pounding me in the forehead like a stallion’s kick. Underneath me, my stable pony Beelzebub shifted irritably. A bay blur streaked past us and I stopped my watch, hoping I was timing the right horse. Beelzebub chose that moment to start pitching as if he’d just jumped out of a bucking chute. The stone I wore on a thong around my neck flew out of my shirt and whacked me in the chin.
By the time I got the gray bastard under control and stuffed the stone back into my clothes, Jeannette was trotting Sierra toward me. “What’d you get?”
I looked at the stopwatch. Fifteen seconds. Not even Secretariat ran six furlongs in fifteen seconds. I squinted at the sky to see if the swirling fog promised any miracles, but there was nothing; I’d just fumbled the stopwatch as usual. “Goddammit.”
“The clocker got it,” Jeannette said tactfully. “She went good.”
“Yeah?” Sierra looked good, gleaming bay coat dappled with health. Beelzebub gave her that deep hey-baby nicker that geldings aren’t supposed to know. I twitched the reins to remind him that I knew his tricks.
“Yeah. I got no worries for Saturday.”
Jeannette would ride Sierra on Saturday in a second-level allowance race. She was in the tough stretch between apprenticehood and making it as a professional jockey; not easy for anyone and, even these days, especially not for a woman. That was why she was exercising horses in the mornings at this little Northern California track and why I could afford her.
“Except,” Jeannette said, “that new guy just shipped in. He put a filly in the race.”
“New guy.” A cold wind loaded with damp particles of fog blew my hair into my face. I pushed it back. My head pounded.
“Yeah. Jim Sarsey. He’s been doing a lot of winning down south.” She put Sierra into a gliding trot. Beelzebub scrambled to follow the mare. Jeannette glanced back over her shoulder. “His horses win more than half their races.”
A gull flew over, fixing me with a sarcastic red-rimmed eye. Maybe it was just the hangover hammering my skull that made its screech into a scream of warning.
It wasn’t till later in the day that I met Jim Sarsey. I was curious. Nobody has an over 50% winning percentage. Not Hall of Fame trainers, not nobody. Maybe he’d run two horses and one of them won. I’d heard his name before, though, in connection with Grade 1 stakes races.
The horses were groomed, the stalls mucked out, and I was sitting on a straw bale in front of Infinity’s stall, eating a strange-tasting sandwich from one of the concessionaires in the grandstand. Sarsey came walking along the shedrow with this giant light brown cowboy hat on, little wiry guy and under the hat his face was pinched and lean-jawed so that when he smiled I thought I’d see sharp little possum teeth. His narrow eyes sized me up and were already tossing me aside as he held out a hand and said, “Jim Sarsey. I’m new in town.”
I stood up to shake his hand. “Steve Verdin.”
When I touched his thin, leathery hand, two things happened. The first was a bolt of feverish painful cold that shot from my right palm up my arm. The second was that Infinity screamed, an angry stallion scream, nothing I’d ever heard from him before, a sound that belonged out on the open range, and as I wheeled around with my arm burning from fingertips to shoulder he reared in his stall, ears flat, eyes wild, and struck the stall door with his forefeet. I glimpsed Sierra fleeing into the back of her stall, heard a squeal from Beelzebub.
“Infinity! No! Goddammit!” I ran to the stall, pushed open the door, and he tried to lunge past me. I grabbed his halter, the horse so gentle I’d never even needed a chain over his nose. “No!” He fought me, I’d never be able to hold him, and in desperation I signed a mark of stillness over his heart.
He stopped, shaking. I pushed him back into the stall and closed myself in with him—it felt safer that way—and looked back out of the open top half of the stall door. Sarsey was still standing there. Even if he’d seen me make the mark, there was no way he’d know it meant anything. But I didn’t like the grin on his face. “I’ll leave you to it,” he said. He turned away, and then, as if it was an afterthought, “See you on Saturday.”
He left. Infinity rubbed his head on my sleeve, snotting it, then sauntered to his hay net and stuck his muzzle in.
“What the fuck,” I said. It didn’t clear things up, so I said it again. It took a couple of hours before my arm felt right.
The race on Saturday would be run at around three in the afternoon. The purse was thirty-one thousand dollars, and in the program Sierra Burning, five-year-old mare owned and trained by me, was listed at twenty to one. At something that felt like five in the morning I brushed Sierra, picked out her hooves, rewrapped her protective leg bandages.
“That’s my job.”
I looked around. Carolyn, my groom, blond and built like a quarter horse, leaned into the stall. “You can do Beelzebub,” I said.
“Thanks.” She raised an eyebrow. “Nervous much?”
“No. We’re going to win.”
“Your shirt is on inside out,” she said, and walked off down the shed row. Infinity nickered as she passed.
I looked at the sky, at the way a dropped lead rope coiled in the dust, the flight of blackbirds through the morning fog, searching for danger; I took the thong off over my head and let the stone, a spearhead-shaped piece of green serpentine, swing like a pendulum. Nothing warned me. Only fear lurked deep in my gut and wouldn’t leave.
That afternoon I sat in the stands by myself, away from everyone, the way I wanted it, and watched the post parade through binoculars. Sierra looked good, arching her neck, wanting to go. Jeannette wore my black silks with the white diagonal band, and they contrasted with the green number-five saddle cloth.
When I saw Sarsey’s mare I almost dropped the binoculars and my headache came thundering back. Probably seventeen hands. Roan. Every time her hoof hit the ground I expected earth tremors, like when the T-Rex is stalking people in that dinosaur movie. She had muscles everywhere; even her ears looked like they could pump iron. High up on her back crouched Northern California’s leading jockey.
I told myself second through fourth paid something too. Enough to pay the feed bill and get the farrier off my back, at least. Second, I would be happy with second.
They loaded into the gate, Sierra calmly, Sarsey’s horse with an air of regal disdain. “No, no, no, no, no,” one of the starting crew yelled as another horse half-reared. Horses and people settled for an instant and in that instant the bell shrilled and the gates burst open.
Sierra shot to the front like she’d been fired out of a cannon. “No! Fuck!” I jumped to my feet. “Jeannette! The fuck are you doing!” Out of the corner of my eye I saw a woman moving her kids away—I wasn’t doing my part to make the track a family-friendly venue.
Jeannette loosened the reins a little and Sierra pricked her ears forward, relaxing, still on the lead. I gripped the metal rail in front of me. Dammit. She’ll wear herself out. Dammit, Steve, you moron, you just had to put blinkers on her. I’d just wanted a little more early speed. Not a crazy sprint to the front that would burn her out before she got to the finish.
They came out of the turn with Sierra still in front. Jeannette gathered the reins, started to push on Sierra’s neck, asking for more. Hooves thundered louder. I looked back in the field to see Sarsey’s roan coming with huge strides. The race caller noticed, said something about passing horses like they were standing still. “Keep going,” I pleaded. “Hold on!”
Sierra pulled away from the field and the roan was coming like an angel of gray death. Jeannette showed Sierra the whip and the mare stuck out her neck, laid back her ears and sped up. The roan was at her flank now. “Come on,” I shouted, beyond shame. “Don’t stop! Hold on!”
I never used a mark or any other trick to win a race, but it was lucky just then I couldn’t do anything without my hand on the horse.
The roan was so tall that when she ran up on Sierra’s outside she hid my mare from view. They hit the wire together.
Long, long moments of agony later, the photo showed Sierra’s nose in front. I jumped up and ran to the winner’s circle. I hugged Jeannette, hugged Sierra, getting red-brown sweaty horse hair on my shirt, hugged Carolyn. “God. Take a Valium,” Carolyn said, grinning.
Standing at Sierra’s head for the victory photo, I saw Sarsey in the crowd. His hat shaded his possum face. His eyes glinted from under its brim. He spat on the ground, and walked away. Gulls screamed.
Three days later, I was feeling good. The winner’s share of Sierra’s purse paid the feed bill, the farrier, the vet, fixed whatever was making the grinding noise in my truck, and left enough over for a decent cup of coffee from the café at the bookstore across the Caltrain tracks from Bay Meadows. Wrong side of the tracks, I thought, laughing to myself, caffeine-high.
When the secretary from the racing stewards’ office walked toward me I didn’t think anything of it, not until he stopped in front of me and said, “Mr. Verdin, would you be available to meet with the stewards?”
Nobody called me ‘Mr. Verdin’. My guts went cold. The rust on the shed wall began to flash red warning, a little late.
“OK,” I said. “When?”
“Now,” he said. “Come with me.”
The racing stewards’ office was on the first floor of the grandstand, behind the indoor saddling paddock. There were three stewards. Their job was to enforce the rules.
When the secretary let me in to the conference room, a woman in a red suit that smelled like management stood up. I knew her name, Nicola Martin; hadn’t met with her, or either of the others, before. “Have a seat, Mr. Verdin,” she said, without offering to shake hands.
I sat. Patterns formed on the table’s surface like oil on water, but I could not read them.
“Do you know why we called this meeting?” one of the others asked, a heavyset man whose blue tie had horseshoes on it.
“Sierra Burning’s urine test came up positive for ziconotide.”
They take urine and blood samples from all race winners and test them for performance-enhancing drugs and levels of medication in excess of the legal limit. I said, “What the hell is ziconotide?”
“Cone snail venom,” Martin said.
“It’s a painkiller,” the third steward, a man named Velazquez, said. “Thousand times stronger than morphine. But you probably know that already.”
“There’s been a mistake,” I said. “I’ve never even heard of the stuff and I don’t drug my horses.”
“Mr. Verdin,” Martin said, “the test is conclusive.”
“I know. I know the test is good, but they got the wrong sample. Screwed up. Something. I didn’t drug my horse!”
Nicola Martin’s voice hardened. “Calm down, Mr. Verdin.”
“You’re saying I injected my horse with some kind of poison out of a snail? I wouldn’t even know how to get my hands on that. And, dammit, you know me, you know my record, I’d be the last person to. . .”
“You’re responsible,” blue tie said, “even if one of your grooms administered the drug without your knowledge.”
Martin took up the attack. “So this is what will happen now. Your trainer’s license is officially rescinded.”
“Let me finish. The purse money will be redistributed, so you’re responsible for paying your share of that, as well as a thousand-dollar fine.” She pushed a paper across to me. “Sign here.”
“I can’t.” My heart beat so hard I couldn’t steady my voice. “I spent—the purse money. I don’t—have a thousand. I train two horses—I own one of them and have half ownership in the other. What am I supposed to do? Load them in the trailer and drive away down the goddamn road? To where?”
“Watch your language, Mr. Verdin,” Velazquez said.
“I didn’t do this. You have to know I didn’t. If I would lose a client over resting a horse, why the hell would I abuse one with poison?”
“Mr. Verdin,” Martin said. “Steve. We know what happened with you and Nicasio. OK?”
What happened with Nicasio was I used to train horses for him, and he wanted to run one when I thought it needed a rest, so he sent all the horses to another trainer, and the one won a stakes race in its next start. Proving me wrong. But I’d rather err on the side of caution when a horse’s soundness is involved.
“But that was in the past. The track management knows you’re living out of your camper in the parking lot.”
“I’m not homeless,” I snapped, but she held up her hand.
“They know you have money problems. Can you see how this all adds up? You look like a guy in trouble, Steve.”
Now I would have preferred ‘Mr. Verdin’.
I knew what she saw from her red-management-suited perspective when she looked across the table at me. A flannel shirt over a stained T-shirt, Levis torn at the knee. Hair down to my shoulders, streaked with early gray, not combed since yesterday. Two silver rings in my left ear. Nothing clean-cut. A man who probably looked like he would drug a horse.
“You’re close to the edge, financially, and suddenly your horse wins big, and we know you had a vet in to see her last week.”
“She had a nosebleed. I thought it might be respiratory, wanted to have her scoped out. The only change I made with that mare is putting blinkers on. That’s it.”
“She tests positive for ziconotide. That’s the bottom line, Steve.”
“I didn’t drug my horse,” I said.
“You can stable the horses here till the end of the month,” Martin said. “You can repay the money in installments. We’re bending the rules for you.” She pushed the paper closer to me.
“I want another test,” I said. “I know they don’t use the whole sample. Test it again.”
“Nothing is going to change,” Velazquez said. “They run the test eight times per sample. There’s no mistake. Take the responsibility for what you did.”
“I have the right to ask for a re-test.” I wasn’t sure I did. “I’m going to appeal to the Board.” I didn’t think the California Horse Racing Board would sympathize. But it was something to say.
“We’ll order a second test,” Martin said. “I don’t think anything is going to change, though, Steve.”
I never wanted to be anything but a horse trainer. I had no other skills. The future was a concrete wall rushing up to meet me at a thousand miles an hour.
I signed the paper that might as well have been my death warrant. The secretary came in and took it to make copies and gave me one, all very official. “Can I go?” I said.
“Yes,” said the man with the horseshoe tie.
I went, numb, cold, and found Carolyn in Infinity’s stall. I said her name.
“Huh? -Steve, what happened?”
“Take a guess.”
She shook her head.
“What did you give Sierra before the race?” Infinity shied at my voice.
“Her feed got pulled in the morning. Like usual. She. . .Oh.” Her eyes widened. “Oh, my God. Is someone saying she got given something?”
“For. . .”
“Cone snail poison.”
“Oh, my God. Steve, you can’t think I did that.”
I didn’t. For one thing, only a vet—only certain vets—would have it.
“Who was in the stable area before the race? Who came in contact with her?”
“I. . .” Carolyn undid her lank blond ponytail, retied it, thinking. “Just Jim Sarsey, right before you got here.”
“He made some joke, you know, about checking out the competition. But he didn’t give her anything. He just patted her neck.”
And nothing had warned me, not a mark on Sierra’s hide, not a twist in the straw on the ground, not a change in the sound of the wind.
“I’m suspended,” I said. I should have been honest and said They took my trainer’s license, but I couldn’t get the words out. “I can’t pay you.”
“I’m already paid for this week. I. . .we’ll see what happens. Jan can’t support me and the kids on just one paycheck. But. . .we’ll see what happens.”
I couldn’t say anything. I went down to Sierra, who had fought so hard to win, and groomed her with the soft brush, hiding my face against her side.
I got through that day somehow, not talking to anyone, not looking anyone in the face. In the afternoon, the stewards’ secretary called my cell phone to tell me that the laboratory wouldn’t have the second set of test results for five days. I didn’t sleep that night. I sat up in the camper shell on the back of my truck. For once, I didn’t drink. I drew marks in ballpoint pen and my own blood on my fists, the blood drawn with the sharp edge of the serpentine stone. I watched the late train go by and tried to make its shriek into an omen of revenge.
When I learned I could do things, I swore I would never use them to cheat or to do harm. But now my life had been snatched out from under me, so I had to fight, and I wished for a moment I wouldn’t have to fight alone.
The next morning, before dawn, I waited for Sarsey. I stood by the shedrow corner, out of sight of his throng of grooms and exercise riders. Eventually he walked by in his cowboy boots, with his hat on. “Sarsey,” I said.
He turned to look, stopped. “You’re still around, Mr. Banned for Life? Go figure.”
“What did you do to my mare, Sarsey?” I said. “I know you can do things. Is that,” and this thought had just come into my mind, “how you win all those races? Start with cheap claimers, put the touch on them? What did you do to my mare, Sarsey?”
“You fucking drunk,” Sarsey said. “Your brains ought to be leaking out your ears. Get the hell out of here.”
He wasn’t going to take everything from me, my win, my track, the only real home I had, so I hit him. It was the first time in years I hit anyone, but the marks, or maybe just my fury, guided my fist to his jaw. He stumbled back.
And came back at me with a blow to the gut that doubled me over in shocking pain. Next his fist caught me under the chin and drove me back upright, the heel of his boot crushed my foot, and I was as outclassed as a two-thousand-dollar claimer on the track with Ghostzapper. In the general pain, I lost track of what he did to me. I grayed out, came back crouched against the shed wall in a drift of manure. Sarsey towered over me, very tall for a short man now. “You don’t beat me,” he hissed. I still, through a haze of pain, imagined little possum fangs. “Not you. Not your crowbait. Get it?”
I tried to say “Fuck you,” but my talking apparatus failed to work.
“One more thing.” He leaned toward me. “Fags wear earrings.”
He stuck his fingers through the rings in my left ear and pulled.
Somehow I got back to my stalls. We kept a freezer full of ice for horses’ legs. I fumbled some into a bandanna and held it to the side of my face, then sat down on a straw bale and dripped blood. In a burst of panic, I felt inside my shirt, but the stone was there, cool and sharp-edged. Infinity nickered to me. I heard him neighing shrilly as I slid into a dark red place.
Someone was touching my face. I woke up flailing my arms, heart slamming against my breastbone.
“Easy!” Carolyn backed up. She had a wet, bloodstained washcloth in one hand. “I’m calling the cops. And an ambulance.”
“No cops!” My words came out slurred. I pushed myself upright. I’d dropped my makeshift icepack at some point, and it lay in a red puddle on the ground.
“Fine, but you need—oh, my God. Your ear.”
I felt at it: earring holes ripped open, crust of blood. It didn’t hurt. I couldn’t say the same for my face. I poked at my teeth with my tongue, felt my nose. “Nothing broken,” I mumbled. “No health insurance. Be fine.”
“Who did this? Was it Sarsey?”
“Don’t get involved.” It came out jumbled. “If you saved some of that snail poison, pass it over.”
Carolyn rolled her eyes, went away for a moment, and came back with ibuprofen and water. I forced down six pills. “Go sleep,” she said, “if you really won’t go to the doctor.”
“Yeah.” But not in my camper shell. He might come here. He might try to hurt the horses. I staggered over to Infinity’s stall and lay down in the straw, picking out pieces with fingers almost too sore to move, trying to twist them into a warding charm. “Watch Sierra and Bub. Watch them, Carolyn.”
She said something I didn’t hear. I fell asleep with straw in my hands and my star turf horse pulling on my shirt as if sure that it was food.
When I woke up, the pain had settled in my stomped foot and the left side of my face, up to and including my ear, and Carolyn and Jeannette were leaning over the stall door looking at me.
“Did he step on you?” Carolyn asked.
“Infinity or Sarsey?” I sat up. “No. Yes. And I don’t want to talk about it. Jeannette, get out of here before your career gets ruined.”
“Nobody thinks you did it,” Jeannette said.
“It doesn’t matter.” I stood up. “I’ll deal with it.”
“I’ll deal with it,” I snapped, and left them there.
My truck was hot and stuffy in the mid-day sun. I checked the marks I’d made on the camper shell to make sure nobody had broken in to leave snail venom under my cot, syringes full of heroin in my port-a-fridge, whatever, but the truck hadn’t been touched. I sat in the driver’s seat, ready to leave if I had to.
“It’s over,” I said out loud to see what it sounded like. I had an undergrad degree in bio from the University of California—years out of date now. No money in the bank, except what I now owed the racing commission. No skills but horse training. How was I going to take care of the horses? I couldn’t. I would have to sell them. Maybe Infinity’s half-owners would take him. Sierra, Beelzebub. . .might end up anywhere. In the reflections on my windshield I saw my mare in cheap claiming races, whipped, breaking down on the track. Beelzebub bucked, bit and kicked; he’d probably go straight to slaughter.
“Dammit!” My elbow caught the steering wheel and the truck’s horn beeped. “No!”
But there was nothing I could do. Sarsey had won. Salt stung the raw place on my left cheek.
Sarsey could do things, the same way I could do things. But he was stronger. I didn’t know how to stop him. Wouldn’t even know where to start.
He couldn’t have done this to a big-name trainer, someone who could hire a lawyer, get the press on his side. He could do it to me and he wanted to because my horse had beaten his. He had to be a winner.
Maybe he could take back whatever he’d done to Sierra, make it so the second test would come up clean. I tried to imagine some act that would change the chemical composition of a vial of horse piss. It was easier to imagine a padded room with the door locked. Even if Sarsey could do it, I didn’t see how I could make him.
I took off my stone and swung it like a pendulum. It circled. Wouldn’t swing straight back and forth, no matter how I tried to make it.
If I lost the stone, I’d have to go find another one, and last time that meant two weeks alone on foot in the Sierras, starvation, nightmares, bloodshed (mine). I don’t know how I do things, they just come to me, and searching for the stone just came to me when I was twenty-one and suicidal in a dumb kid kind of way over not getting into the vet school at Davis. Sometimes I used the stone as a pendulum, sometimes I cut myself on its edge, sometimes I just knew that it was there, cold and green over my heart. Without it, I knew without question I’d be blind and helpless, just another guy.
Maybe Sarsey used a stone too, or something like it. Maybe losing it would shut him down like it would me. Maybe he’d have as much trouble as I would replacing it. Or not be able to replace it at all.
The green stone swung in circles, always back to its beginning. I replaced it around my neck and waited for night to fall.
I don’t ask for help. I keep to myself.
When I let people close to me, I get hurt.
I wasn’t any kind of crazy, muttering loner as a kid. I got teased—Steve wants to be a horse!—but I always had a couple of friends. Starting in college, I lived with a woman for seven increasingly soul-destroying years. We fought about my ‘weird superstitions’, my drinking, money. Finally, there was the fight where she said why didn’t I get a real job and I said the horses would always be more important than she was, and that was the end of it.
So I wasn’t going to ask anyone for help with this.
In the morning my throat hurt, my head ached, the glands under my jaw and my left arm were painfully swollen and I couldn’t stand to touch my ear. We kept Betadine for the horses. I slopped some on my ear, cursing. Ziconotide sounded like ambrosia, but what I had was aspirin. I swallowed six.
My cell phone rang while I was grooming Beelzebub. I stabbed at buttons. “Hello?”
It was someone from the Daily Racing Form. He wanted to interview me. “No, thank you,” I said.
He said I was the first person ever actually found guilty of giving a horse ziconotide and the racegoing public needed to hear my side of the story.
“Goodbye.” I hit the red button until the phone beeped, vibrated and shut itself off.
I watched that day’s races through binoculars. Sarsey had a horse in the first race; I spotted him in an expensive box seat, sitting with people who had to be owners judging by their clothes. He wore a suit with his cowboy hat. Before the horses went into the gate, he reached up and touched his hat—or not really his hat, I thought, eyes watering as I tried to focus the binoculars, but something tucked inside the band.
His horse won. The orange tote board lights flickered into sigils of deception. If Sarsey could see things, I wondered what they showed him: the same as I saw, or dancing dollar signs?
I watched all day, sweating and shivering, eating aspirin until my stomach burned. Sarsey had starters in five of the day’s eight races. He won four. Before every one, the touch to his hat.
After the races, I watched where he and the well-dressed human herd around him went, and followed. I thought I could use the crowd to get close, and snatch the hat. Through the crowd lined up to collect on their last bets; past the derelicts scrabbling through dropped tickets on the floor, looking for luck. I lost them on the main floor, and as I looked around with cold sweat coursing down my face and my ear sending stabs of icepick agony into my skull, someone touched my shoulder. I wheeled around.
“Loser,” Sarsey hissed. “Get out of my way.”
He was gone. I didn’t see where he went.
I smelled the burning amber of bourbon in the bar. I needed it.
Sometime later. Things spinning. All I could think about was the taste of the burn. The glass empty and full again, son of a bitch bartender giving me the hairy eyeball.
Someone sat beside me. Trainer. Never liked him. Self-righteous asswipe. Something about the sport’s reputation came out of his mouth, something about how I should conduct myself.
“Conduct this, fuckhead. I didn’t drug my horse.” My words slurred, but the finger I held up was probably clear.
He said something about ethics. I punched him in the face.
Things fractured then. Someone shouting for security. Hard hands pulling my arms around me.
Someone arguing that I was sick, couldn’t the idiots see that, and they better let me go right now. Female voice. Was it Jeannette? “No,” I said, sitting on the bar floor, on a carpet whose patterns wriggled to show me a black abyss, and I was falling in. “Don’t get linked with me. It’s not worth it,” but someone was hauling me onto my feet. Jeannette on one side—she was stronger than she looked—and one of the other trainers, not the one I hit, on the other. “Leave me alone!” I yelled at them, but the lights of the bar went away and I was puking into a bucket someone held under my head. Then, finally, like euthanasia, I passed out.
I woke up slowly, in a bed that wasn’t mine, with a rancid taste in my mouth, and before the sledgehammer hangover hit my skull, I had time to think.
I couldn’t do what I had to do now. Couldn’t. I imagined saying the words, and wanted to throw up again.
But Sarsey had set me off on the worst public drunk of my life just by touching my shoulder. Unless I was imagining that. Unless it had been all me.
My neck was stiff, my ear hot and sticky. I sketched a mark on it with the cool green of my serpentine stone. It didn’t stop hurting, but my head cleared.
I couldn’t go up against Sarsey alone. I’d proved that twice now.
I crept out of the bedroom and down the hall to a bathroom where finger tape and herbal face gunk fought for space on the counter. I washed up as best I could. My face was a hideous masterpiece in black, green, purple and yellow against dead-frog white; my ear, encrusted and scarlet, looked like rats had gnawed it. I found antibiotic ointment and smeared it over the wreckage of my earlobe. The glands under my jaw and down my neck stood out hot and hard.
I thought about what I had to do next, trying to get the words right. I couldn’t do it.
Grow up, Steve. I walked down the hall, trying not to slink, and into the kitchen where I heard someone moving around.
Jeannette turned to look at me. “Coffee? You look like shit.”
“Yeah.” I made it to a chair and sat down. “I’m sorry. I owe you more than. . .”
What were people saying now? How badly was she linked to me? Was her career in jeopardy because of a stupid, drunk-
“Don’t worry about it,” Jeannette said, sliding a mug of coffee across the table to me, “I wanted to sock that son of a bitch in the face a couple of times myself.” She would have had to stand on a bucket to do it.
“I. . .” I forced it out like choking up a rock. “I need your help.”
“Yeah, I’ll say.” She dripped fat-free fake creamer stuff into her coffee until it turned the color of her hand, then looked at me through clear hazel eyes. “So what do you need me to do?”
Could it be that easy? I stared down into my mug to hide the fact I felt like a crab with the shell pulled off. “Could you steal something from him? Something he keeps in his hat band. I don’t know what it is. It’s small.”
A death’s-head formed in the fabric of the tablecloth. I looked away.
“Yeah, that fucking hat, the way he keeps touching the hat,” Jeannette said. She grinned. If I was riding, and looked over my shoulder to see that grin bearing down on me, I’d be pretty sure I was about to lose by daylight. “Sure. ‘Mister Sarsey, sir, can I talk to you about riding one of your horses some day maybe?’ Yeah, I can get the hat. Why you want it, I don’t even want to know.”
“OK,” I said.
“Tonight,” she said. “Drink your coffee. Damn, you look like three-day-old road pizza.”
I waited outside Infinity’s stall. Carolyn groomed the horses. My cell phone rang, and I looked at it, saw the Daily Racing Form number, and turned it off. Every once in a while another trainer or some other racetrack person would happen by like they wanted to talk to me, and I would refuse to look at them and they would go away again.
Carolyn told me again I should see a doctor. I said no. She left, shaking her head.
Infinity went to sleep with his head hanging over his stall door. The day passed. I followed the day’s races by the sound of the cheering crowd. There would be eight. Jeannette was riding in two.
The last race was run. The sky darkened. My head ached, and I couldn’t get warm.
Jeannette did not arrive. At seven o’clock, all three horses began to pace in their stalls. At eight-fifteen, the new stars swirled into a sign of doom.
I cut the back of my hand with the edge of the serpentine stone and made marks on my fists and the hollow of my throat in blood and charcoal. I braided a black length of Sierra’s mane around my wrist. Then I walked through the deepening night to Sarsey’s stalls. I didn’t expect to find him there, but maybe I could find something that would put me on his trail, that would help me find Jeannette, because everything I saw, every sound I heard, screamed danger.
Sarsey’s horses, twenty-odd of them, stood too still in their stalls. The roan looked at me, eyes ringed with white, but did not move. I saw no grooms.
A mark was scrawled on the lid of a tack chest. It was meant to make the eye pass by. It had the reverse effect on me. I lifted the lid.
Syringes, vials, electric buzzers to shock a horse into running faster; also pieces of wire twisted into fear-charms, horsehair wrapped around pieces of bone, a hoof paring with a glyph scratched on it that made the taste of blood come into my mouth. I dropped the lid. Sarsey’s horses watched me, unnaturally still.
The stalls stood in rows on either side of me, forming a long corridor. A trailer blocked the far end. A sound came from it. Maybe a scream, faint, as if it came from very far away.
I ran to the trailer. A lead rope lay in front of its door, and when I stepped over it I nearly tripped and fell. I caught myself and pulled the trailer door open, the mark on my right hand flaring like an electric shock.
Sarsey stood at the far end with his hands pinioning Jeannette’s wrists. He wasn’t a big man but her bones looked like straws in his grasp. On her face was a red handprint, blistered like a burn.
“Let her go!”
“It’s the loser,” Sarsey snarled. “Is this the loser’s bitch?”
“Listen, Sarsey,” I said. “I found some stuff in a tack box outside, with a don’t-notice-me on the lid. Security’s out there going through it now. They’re pretty interested.”
“What?” and he believed me for just long enough to relax his grip a fraction, and Jeannette twisted, got one hand free, snatched his hat and threw it to me.
Sarsey hurled Jeannette against the trailer wall, and I wanted to run to her but she would be safer if I fled with Sarsey’s hat in my hand. He followed me, cursing.
I stopped with my back to the roan’s stall. Feeling in the hat band, I pulled something out: a die, round-cornered with age, made of something that felt greasy, like unclean bone. I tossed the hat aside.
Three things happened when I touched the die: the stone around my neck turned cold, a cold that blasted through my sweating fever; the roan mare snorted loudly; and Sarsey said, “You fucking loser. Give that back. You screwed with me and you lost your license. It can get worse.” He edged around so that he blocked the free end of the corridor.
“No,” I said.
“I’m going to buy that bay crowbait of yours and take a hammer to her legs.” Snarling possum. Trying to bluff.
Playing dead might have worked better for him.
“Sarsey,” I said. “You lose.” And I pressed the die between my blood-and-charcoal-marked hands and words came to me, through me and out of me like a stallion’s scream. The die burst into powder between my hands.
I didn’t know at first what the metallic clinking sounds all around me were. Then I realized. The latches of the stall doors all had opened.
Rage twisted Sarsey’s face. He took a step toward me.
The roan’s door sagged on its hinges. She walked out. The others left their stalls, shouldering the unlatched doors open. I jumped out of the way of a massive black gelding. The moon silvered the roan’s coat. Sarsey snatched a halter from a peg and lashed it at her face. “Get back!”
A horse squealed. I saw the flash of moonlight and heard the pound of hooves and then something struck me from behind and I fell. Hooves hit the ground in front of my face as a horse jumped over me.
Someone grabbed my arm and hauled me into the lee of a stall: Jeannette.
The horses milled, tossing their heads. Sarsey swung the halter again. The buckle hit the mare on the nose, drawing blood. Her eyes were frantic, ringed with white. Foam streaked her neck. She sank back on her hocks and then leaped forward as if whipped from the starting gate.
When she bolted, only Sarsey stood between her and open ground. The others followed her. In the moment before he fell under their hooves, Sarsey reached toward his head, reaching for a power of control no longer there.
Usually, horses swerve to avoid running a human down. Not one of Sarsey’s horses swerved.
We huddled together and watched until it was over. Nothing was left at the end but red ground and fragments of bone.
On the fifth day since Sierra had tested positive for ziconotide, the stewards called me to their office. I went, with my hands in my pockets so they wouldn’t shake, antibiotics upsetting my stomach. Jeannette came with me. She wore a velvet jacket, and she smelled like lily of the valley.
“You don’t have to,” I’d said.
“I’m your character witness. Look at me. I look like I’d ride a doped horse?”
So she sat next to me in the conference room, with the burned handprint still fading from her cheek.
The stewards filed in. This time Nicole Martin’s suit was blue, like a soda can. When she started out with, “We have no good explanation for this, Mr. Verdin. . .” I knew I had my life back. Sarsey’s doings had gone with him.
I walked out of the office grinning, let out a whoop when I reached the open air. Startled gulls took off in a gray and white swirl, and their wingbeats wrote a sign of victory in the sky.
I held out my hand to Jeannette. “I don’t know what to say. He could have killed you. It’s not enough to say ‘thank you.'”
She took my hand. Hers was thin and strong. “It’s enough, Steve. But you could do something. If you wanted to.”
“Let me make you coffee again some other time.”
I was a shell-shorn crab again, without a rock in sight to crawl under. But maybe. Maybe I could.
“Maybe,” I said, and found myself grinning again.
Kyri Freeman hails from the foggy redwood forest of Ben Lomond, California, but now lives in the wind-blasted Mojave Desert. She is an academic librarian with Barstow Community College. She’s a decent amateur handicapper, a semi-competent rock climber, and uses her M.A. in History primarily to write historical fiction. Her blog is here.
“Winner” was born from a combination of the appalling Mojave summer heat and the fact that I get TVG, the horse racing channel. Cooped up inside with the air conditioning cranked up, with nothing to do but watch horse racing and write, my imagination went where imaginations go. The gentlemen who host the show “Blinkers Off” are particularly to blame.