Chapter 1

 

 

EVERYONE THOUGHT the busiest day at Churchill Downs was the day horses, jockeys, trainers, owners, and fans descended for the Kentucky Derby. People came from all over the world to watch the race; even people who didn’t like horses were familiar with what had long ago been dubbed “the most exciting two minutes in sports.”

Val Mihalic pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger in an attempt to get rid of his headache. He shut down his computer for the day and pushed his chair back from his desk. The first Saturday in May might be the big race day, but in reality, it was the following months that were the busiest days for people like Val. There were family days, a host of other races, tours, and group events, just to name a few. Churchill Downs may have been best known for the Kentucky Derby, but for a good part of the year something was going on to draw crowds, and computers ran everything except the horses.

He unfolded his lanky six-foot-three frame out of his chair and stretched. “Thank God, this day is finally over,” he said to the walls of his cubicle and stood on tiptoe to look over the wall to the workstations surrounding his. Other people were clearing out of the IT department, looking as disheveled and tired as he felt.

Val loosened his tie, brushed his hair away from his face, grabbed his shoulder bag, and made his way to the parking lot. His gray pickup was a welcome sight. He slipped his phone into the dashboard holder and had music playing before he even put the key in the ignition. He skipped the air conditioning in favor of rolled-down windows when he pulled onto the highway.

The horse farm Val lived on was halfway between Louisville and Lexington. Val much preferred the Lexington area, the real horse country. City gave way to lush green rolling hills, thousands of miles of white fence, and blue skies. He tapped his free foot against the floor, relaxed back against the seat, set the cruise control, and enjoyed the late afternoon scenery as it rolled on by. Hopefully he’d be home in time to catch some of the late day workouts.

His exit finally loomed ahead, and another half mile down the road from that was the iron archway and entrance to Spinning Star Farms. He guided his truck slowly down the main drive. Watching the mares and foals move about in the large pasture to his left as he drove past was always entertaining. Three younger foals, all knees and scruffy tails, chased one another, then did an about-face to scamper back to grazing mares and a quick snack.

Val continued down the drive, which was more like an access road through the farm, going beyond the office building, four enormous barns, the workout track, and practice starting gates. He didn’t stop until he was on the other side of a small hill. There, under large shade trees, sat a smaller house with a two-horse barn next to it. Long ago it had been the caretaker’s cottage, but now it was Val’s home.

He parked beside the house, grabbed his stuff, and headed to the door. Val could hear his three dogs on the other side. He pushed the door open and stepped back.

“Hey guys. Did y’all miss me? I missed you.” All three dogs bounced around him, vying for attention. They weren’t allowed near the main barns or training facilities, but there was plenty of room for them to run on this side of the hill. There was a smaller pasture behind his barn, and they were good at staying inside there.

He left them to explore and do their thing while he went inside and changed into a T-shirt, shorts, and hiking shoes. His next stop was the barn, to turn out his horse. Sig wasn’t a Thoroughbred or even a racehorse; he was a big, gentle, draft cross and the reason Val rented this place.

Val stretched against the pasture fence before he whistled for his dogs and took off for a hike around the property. There was a trail up the hill that led to a place he could sit and watch the afternoon workouts and training for the Thoroughbreds. His dogs wouldn’t get near the training areas, and from there Val could see everything he wanted to see. There was no need to worry about being disruptive to the young horses being trained.

One of the jockeys waved and Val returned the greeting. When the horses were finished training and onto their cool-down walk, the jockey gave him a thumbs-up. That was Val’s clue it was time to head back to his house, put the dogs inside, and coax Sig back into the barn.

By the time Val made his way to the outermost of the four barns, stable hands were returning the racehorses to their stalls. Many people moved about, bathing, grooming, providing food and water to them, and generally preparing to bed the horses down for the night. Stable hands and grooms were their primary caretakers.

Rod Duncan was the owner and head trainer at Spinning Star, and it was the barn housing his horses that Val went to. As a rule Val stayed away from the horses owned by Rod’s clients, though he had access to all parts of the farm.

Val went to several of the stalls. He knew the nicer horses from those that weren’t as sociable. It was always a delight to realize the horses remembered him and would come to the front of their stalls, heads hanging over the stall doors for attention. He was happy to scratch chins and ears while he waited. Quite a few of the grooms and stable hands remarked on how much the horses liked Val. The feeling was mutual.

Finally the horse and jockey he waited for arrived. A stable hand led the horse, and Janelle, his training rider as well as jockey, walked beside them. Once into his stall, Janelle patted his side and flank then stepped away. Val already knew to keep a safe distance. Izzo wasn’t above delivering a kick with his muscular hind legs. He enthusiastically slurped some water, played in the water bin for a minute, then moved to the stall door. He stuck his head over, shook it a few times, and blew a loud breath while he stomped one foot.

He used his nose to shove Val’s shoulder. “Oh, well excuse me. I didn’t pet you fast enough?” Val said and obliged the horse’s demands.

Officially, as stated on the plaque on his stall door, he was Dreamspinner. He was a good-sized Thoroughbred colt, so dark gray he was almost black. His mane and tail were such a pale gray they were almost white. There was a white sock on his right hind foot that barely went up more than a few inches. That and a small white star on his forehead were his only markings. To everyone on Spinning Star Farm, he was Izzo and already one of the two-year-old colts being closely watched as a contender for next year’s Kentucky Derby.

“You know, he only likes you ’cause you won the ‘name the new colt’ contest.” Janelle gave the horse’s nose an affectionate poke. “Hot out there today.” She took off her helmet and shook out a mass of short blonde curls.

“He’s still not leaving the gate well,” Val said.

“He leaves just fine. Did you see how well he’s not loading into the gate? We have to fix that problem before he gets a bad name and starts being disqualified.” Janelle rubbed at her neck. “Rod said he’ll get a break from that for a while and just do some light sprints for a couple of weeks. But I’m done for the night.”

“C’mon, I’ll buy you a nice dinner, bottled water and a slice of cucumber,” Val said.

Janelle laughed and nodded. “Deal. I’ll meet you in an hour?”

“Will do. Want me to drive?”

They were out of the barn and walking toward the area between two barns the employees used for parking. Janelle stopped and sighed, taking Val’s hand and squeezing gently before letting go. “That’s sweet, but I told Charlie we were through.”

“Telling a guy who would hit you that it’s over, and it being over, are two different things. Believe me, I know. They say one thing and do something different too often. So humor me and let me be a good friend.”

“You are a good friend, Val. I can’t imagine anyone trying that with you and not getting their ass kicked.”

Val snorted. “It’s happened. I’ve tried to hand out some defensive punches. For some reason they don’t have the same effect. The cops—hell, people in general—don’t want to believe a guy my size gets bullied by a boyfriend. But they’ll believe you with no problem. So, if he shows up anywhere around you, go to the cops.”

“I will,” Janelle promised. “But right now I need a shower. I’ll see you at The Trumpet in an hour.” She jogged to her car, waving as she went.

An hour later, as promised, Janelle stood at the door to The Trumpet Bar and Grill, waiting for Val. The sign outside the door touted good food, good spirits, good company, and a good time. It was popular with the locals and didn’t get a lot of tourists. Janelle and Val claimed a table and ordered.

Janelle plopped down her bag, which was huge compared to her tiny five-foot frame. It made Val snicker every time. “I passed an estate sale on the way home the other day and I found treasure!”

“Treasure, huh?”

“Well, to me anyway. Check this out. It’s an old one.” Janelle dug around in her bag and finally pulled her treasure from its depths. She dumped a round, brass object that covered his palm into Val’s hand.

He recognized it as a horse brass. “This one is pretty cool,” Val said, making a weighing motion for a few seconds. It wasn’t solid, but a circle surrounding spokes that led to an inner smaller circle with a face crudely carved into it.

“Some of those older ones were made as talismans. Legend has it that the horse with a brass like that one will always be successful.”

Val arched an eyebrow and smiled at her. “You do realize that it’ll add weight to your saddle, and if this sucker flies off during a race and whacks someone’s head, it’ll probably kill them. They’ll charge you with murder. Not to mention probably ban you from racing for using an illegal substance.”

Janelle grabbed the horse brass from Val and smacked his arm with her other hand. “I’m not putting it on the saddle. I was planning on hanging it next to his stall. Who knows, maybe it’ll bring the whole place good luck and lots of wins.”

“As long as there’s not a blood test for it, it should be good,” Val said.

Janelle laughed. “You’re silly.” She took the horse brass and put it back into her purse, glancing around the bar. Nodding to a few men across the room she said, “They’re cute. You should go chat.”

“Nah, I keep telling you, I’m happy with my life now,” Val said.

“Hmm.” Janelle eyed him suspiciously. “If you say so.”

“I do. We’ve had this conversation before and I always tell you the same thing. I like being alone.”

“No, you’re afraid to try being with someone else. Charlie was a jerk to me, but that isn’t going to stop me from looking for someone else. Not all men are assholes. Take you, for example. You’re a great guy, and any man would be lucky for you to give him the time of day. Don’t be a wuss,” Janelle said. She stopped talking and looked up at the waitress when their orders arrived. “You’ll meet someone soon and change your mind. I know it.”

“You do, huh?” Val asked then dug in to dinner. They spent a few minutes eating in silence before Val asked, “What are you going to do about Izzo not loading into a starting gate?”

“Me? I’ll do what Rod tells me to do. It’s not an uncommon problem with young horses. I’m sure Rod has a plan. That’s what he gets the big bucks for.” Janelle finished eating and swiped the check just as Val reached for it. “Ha! My turn. You always pay.”

“I get paid no matter who wins a race,” Val said.

Janelle smiled sweetly, stood up, and waved the check as she made her way to the cash register at the bar, saying over her shoulder, “I need to get home and get some sleep. Three o’clock in the a.m. comes too soon.”

Val shook his head, finished off his drink, and stood up. He met Janelle at the door and held it open for her. “I’m over there.” He waved in the general direction of his truck, then glanced around the parking lot and spotted Janelle’s car on the opposite side. “Do you want me to follow you home?”

Janelle stood on tiptoe and kissed his cheek. “Go home, Val. I’ll be fine.” She started walking toward her car, swinging her bag as she went.

“I’m just trying to offer you something I didn’t have.”

She stopped, turned, and sighed. “I’m sorry. Thank you. I’ll see you tomorrow. Call me when you get home.”

“Drive safe.” Val headed to his truck. As he was climbing into the driver’s seat, he could see Janelle’s car parked half a dozen rows away. A man dressed in dark clothes was striding across the lot. It took a few seconds for the fact to click in Val’s head that the man was Charlie Mills, Janelle’s abusive ex-boyfriend, and he was heading straight for her.

Slamming the door to his truck shut, Val spat out under his breath, “Shit.” Then he yelled as loud as he could, “Hey!”

Val bolted across the parking lot, his boots slipping and crunching over the gravel. Janelle opened her car door, stopped, and turned to look at Val. She opened her mouth but never had a chance to speak. Charlie was right on top of Janelle. She gasped and dropped her bag on the ground. Val heard a strangled scream when Charlie shoved her into the car.

Charlie was much bigger than Janelle and grabbing her under the arms, he threw her across the front seat. Janelle was tough and scrappy, however. After she hit the passenger door, she lunged at Charlie. Val saw Charlie reach for the steering column and the car’s engine turned over. Janelle swung at Charlie’s head but he blocked her, backhanding her. Charlie shifted the car into gear and it shifted forward. Val reached the car and slammed against it with both hands scrabbling at the door handle as the tires spun, gravel flew in all directions, and the car’s gears squealed and ground in protest.

Val nearly fell face-first onto the ground when the car sped off, fishtailing at the junction of parking lot and road. He twisted around and sprinted back to his truck, jumped in, and was following Janelle’s car in less than a minute.

Leaning forward, Val struggled to make out Janelle but he couldn’t see her move. The bastard must have hit her hard enough to knock her out cold. Driving with one hand, Val used the other to fish his phone from his pocket and call 911 to report Janelle being attacked and carjacked. He’d lived in the area a long time and even though they were on a dark rural road, he could give the dispatcher a good idea where they were and what direction Charlie, and Val behind him, were traveling.

Val pressed down harder on the gas pedal, dropped the phone onto the seat beside him, and gripped the steering wheel with both hands. He bit his lip, concentrating on every move the car in front of him made. Janelle’s car careened around a sharp turn and almost went off the road.

“Crap, crap, crap, you’re going to crash!” Train tracks loomed ahead and another hairpin bend just beyond. The way Charlie was driving, they’d never make it. Sirens and flashing lights came from the opposite direction.

Janelle’s car turned hard and barreled off the road. It looked to Val as if Charlie hadn’t really thought things through. He couldn’t miss seeing the police car coming at them. There was nowhere to go except off-road. That tactic might have worked if Janelle’s car were equipped for rougher terrain than the pavement. At the same time Janelle’s car bounced over rough ground Val saw her move, then grab at Charlie. The car spun, and dirt and grass flew up and fanned out in all directions.

Everything happened too fast for Val to follow. One minute Janelle’s car was speeding through grass and flinging soil in its wake, the next it was rolling side over side. Finally it came to a stop upside down. The only movement Val saw was the tires spinning.

The cop car screeched in from one direction, Val from the other. Charlie kicked his way free, stumbled a half dozen steps, regained his footing, and ran away from the road to some trees.

Val and the cop closed the distance to the car and reached it at the same time from opposite sides.

“The driver!” Val shouted and pointed to the woods.

The cop nodded. “I called for paramedics. Don’t move her, let them do it.” He chased after Charlie.

Janelle.” Val leaned down, trying to see inside the car. He yanked on the door, but it was useless. The thing was stuck.

The air around him shattered with sirens. In a matter of a few minutes, emergency vehicles and people surrounded him and the car. When Janelle started moaning, then began crying and screaming, someone moved Val away. The cop who’d chased Charlie was back. His breath came in fast pants, each one a wispy vapor trail in the air.

“Lost him,” the cop said.

“He’ll show up. Scum like that always does,” one of the paramedics said. “We have to get her out.”

The next hours were a blur of events. It took some time to extract Janelle from the car. The paramedics worked as quickly as possible, getting Janelle on a board and a restraint put into place around her left leg.

“I’ll take care of your car, you shouldn’t drive. Ride with your friend to the hospital,” the cop said.

Val nodded and climbed into the ambulance. They were pulling in to the emergency entrance when he realized he’d never even asked the cop’s name. Val made a mental note to find out when he retrieved his car the next day.

When Rod arrived, Val sat hunched over on a chair in the waiting room, arms resting on his knees.

“You okay?” Rod asked. He rested a hand on Val’s shoulder.

Val looked up, rubbing the back of his neck. He sat back and wiped one hand over his face. “She… um…. Janelle’s still in surgery. Broken leg, maybe some internal bleeding, probably concussion, but they won’t know about that until she’s awake. Dislocated shoulder. I think she’ll have another surgery later to take pins or something out of her leg.”

Rod sat beside him and said, “I asked how you were.”

“I wasn’t in a car crash. I’m okay.”

“What the hell happened?”

Val pulled in a deep breath. “We went and got some dinner and were leaving. Charlie just showed up out of nowhere, grabbed her, and took off in her car. They went off the road and flipped. I don’t know if he hit something or what.”

“I don’t suppose Charlie was killed?”

Val shook his head. “That asshole got out, ran off, and left her. A cop was there, he tried catching Charlie, but couldn’t.”

“He’ll show up eventually. Jerks like him always do.”

Val chuckled. “That’s what one of the paramedics said.”

Rod sighed. “I don’t know who to call for Janelle. I know her mother died a few years ago—cancer.”

“There was a brother, but he’s gone too. She uses a different name than her father. She barely talks about him. I think he lives in Europe, not sure. Definitely not in this country,” Val said. “If she’s ever mentioned his name, I don’t remember what it is.”

“I’ll make some calls, see if I can track him down.”

Val looked over at Rod, surprised. “Why?”

“If they don’t want to talk to each other, that’s their business. But until I’m told otherwise, Janelle still rides for me, and I feel it’s my responsibility to notify him, if I can, that his daughter is injured. She’s going to have bills.”

“She’s got insurance.”

Rod shook his head. “Val, this didn’t happen on the track. Janelle is going to be out of work for a while. And if something happens to her… well, it’s only right her father knows. What he does with that information”—he shrugged—“I don’t care. There is always the possibility we’ll never be able to find him or contact him.”

Val kept the thought to himself, but he hoped the man wasn’t found.