by Patrick J. Lambe
Lieutenant McCarthy pulled my Glock out of its shoulder holster, slid the half empty clip out, placed them side by side before him. I couldn't believe how light it felt when I slid it across his desk.
"The psychologist will be contacting you directly to help you deal with the stress concerning the incident," McCarthy said, an exaggerated tone of fatherly concern registering in his cigarette affected voice. "And you'll be assigned desk duty for a couple of days."
"Is the psychologist part necessary?" I asked. "I already know I have issues. It's taken me years to drive them deep into the safety of my subconscious."
"Sorry Lueken. Standard practice whenever an officer fires a weapon, even under your unusual circumstances." His grin was evolving with every word, turning into a counterpoint to the seriousness of his words. "You've got to admit it looks a little suspicious. You were on the losing end of a gambling transaction, and the victim was directly involved in you financial loss."
"You really think I'd kill over a ten dollar bet?"
"They say habitual gambling is an addiction. You've been on the force long enough to see how addicted people behave. I don't want to imply you're that bad off, but it's possible."
My partner Detective Levy stuck his head in McCarthy's office. "Nice shooting partner, I've got some money riding the Yankees this Saturday. If the pitching's off maybe you can fix it with a couple of well placed shots."
A uniformed head appeared next to Levy and said, "I guess your transfer to the mounted patrol is on hold until further notice."
My cell phone rang and I looked at the number before I answered it. It was Sharon, my girlfriend.
"I just heard you were involved in a shooting. Are you all right?" I could almost physically feel her concern through the phone beam.
"I'm fine Sharon, I shot a horse."
I probably wouldn't have been carrying my gun if I hadn't come directly to the track from work to catch the Seventh Race. We're supposed to carry our guns when off duty, but the damn thing is heavy and hard to conceal in summer clothes. The odds of catching me armed on my own time are pretty low from mid June to early September.
I had given an informant a twenty for a tip and I got two for the price of one: the first about the whereabouts of a guy trying to fence some goods boosted out of a house the night before, the second about Momentous Occasion, a three year old gelding shot up with Lasix for the first time. My informant couldn't make it to the track. I promised to place a bet for him.
Momentous Occasion looked great as they saddled him up in the paddock on the South side of Monmouth Park. His muscles vibrated with health under his chestnut brown fur, slightly darkened by a thin sheen of water. He let out a confident whiney as his jockey directed him from the stable to the viewing paddock.
Most of the people gathered around the paddock didn't take much notice of the noble creature because of the distractions caused by one of his less than aristocratic cousins. The horse two stalls down, Crossroad Deal, kicked the whole time his trainers were tightening the saddle straps. The jockey finally mounted the brown and white horse on his third attempt, having narrowly avoided poorly aimed hooves during the first two.
They managed to get Crossroad Deal into the gates, but he bucked and kicked enough that he was scratched from the race. The trainer was leading him past the rail when the horse unexpectedly reared up on his hind legs, ripping the leash from the panicking man's hand. The horse ran around in a circle on the green, briefly trotted on the track, turned and made a flying leap over the rail into the area between the fence and the bench seating.
People ran away from the horse, breaking towards the grand stand as it bucked, alternating jumping between its front and back set of legs, an insane look on its dilated brown eyes. A teenage girl, an old track rat, and couple of others were huddled together under the rail, pinned between the horse and the track. The girl tried to make a run for it, but the bucking horse knocked her down with a nudge from his flank. She laid in a fetal position on the paved surface halfway to the benches, her hands gripping the back of her head. The old track rat tried to get to her, but the frantic movement of the horse blocked his attempts.
I identified myself as a police officer--more for the benefit of the panicking crowd than for the horse--pulled my Glock from its shoulder holster, and fired into the unfortunate animal until it fell over on its left side, still breathing as I helped the dazed girls to her feet.
"Nice shooting Nietzsche," the track rat said, after we had ascertained that the girl was unhurt. "That walking jar of paste just cost me a couple hundred dollars."
I walked over to the horse and looked into his uncomprehending eyes, feral with some type of base emotion, and watched as its leg convulsed twice before the unfortunate animal joined his ancestors. For some reason the only thing I could think about was how they would physically remove the horse carcass from the area between the benches and the rail. I figured they would have to drive a crane out on the field and haul it over the fence onto a flat bed truck.
Detective Levy managed to sneak me out a service door so I wouldn't have to answer any questions from the reporters who were gathered around the precinct entrance, like vultures would have been hovering over the dead horse in an environment less artificial than Monmouth Park.
People become fascinated whenever the lives of humans and animal become entwined by death. I'm just the same as everyone else. It's impossible for me to turn off the television news if there's a hint that a shark has gnawed a surfer, or a tourist has been torn apart by rogue lions on the Tsavo plains in Africa. I was sure the police psychologist would tell me it's a throw back to the era in our evolution when we were far from the top of the food chain.
Sharon's cat jumped on the bed and curled up on my chest just under my chin. Sharon was reading; her brow lacking the usual concentration I have become accustomed to when she was studying for her classes. She put the book down on her belly, ran her fingers through my hair, and asked, "How do you feel about the shooting?"
"I shot a horse. It's not like I shot a person."
"But you're upset. I know you are more sensitive than you let on, tough city detective and all."
"Of course I'm upset. I never wanted to shoot that horse, but I really had no choice. I'm just glad there weren't any kids around to traumatize."
She reached over and hit the magic button on the cat, started the little engine running. The car's claws extended and I felt them dig slightly into my chest.
The horse was the second animal I had ever seen killed in a violent manner. I have some relatives in England who I visited the summer between middle and high school.
On a late summer day, my Uncle brought my cousin and me to a foxhunt sponsored by his local pub. It wasn't a jaunty affair with aristocratic hunters in red waistcoats and high boots gathered around sipping hot toddies and discussing the latest crop circles. The crowd gathered outside the bar was shabbily dressed in the manner of English Country folk, dark tweed, Wellingtons, everything a dull shade of brown or green. Their teeth were as rotten as their heads felt from their hangovers of the night before.
The hounds were friendly and liked it when anyone would pet them or otherwise make a fuss over them. I was amazed at their duplicity and capacity for betraying their fellows.
They never called the fox a fox; it was called Charlie or Charles James, and the way they described the fate of Charlie was also couched in terms to hide the barbaric act. One guy said, "Charlie had bought the book" another that he had "been accounted for." I wondered what euphemism I would use on my final report about the incident with Crossroad Deal.
Desk duty mean that I had to show up at 9, go over the duty roster, perhaps file some reports left from the night before, then I basically had the rest of the day to myself. McCarthy told me keep my beeper on and to stay out of the bars till after three. I went to the driving range on Stelton road during the first two days and felt the satisfying weight of a nine iron as it propelled the balls out into the artificial pureness of an astro turf filled field.
A middle-aged man dressed in a double-breasted suit nearly the same color as his hair was sitting patiently in a chair in front of my desk when I arrived for work on the third day of my desk duty. He exhibited a graceful ease I associated with people to whom waiting was such an uncommon occurrence that it almost seemed novel. We shook hands and he said, "My names Lawrence Topek. I understand you shot my horse."
"I'm sorry I had to kill it. It could have harmed innocent people."
"You're using the wrong term lad. I said you shot my horse, you said you killed it. You didn't kill it, that was someone else."
"Who would want to kill your horse?" I asked.
"I have some ideas. Disgruntled partners unhappy with a losing investment comes to mind, a trainer who felt he wasn't getting his due, poorly educated stable hands, a vet with a chip on his shoulder."
"Crossroad Deal was a money loss?"
"Horse racing in general is not very profitable, either for the owners or the gamblers. There's high overhead in the maintenance and care of a horse, stable bills, vets, trainers, it's like having a fifteen hundred pound kid. Unfortunately, some misguided people depend on their kids to provide them with a living. I understand you have some free time in the late afternoon and early evening for a couple of days. You don't seem like a man accustomed to sitting behind a desk."
"Even if I wanted to look into it, Monmouth Park is about forty miles out of my jurisdiction. I'm sure the Oceanport Police will perform an adequate investigation."
"I'm sure they would, but it's already out of there hands. The matter has been turned over to the New Jersey Racing Commission and I believe the State Police are also involved. The horse was drugged. Besides, sometimes an investigation requires something more than an adequate investigation. Sometimes it requires a personal interest."
"I'm sorry about what happened to your horse, but there's really nothing I can do about it."
"Thank you anyway. I just wanted to meet you and tell you that there's no hard feeling. I know you are trained for incidents such as this. I imagine it can be difficult." He handed me a card and said, "Give me a call the next time you're going to the track. I'll set you up in my private booth."
I spent the rest of the morning poring over the paperwork, sporadically successful in my attempts to stop staring at the card wedged in the lower right hand corner of the blotter on the desk. Who would want to kill a horse? I certainly didn't.
I had already given my statement to the Oceanport Police, in addition to the NJ Attorney General's Shooting Response team, so I was a little surprised when someone named Varrick from the New Jersey Racing Commission called to make an appointment for a meeting at the New Brunswick Police Station.
Varrick was about forty, average height with his head completely shaved bald. He was dressed in a dark shirt and jeans and he was prompt for our meeting. I bought us both some coffee and led him to one of the small conference rooms.
"I understand you have been in contact with Lawrence Topek," Varrick said, after we were seated. "Do you mind if I tape this conversation?"
"No, go right ahead," I said. "He tried to recruit me off the record into looking into the death of his horse. He seemed to think I would feel some responsibility for what happened."
"Do you?" Varrick asked.
"I did put nine bullets into him."
"If it's any consultation the horse would have probably died anyway. Someone juiced him with enough tranquilizers to put down a hippo. Crossroad Deal had an unusual reaction to the drugs, that's why he freaked out. Did you happen to watch the horses saddle up?"
"Yeah, I always try to whenever I bet on them."
"Did you notice anything unusual?"
"No, I was watching another horse named Momentous Occasion. I didn't even notice Crossroad Deal until he started to act up. It took the jockey three times to mount him."
"Crossroad Deal passed a drug test the day before his death. We think he was drugged in the paddock or the trailer right before the race."
"I didn't see anything like that. Why would someone want to drug Crossroad Deal? He wasn't exactly a winning prospect."
"That's what we're trying to figure out. We're looking into Topek and his two partners, Ronald Menasco, and Gerald Greeley. We're looking into the jockey, the vet and all the trainers and stable hands involved with the horse."
Varrick turned the recorder off. "This case doesn't make sense. Drugging usually involves some kind of stimulant like cocaine or a 'milkshake.' Who would want to give tranquilizers to a horse racing at ten to one odds? We haven't seen anything like this in a while; most of the recent scandals have involved people messing with the computer betting systems."
"They give the horses coke?"
"It has the same effect on them as it has on us, confidence, speed, a feeling of invulnerably."
"What's a 'milkshake'?"
"Sodium bicarbonate. It washes the lactic acid out of the horse's system, improves its endurance for long races. It doesn't make sense to tranquilize a horse for a race unless you want the horse to lose, and from I heard that was going to happen with Crossroad Deal anyway."
"Unless the motive didn't involve the race," I said.
He tapped his finger on his recording device as he thought about this. "Could be. Are you sure you don't want to look into this? I could use some help."
I thought about the pile of boring paperwork that was sitting on my desk, and the fifteen minutes it would take me to go through it to complete my work day. "I've got nothing else going on until I'm reinstated to active duty. I might as well ask around."
"Is this your first shooting incident?" Varrick asked.
"I've worked with dozens of police officers and agents of different agencies and you're the first person I've met besides myself who has had to use their service weapon. My agency is the last one where you would expect a shooting incident. We carry guns but I never thought I'd have to use one."
Varrrick packed the recorder in his bag. "Our office is in Trenton and I was working late one night. I went out to get some coffee at a convenience store, and this kid held it up. He was nineteen years old, and he pistol-whipped the Korean clerk halfway to death before I got a chance to take him down."
"It must be much different to see a man die by your own hand than an animal," I said.
"I don't know. I looked into the kid's eyes before he stopped breathing, I didn't see anything looking back. He was still alive, technically, I guess, for a few seconds at least. It was as if his death was too much for his mind to comprehend. It's almost comforting to think that our rationality leaves us before we confront our ultimate fate."
"I think I'd rather have my full facilities when it's my turn to go," I said.
"Not me. I just want a little dose of the old unconsciousness then an express train into the white light." Varrick got up to leave, pause and asked me, "How'd you do at the track that day?"
"I won a hundred on Momentous Occasion. I would have made a killing, but the odds got all wacky right before the chutes opened."
I was scheduled to return to active in two days. McCarthy cut me loose after I told him I was helping Varrick. We decided to split our interviews with Topek's partners, then meet up and interview the stable hands, trainer, vet and jockey at the stable.
Menasco was a man whose position in society was much like Topek's; he owned enough real assets that he could afford to indulge in the ownership of some speculative investments. Greeley was another matter altogether.
We agreed to meet at Brannigan's in Red Bank. Brannigan's exterior, and the bar in the middle of it, was shaped like a triangle; an arrow head pointed at the marina down the hill on the Navasink river. I ordered a hamburger and a pint of bass and I waited until Greeley showed up a half hour late.
He was probably a few years younger than me, mid thirties, or maybe early thirties; a few months short of cutting his hair back from shoulder length for the last time. He was dressed in brown khakis, a wrinkled dress shirt he had found hanging on a discount rack in Sears, and a pair of scuffed up wing tips, probably only had a wearing or two left in them.
The first thing he said--after confirming that the drinks were on me--was "Couldn't you have used mace or waited for a guy with a trank gun?"
"There were people in the horse's path. You have insurance, right?"
"Yeah, but with all the investigation and scandal, I doubt we'll see any money for a couple of years, if we ever see anything at all." He downed his pint in one near continuous motion and ordered another. "It's not going to be hard on Topek and Menasco, they're older guys with money and good jobs, they could both afford to take a hit on a race horse, but Crossroad was my only means of income."
"I heard he was a losing proposition."
"He was a good horse, just needed some expert training. That trainer that Lawrence hired; Tulley, well he's a nice guy but he doesn't know horses from cows. Greeley and I were trying to convince Lawrence to get some fresh blood on our team."
Greeley placed his half empty pint glass before him. "I met this guy at a bar, he grew up in Virginia horse country, been training horses his entire life. I'm sure he could turn our luck around, then this mess happened. I don't mean any offense, but sometimes I think you guys believe the cop shows are real; I mean, there has to be more humane ways to deal with an unruly animal. "
"How did you get involved with owning a horse?"
"I always loved the sport. I would come down to the track at least once every weekend. I inherited my parents' house after my mom died and Menasco's firm handled some of the transactions. We shared a common passion for the ponies and he heard of an opportunity; so we took it."
"What are you gonna to do now that your meal ticket has been punched?"
"I don't know. A buddy of mine has this direct sales deal where I can get a small sales force under me and get a cut of everything they sell. Either that or I can work through the rest of the summer with my cousin's landscaping company."
"I'd suggest spending the rest of the afternoon filling out job applications, you're already dressed up for it." I could tell he wanted another beer as I pushed myself away from the bar and walked out to my car, but I only left enough on the bar to pay for the three we already had.
Varrick's government issued car was already parked in the circular driveway of the Colts Neck Stable when I arrived after my interview with Greeley. I followed a paved path back to the wooden framed structure attached to a fenced in yard and let myself in through the door.
Colts Neck NJ is Horse Country. No one knows for certain how the town got its name, but it has been called Colts Neck since at least 1675. One of my buddies in high school met a girl from Colts Neck and he brought her to our prom. She was a huge pain in the ass, complaining about the small size of our cramped limo and the quality of the sparkling wine, which had been a gift from my older brother. My friend continued to date her for the rest of the summer between our junior and senior year, and we started to call her, and the town she was from, Cold Snatch. To this day, over twenty years later, I still refer to the town by this name, whenever I can get a way with it.
Varrick was leaning against a wooden stall, stroking a horse between the eyes, talking to a couple of stable hands in Spanish. I filled him in after he excused himself from his conversation.
"You don't think it's Greeley then," he said.
"The guy's thinking of joining a pyramid scam. I don't think he's capable of pulling something like this off. What about Menasco?"
"He didn't show up for our appointment. His secretary said he had a business emergency, she reschedule me for tomorrow. I've already interviewed the trainer and I think he's legit. He's been in the business for over twenty years, and he's never been sanctioned or fined once by the racing commission. I've just been hanging around bullshitting with the guys waiting for the vet to show for his interview."
"What about the stable hands?"
"Most of the lower level employees in the business are illegals, so who knows? The guys I talked to seemed OK, but if they were given enough money?"
I checked the time on my watch. "Would you mind talking to the vet on your own? I have just enough time to take a quick stop at Menasco's office on the way back to New Brunswick if I leave now. Maybe I'll get lucky and save you a trip out here tomorrow."
"No problem. I don't think we're going to get anything from the vet anyway. I know him, and I think he's an honest guy."
Ronald Menasco's law office was located in a row of converted houses on Route 18 in East Brunswick. I had my doubts about his financial ability to keep an expensive race horse after I saw the asbestos haunted siding, sagging roof, and general disarray of his office grounds.
I decided to sit for a couple of minutes to see if he would show up. I soon noticed that I wasn't the only one with this idea. A guy whose slightly receding red hair was a little darker than my own was sitting low in a late model Jeep Cherokee parked in a small parking lot in the office next to Menasco's.
I went up to the driver's side window and tapped on it with my knuckle. "We've had some reports of a suspicious person looking into windows around here Caellachan, and you fit the description."
"I see they've sent in the cavalry. I though we had an agreement about first names Lueken."
"If I had that monstrosity as a first name, I'd try to keep it quiet too. Out of the car."
He opened up the door and assumed the position, "Quit horsing around Lueken. You already know you're going to find my Sig, and you know I have a permit to carry it concealed. And you also know that if you found a shoulder mounted air to air missile on me, I'd have a permit for that as well, signed by your boss, McCarthy."
"It's nice to know you learned to read the papers since the last time I had to run you in." I found the gun but didn't bother to check it out. Caellachan Reilly is a private investigator who had helped the New Brunswick Police Department out on a big case a year ago. Almost everyone on the force liked the guy. He was a personal friend of my partner Darnell Levy. I didn't have as high an opinion of him as the rest of the guys in the policeman's union. I have a drink at Clyde's Martini bar around the corner from the Police Station once in a while; and every time I walk in there, Caellachan Reilly is hanging around with guys whose Christian names--generally ending in vowels--are cut in half by such labels as 'GQ', 'Trifecta', or 'Halftrack'; guys whose names appear in the paper with 'alleged' in front of them.
"You're about a town over from your jurisdiction Lueken," Reilly informed me after he turned around, leaned on his jeep and folded his arms.
"What are you working on?" I asked.
"Clients have certain privileges."
"So do cops," I said as I pulled out my handcuffs.
"OK Lueken I guess I can tell you. It's not really that big a deal. I was hired by Madeline Menasco's lawyers to check out her husband for a couple of days. They're going through a divorce and she thinks he's been hiding assets from her."
I put the handcuffs away. "What'd you find?"
"She should be forking alimony over to him. He's twelve hands high in debt, and there's allegations he may be disbarred for some creative investments he allegedly made with some clients' trust funds he had access to."
"Investments like a part ownership in a horse maybe?"
"That could explain some of the fiction in his bank accounts, but only if it's a losing horse."
"Stop down by the office tomorrow Caellachan. We can help each other on this one."
"I'll tie my horse to the old hitching post around 9," he said as he watched me walk toward my car.
I was almost home when my cell phone rang.
"Menasco called. He wants to meet me at the stable in an hour or so," Varrick said.
I checked the time on my watch. "I've learned a couple of things about him, and I want to talk to him too. It's going to take me more than an hour to get down there. Keep him there until I arrive."
Route 18 was backed up for miles with the usual rush hour traffic, so it took me considerably more than an hour to get to the stable in Colts Neck. I pulled up behind Reilly's jeep, parked on the road in front of the stable.
Reilly put the binoculars aside when he saw me approach. "New Brunswick must really be extending their jurisdiction, you're even further south than this afternoon. Menasco showed up a few minutes after you left and I've been tailing him since."
A sound like three firecrackers going off in quick succession interrupted my reply. Reilly pulled his gun. I pulled my cell phone out, and called 911.
I gave the dispatcher the address of the stable, identified myself as a police officer.
"Aren't we going in?" Reilly asked.
"I'm still on desk duty, I don't have my gun back yet."
"How about your throw down piece?"
"I don't carry one."
"Are you sure you and McCarthy are on the same police force?" he asked as he opened the back hatch of his jeep, rummaged through a tool bag, produced a 9mm Browning, handed it to me. "Don't worry Boy Scout, it's registered."
I jacked a bullet into the chamber and said, "You cover the back. Wait a couple of seconds after I go in through the front."
I kicked in the door, held my gun on the prone form of Menasco until Reilly came through the back door. He went over to the body with his gun held before him, pulled a thirty-eight revolver from a limp hand. I put my gun to my side and looked at two chest wounds on Varrick. He was still breathing when I bent down to his face. I heard Reilly talking to a 911 dispatcher on his cell phone.
Varrick's eyes opened. "It's a stupid thing to die over, a horse that's not going to win. I think you were right Lueken." He looked me in the eyes, with a comprehension that was both tragic and noble, and he died.
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