Day At The Track

9th excerpt from novel HORSE FLESH

12:00 AM 03 May 2017 NZST
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Tina Sugarman, author of one of the top equine novels of 2016-2017, Horse Flesh, has agreed to share excerpts of her book with Harnesslink. Horse Flesh is a thriller mystery fiction novel based around a Standardbred racetrack in Ontario, Canada. It is the first novel ever penned by horsewoman, Tina Sugarman.

Each week, Harnesslink will feature an excerpt from Horse Flesh. If you wish to purchase the book either in paperback or ereader formats, click here.

Here is this week’s 9th excerpt from Horse Flesh!

Horse Flesh by Tina Sugarman

The fact that he could have won by half a dozen lengths was mere salt in the wound for Theo Vettore.

He was screwed. He threw Southview Sabre’s lines at his cousin and stalked off, ignoring Lara’s well meant, sympathetic comments.

What was the use? He’d played his only card and, by default, he had lost. He still owed the thirty-five thousand. Part of him felt like cutting loose and heading home early. But with the drivers’ championship up for grabs, he opted to stay.

The “collectors” would be coming around to harass him soon enough. There was no escaping them. At last the races were over. Theo changed out of his driving suit into jeans and T-shirt. As an afterthought, he threw on a leather jacket. Ten drives and not a single win. What a night it had been!

The Race Barn was almost empty. The last security guard had left his post and gone home, allowing two sinister looking individuals to walk through the gate separating the betting public from the Race Barn.

They looked like a pair of bouncers on steroids and they were watching Theo’s every move. “Well if it isn’t Mr. Vettore,” one of them said, sidling up to him. Rationally, Theo knew he was worth more to them alive than dead. But what if they decided to make an example of him? Suddenly he felt terrified.

“How about we go to the cafeteria and talk this over?” he suggested, feeling light headed. One of the bouncers shook his head.

“Nothin’ doing,” he grunted. Bouncer number two took Theo firmly by the elbow. “We’ll talk outside,” he said.

Theo looked around for help. Lara was long gone. There was no one around who knew or cared about his problem. He was alone with the collectors. Maybe it was better that way. Did he really want the whole world to know he was a cocaine addict who couldn’t even pay for his habit?

“Let’s take a look at yer car,” bouncer number one suggested, walking him towards the parking lot. “Maybe it’s worth something, eh?” The tight knot in Theo’s cheek relaxed. Maybe he could stall them, convince them he’d get a loan, pay later.

Unfortunately, his insurance company was dragging its feet, contesting the claim for his accident even though he’d paid thousands in premiums. He was still driving a rental car.

The plates were a dead giveaway, easily spotted under the glare of the lights. The parking lot was deserted, he noted nervously. Everyone else had gone home. Suddenly the floodlights shut down and everything went black. One of the thugs grabbed him from behind and forced his left arm back, twisting it violently.

Theo tried to cry out, but rough hands blindfolded and gagged him in two seconds flat, then threw him, face up, onto the ground. He heard footsteps approaching. A moment later he felt something heavy pressing down onto his head: a work boot. The rubber tread dug into his temple. He could smell his own sweat mingled with the overpowering stink of garlic.

“Message from the Scorpion for Mr. Vettore,” a man’s harsh voice reverberated in his ear. It was a voice Theo had never heard before, but was never likely to forget. “He appreciates your custom, but he’s not a charitable institution. When you come around, remember this is a warning. Next time, it’ll be for real.” There was an ominous silence, during which Theo fought for breath, his heart hammering in his chest. What with the boot pressing down on his face and the gag in his mouth, he felt like he was going to suffocate right there on the tarmac.

Rigid with fear, he waited. The attack began with no warning. Helpless and blind, he had no choice but to silently endure the rain of blows on his head and body, unable to make a sound, let alone defend himself.

To his surprise, what he felt mostly wasn’t fear or pain. It was anger. Anger at himself for letting this happen. The humiliation! The King of the Track brought down so low! Then he passed out.

When he came to, he was alone. The blindfold was off. So was the gag. When he tried to get up, the pain made him dizzy and sick. So, he lay still, staring up at the big blobs of light shining in the night sky.

The throbbing in his head was loud and insistent, like the march of boots coming ever closer. He tried to call out, but his mouth wasn’t working. His face felt like was twice its normal size. Each time he took a breath, pain shot through his rib cage like a red-hot needle. He watched the stars above him until his eyelids swelled shut. Then he lay quietly in the dark on the hard asphalt, waiting for the sun to rise.

5 a.m. The stars had faded. There was a faint glow on the horizon and the promise of another warm day. Reggie Blair, sole proprietor of Supreme Horse Feeds, liked to make an early start when he delivered to Iroquois Downs Raceway. That way, he avoided rush hour on the backstretch.

After 6 a.m. the barn area was crowded with horses making their way to the exercise tracks. Horsemen were always anxious to get done early and beat the heat. Reggie Blair’s shock of blond hair made him look younger than he was.

But at thirty-eight, he didn’t have a girlfriend, let alone a wife, a loss he felt keenly, especially when he was sitting home alone doing the books of a night.

In the semi-darkness, he headed for Andy Price’s barn. Since the introduction of black box testing, Price had bought so many different feeds and supplements for his horses that Reggie could hardly keep up with it all.

It was good for business, but it took up a lot of his time. And time was money.

After Andy Price, with a lighter load, he took his regular early morning route around the backstretch of Iroquois Downs, dropping off sacks of heavy western oats, bags of sweet feed dripping with molasses, tubs of vitamins and apple treats, carrots in orange string bags, red salt blocks and a dozen other specialty items essential to the well-being of the standardbred racehorse.

He even kept a few bags of wood shavings in his truck, in case one of the smaller trainers had run out of bedding. By 7 a.m. Reggie’s feed van was empty. Time to load up again and go out to the training centres.

He headed for the stable gate, waving to the security guard in her box as he passed. The huge parking lot was empty except for a sleek black saloon that Reggie didn’t recognize. Then he did a double take. He’d seen something lying on the ground beside the car: a heap of clothes, or a horse blanket perhaps. It was difficult to tell in the early morning light. The long shadows might be playing tricks on his eyes. Intrigued, Reggie drove across the tarmac, his truck lurching back and forth over the uneven surface.

When he got up close he gasped and slammed on the brakes.

“Jesus Christ! What the hell” he exclaimed, jumping down from the cab. It wasn’t a pile of clothes. It looked like a body. But who was it?

Reggie felt sick. The guy was a mess! His face was swelled right up, like it had been stung by a swarm of bees. His jaw hung loose. There was blood everywhere. Reggie feared he was looking at a corpse. Then he realized the man was trying to speak. Reckoning the guy would be frightened by any sudden movement after what he’d been through, Reggie did his best to move quietly.

“’S alright. ’S only Reggie. Let’s see who y’are now,” he said reassuringly, reaching inside the torn, sodden jacket. He pulled out an Iroquois Downs Driving licence and gasped.

He recognized the man in the photo instantly. “Jesus!” Reggie exclaimed, looking down at the tortured face, the body wracked with pain. He couldn’t believe it was the V Man. But it was him alright!

He ran back to the truck and immediately alerted track security. Then he called emergency services and asked for an ambulance. But the woman on the other end of the line kept asking questions.

“Can you give me your exact location, sir?”

“Iroquois Downs parking lot,” Reggie replied, watching a half conscious Vettore gasp for air.

“I’m sorry sir. I need an address.”

“It’s a racetrack on First Line.” There was a long silence on the other end of the phone. “Just send the fuckin’ ambulance,” Reggie muttered angrily.

“I can’t find that address, sir. Can you see your fire number?”

Reggie, standing in the middle of acres of asphalt quarter of a mile from the entrance could only splutter. “No!”

“Can the patient make his own way to the Emergency Room?”

“Listen to me you dumb bitch!” Reggie shouted, losing it completely. “The guy’s unconscious and can’t move!” Before she was half done reprimanding him, he cut her off. She’d landed him in a hell of a fix.

Track security were nowhere to be seen. He could hear Vettore groaning. Reggie Blair was in the prime of his life. He heaved feed sacks around all day long. He did things himself, his own way. He didn’t intend to wait who knew how long for the emergency crew to figure out his location.

After checking that Vettore was able to move his legs, he improvised a stretcher from one of the wooden palettes he stacked the feed on. He laid a bag of wood shavings on top and covered the whole thing with a horse blanket. Then came the tricky part: getting the patient onto the stretcher.

But five minutes later, Reggie Blair was driving like the wind. As the sun climbed higher in a blue August sky, Reggie hurtled down Highway 501, weaving his way through early morning commuter traffic and the convoys of long haul trucks. He couldn’t check on his passenger, because he’d had to put Vettore in the back of the van where the feed got stacked. In any case, Reggie was fully occupied dodging the truckers. They were travelling nose to tail like a herd of circus elephants, occasionally blocking the highway completely by lining up three abreast.

What with the honking of horns and the hiss of brakes, he felt like he was back driving at Erinsville Speedway, where all manner of dirty tricks were common practice. He was torn between fear and fury.

In the end, fury won out. He rolled down the window of his van and gestured wildly. “Friggin’ sons of bitches!” he screamed, his face contorted with rage. A man driving a Beco Bananas truck looked down with contempt at the feed van from the lofty height of his cab.

Reggie could see him speaking into his walkie talkie, no doubt hatching some sinister plot to ‘fix’ him, further down the road. The whine of a police car’s siren put paid to the truckers’ fun.

Reggie picked up the live cover and followed the police car all the way to the exit, ignoring the signs ‘SLOW DOWN AND BE SAFE’ and ‘SPEED KILLS.’

He reached Erinsville in fifteen minutes’ flat, a record. He just prayed this wasn’t going into any police record books.

But thankfully the officers were either hot on the trail of a gang of international criminals (or so desperate for a cup of coffee!) that they didn’t give him a second glance.

He pulled up outside the lofty grey building that housed the best medical facility in the area: Erinsville General. The Emergency Room lay beyond two large swing doors. Reggie eyed the entrance and concluded he could make it into ER without any help from anyone.

He climbed into the back of the van, took a look at Vettore and was relieved to see that he was still breathing. In fact, he appeared to be resting comfortably on Reggie’s horse blanket, cushioned by the bag of shavings. Reggie wondered briefly what the hospital would make of it, not that he gave a damn.

Maneuvering his way through the swing doors while carrying the stretcher proved to be more difficult than he had thought. The bag caught on one of the door handles and ripped open. A little trickle of wood shavings started to leak out. Ignoring it, Reggie made a beeline for reception.

Luckily the nurse on duty wasted no time. She summoned the emergency team, which whisked Theo away, still on the makeshift stretcher. A neat trail of wood chips marked the route. Reggie was about to follow it, but he heard an imperious voice calling him back.

“Sir! I need the patient’s details. Now!” It was the reception nurse. Her brown hair was pulled back in a severe pony tail. A jutting chin and striking black eyes, which appeared to be boring into Reggie’s head, completed the picture. It looked like he had no choice but to obey her. Also, he wanted his horse blanket back. It was old but it had sentimental value. Emblazoned on it were the words Bronze Stakes Winner, the only one he’d ever won.

He couldn’t exactly blame the nurse for waylaying him. She was just trying to do her job. But his heart sank when he saw the mountain of paperwork on her desk.

“Name!” the nurse ordered, pen poised. “Mine or his?” he parried. “The patient’s will do for now,” she replied, adding ominously, “I’ll get to you later.” She struggled over the spelling of Vettore. He came up empty on health number, but eventually they were done.

Stay tuned in to Harnesslink every week for another excerpt from Horse Flesh!

Each week, Harnesslink will feature an excerpt from Horse Flesh. If you wish to purchase the book either in paperback or ereader formats, click here.

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