“Hey, Uncle T, what’s up?” I asked and jumped out of the van.
I didn’t get two steps away from the van before I got pulled into a gigantic bear hug.
“Hey, kid, good to see you,” Thomas said as I struggled to loosen his grip.
“Always good to see you, too,” I laughed. “So, why are we here? What’s the scoop?”
“Ahh, straight to business,” Thomas said letting me go chuckling. “That’s what I like about you.”
“Yea, well, you know me. All work and no play,” I said looking around his shoulder, across the parking lot at the track behind us.
“Nothing gets by you, does it, Love?” he joked. “Actually, I’m not so sure what’s going on, that’s why I called you here, Ms. Reporter. Can we, um, can we talk about this in the van?”
“Sure,” I said studying my Uncle carefully before slowly walking around to the back and opening the double doors. His smile was tight. His eyes darted back and forth, looking over his shoulder at the track and back to the van.
It wasn’t like Uncle Thomas to act secretively about our next story. His boisterous attitude about getting me my next break was usually contagious. But today, with him not being up front about what we were meeting for made me curious and apprehensive at the same time. Most of the time our stories were on robberies or homicide investigations or we would attempt to tackle a scandal with the latest debacle within the nation’s government. It was always a story where we came in after the bad guy had left. What could he possibly have in store for me here?
Thomas motioned for me to climb inside first. He followed right behind me, closing the double doors as he got inside. Over the years Uncle Thomas and I had worked hard setting up the back of the van with surveillance equipment and recording devices to help with our stories. We had wireless taps that I’d wear on occasion for the few stories Thomas felt comfortable letting me take undercover. Thomas said it made him feel better about me going undercover when I wore the wires because he could listen in and pull me out if he needed to. I just cared that I could finally do some real investigating and it helped that it gave us evidence we needed for our cases if we ever had to turn someone in. We sat down on the two swivel seats and I waited for my Uncle to speak first.
“Muirnín,” Thomas started. He was reverting into his native tongue. That only meant one thing; he was nervous. “You know I wouldn’t involve you in anything that I thought would put you in any danger, right?” Thomas asked the slight Irish accent shining through.
I nodded knowing that it was true. Uncle Thomas treated me like I was his own daughter. It showed in the affectionate way he endeared me and his fierce protectiveness. I was willing to bet that even he didn’t know how deep we’d have to go. He also knew I wouldn’t be able to pass up the story, no matter the danger. This was just the opportunity I had been waiting for. Something told me that this might be bigger than anything I’d been involved in before.
Thomas sighed, rubbing a hand over his thick grey hair. He hesitated before continuing, “About a week ago I was here when I overheard something, someone talking about the races coming up. I’ve always had my suspicions, but never any proof.”
Over the years I’ve come to notice that Thomas O’Brien’s Irish came out when he was nervous, his agitation seemed to cause him to forget his English. He’d been in the states for about forty years now, not like he was fresh off the boat. Something was troubling him. I tensed up wondering just what that was. Uncle Thomas would never put me in direct danger if he could help it and that was the only thing that gave me any confidence to try to do this.
“What did you hear?” I asked to keep him talking.
“For years, now, I’ve suspected that there might be somethin’ going on. Every race on this track seems to not go the way all the stats show it should. But, after what I heard the other day, I’m sure of it now,” Thomas paused shaking his head. “Someone is determining the winner before the race even starts.”
“Wire me up,” I blurted without thinking and Thomas’ head snapped up. “I’ll go in there and see if I can figure out a way in. It’s what I do, right?”
“I’m not going to let you just walk in there. Especially after I heard that the owner of this place might be behind it all,” Lou was getting worked up, his Irish accent getting thicker.
“I’m not going to just walk in there and ask them what they’re doing or how they’re doing it. Don’t they have races scheduled for what, next weekend?” I asked suddenly more interested in who exactly he was talking about. I opened a cabinet and pulled out a box full of ear pieces and microphones. I could get in there and poke around.
“Ay, they do,” Thomas responded and was now helping me pull out a small microphone and ready it to record in the van.
“So, I need to see if I can find out how this whole horse racing thing works. I need to know how to get a horse in a race. And the best way to do that is going in looking for help,” I paused and turned on the best southern accent I could muster. “Could y’all help a girl get her filly in y’all’s race?”
Thomas looked at me, concern on his face, “Now, Dear, you can’t just walk in there and expect to get a horse in on such short notice. It’s a private stable, some of those horses in there have been on a waiting list for years. These people, if they knew what you were doing or who you were… So help me if they harm a hair on your head,” Lou said with a protective tone shaking his fist to the sky. “Wait, Love, you don’t even have a horse.”
“Oh, Lou, how long have you been working with me now? You know me better than that. And I know you better than that. You work on getting me a horse and you’d better get one fast. I’m about to enter A Ghra Mo Chori in the next race. Oh, and I’ll need you to line me up with a jockey too.” I said quickly as I put a hearing device in my ear, pulling my hair down around my face to hide it and jumped out the back of the van. I turned around and saw Thomas’ perplexed look. I knew if I didn’t leave soon and try out my plan he’d try to stop me after it all sunk in.
“Thanks, Uncle T!” I said smiling and shut the back doors of the van. I turned toward the race track and took a deep breath. “Well,” I muttered to myself and walked away toward the race track. “Here goes nothing.”
I jogged across the parking lot and hopped the fence. I took a moment to smooth out my shirt and run my hand through my hair attempt to tame it. I brought my hair back around my face, checking the ear bud and started walking slowly toward the stables.
I took a deep breath, “Testing, testing.” I quietly said into the mike that was pinned to my shirt.
“Loud and clear, Love,” came the response.
I walked slowly into the stables, “Hello?” My word echoed through the building with no response so I stepped inside.
The smell of manure mixed with hay and leather filled the air. Horses whinnied and pawed the ground as I walked by as if in greeting. I looked around for a sign of anyone in here but only saw the horses poking their heads out of the stalls. I crept through taking in the competition when a brown head with a perfect white star on his forehead poked out right in front of me.
“Well, hi there,” I whispered reaching a flattened hand up to his nose. I glanced up at the ornate name tag above the stall. “Lucky, huh?” I asked the extra friendly horse as I pet him, “do you live up to your name?”
“That he does,” a voice said startling me from behind.
‘Shit,’ I thought to myself hoping he didn’t just hear me talking to the horse. I hadn’t thought to use my southern twang as soon as I got in here.
“Why, is this your horse, sir?” I asked mustering up the best southern belle I could, and kept my eyes on the horse.
“Naw, jus’ look after ‘em.” The man answered with a thick southern drawl. I heard the gravel under his feet as he walked closer.
I turned smiling. He was only a few feet away from me. Tall, lanky with a long-sleeved grey shirt rolled up to his elbows. Steel blue eyes narrowed on me. He wore jeans with a belt buckle the size of his hands, tan cowboy boots with a Stetson to match. A cigar hung out of his mouth, a squared shovel in his left.
He removed the cigar before asking, “Can I help you?” He stopped right beside me and the horse.
“Oh,” I continued. “So you work here? At the stables?” I inquired.
“Yes, Ma’am. I run them here stables.” He answered. Then the questions quickly started to me. “Which are private stables, I might add, little lady. Might I ask what you are doin’ in here?”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” I apologized trying to put on my best show widening my eyes and bringing my right hand to my chest. “I didn’t realize. I just was lookin’ ‘round the track and happened here. I thought I’d see what kind of competition we’d be up against. And to see what kind of facilities we’d be utilizing.”
I watched as his eyes roamed over me trying to figure out if what I was telling him was to be trusted. I couldn’t tell if he was buying what I was saying or if he was reading through my bullshit. His gaze was making me slightly uncomfortable and I fought hard to keep a smile on my face.
I reached out my hand and introduced myself, “I’m so sorry, I haven’t even introduced myself, how terribly rude of me. My name is Claire. Claire Montgomery.”
He took my hand in his and shook, “Nice to meet you, Claire. The name’s Wyatt. Now you mind telling me which one of these horses is yours again?”
“Oh, he isn’t here yet. I had to make sure that these were suitable stables for him first. I wanted to make sure he’d be in good hands. You could understand that. And I can tell, he will be in quite capable hands with you, sir.”
“I hadn’t heard nuthin’ ‘bout any new ‘rivals. You sure you came to the right place?” Wyatt inquired as he puffed on his cigar and scratched his head. “I usually know e’erythang that’s goin’ on ‘round here.”
“Well, you are the number one stable in Kentucky, right?” I was hoping this was going to work. Come on southern charm, “See, that’s where I need your help.” I pouted, “See, we been racin’ him at some of the tracks back home in Oklahoma and he’s just been winnin’ all the time. It’s embarrassin’ really. And we were thinkin’ that maybe he’s ready now for some of the big boy action. But, I just don’t know how to go about gettin’ him in. I was hopin’ maybe you could help me figure it all out.”
I saw Wyatt’s eyes light up as I talked about A Ghra Mo Chori. He took a couple of puffs off his cigar again. His eyes narrowed as he looked at me. I was hoping he was trying to figure out how to get our horse in the race, or at the very least to just getting a glimpse of him. If Uncle T did this right I was sure all we had to do was amaze him on the track.
“Did you bring him with you?” he finally asked.
“He’s at my private stable with my trainer. It’s not far from here. But, I’m lookin’ to keep him close to the track, somewhere I can train him easy.”
“Bring em by this afternoon, one o’clock. I’ll have someone take a look at ‘em, maybe run ‘em on the track, see what he can do. You got a jockey?”
“Yes, sir,” I lied with a smile. Boy, was I hoping Uncle T pulled through with his contacts.
“Well, all right, then,” Wyatt said holding out his hand to me. “We’ll see you this afternoon.”
“Thank you so much, Wyatt. You have no idea how much this means to me givin’ him a chance to race on your track,” I tried to sound extremely grateful taking his hand with both of mine giving him a huge smile.
“Thank me later after we see what your horse can do. You ain’t in the race yet.”
“You will not be disappointed,” I assured him as I walked out of the stables. I waited until I was in the sunshine before I muttered under my breath, “I hope.”
I walked over to the race track to look things over quickly on my way out. First reason I decided to go this way was that I wanted to look truly interested in the track if Wyatt was watching me leave. I couldn’t have him catch me jumping the fence. I looked at the soil, touched the railing around the track. I looked up at the sun and over to see how it shined down on everything this time of day.
Second reason I came this way was that I wanted to see who was around; look at faces, who was training today, who worked here, maybe even catch a glimpse of the elusive owner. This was my excuse to be nosy. No one seemed to look out-of-place or unusual. There was a grounds keep tending to the lawn in the middle of the track. Another on a tractor smoothing the dirt. No one was loitering around in the stands, they were empty.
I turned around to give the stables one last look as I headed to the eastern exit. Walking slowly backwards I noticed a group of men heading for the stables. I paused, squinting trying to make out their faces. It was too far away to clearly make any of them out. They were all sharply dressed in slacks and pressed white shirts with ties.
I watched the group of five men as they approached the stables appearing to be discussing something, laughing occasionally. I could faintly hear their voices from across the track because it was so quiet, but not quite good enough to make out any words. They stopped just outside the stable doors and man dressed in dark-grey slacks with a tan button up and a burgundy tie motioned for the other men to continue inside the stables before him. He waited for them to all enter and he brought his hand up to run through his hair gripping a handful of it while he paused by the entrance.
His gaze landed my way. Could he see me blatantly staring at him? My heart pounded keeping the eye contact. Seconds passed before he sighed and followed them in.
He seemed nervous. Investors, maybe?
An uneasy feeling filled the pit of my stomach. Something felt off wrong. I could see the scowl on his face before he had entered the building. I waited for him to walk through the door before I turned and jogged away.
“So, did you find me a horse?” I asked my Uncle as I jumped into the van.
“Ay, and I got you a jockey,” Thomas sighed. “I sure hope this works. The filly I found hasn't ever raced professionally, but from what I’ve heard he’s going to be a force to be reckoned with someday. He’s a little young, but I’m hoping with Jimmy riding him, he’ll be able to handle anything this horse can throw him.”
“Jimmy?” I asked curiously. “I thought he retired a few years ago?”
Jimmy had won many races in the peak of his career. He was the best jockey around and Uncle T’s best friend. Jimmy would be there for him at the drop of a hat, no questions asked. I was hoping that Uncle T’s hunch was right.
“He’s not racing professionally anymore, but he is teaching the art of jockeying at one of the local stables,” Thomas informed me. “He is looking forward to racing again.”
“Well,” I said as I jumped into the driver’s seat of the van. “You heard the man. We need to go meet A Ghra Mo Chori and bring him to the track for a little show. We’ve got to get back by one. Go get your car, Uncle T. Let’s drop it off at the station on our way.”
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