Dangerous Turf by D.M. O’Byrne
The petite, blond girl brushed the colt’s mane until it gleamed like black satin. Very few jockeys bothered to get to know their mounts until just before their races, but the girl tried anything to even the odds that were always against female jockeys.
The colt’s liquid brown eyes gazed out of his stall to the normally busy backstretch area. But at this hour, most of the trainers, grooms and riders were over at the track watching the afternoon’s races. It was unusually quiet. The colt’s ears pricked up at the sound of approaching footsteps. The stall door opened and the man slipped in.
The girl turned. “Oh, hi,” she said. She continued brushing the colt’s mane. It was the last thing she would ever say. They found her body several hours later, the trembling horse standing over her, the whites of his eyes showing. But the man was gone by then, moving on to another track in another state.
Three years later
“So who found the body again?” Lieutenant Sam Kubisky opened his tattered notebook and searched the pockets of his wrinkled jacket for a pen. “Damn. Abarca, give me a pen, will you?”
“Here you go, Lieutenant.” Sergeant Adam Abarca, who struck Tonya as too tall and handsome to be a cop, stood quietly behind his lieutenant, making notes about each of the people being questioned.
“I found him about an hour ago,” said Luis.
Kubisky eyed the two barn workers passing by the stall where the groom’s body had been found. “Maybe we could find some place quieter to talk?”
“Let’s go over to my trailer. Just across the lot,” said Tonya’s father, Royce.
In the tiny single wide mobile home that Tonya shared with her father, the detective settled his bulk into a kitchen chair with a grunt. Sam Kubisky appeared to be in his sixties, with thinning gray hair and a bulbous red nose. The flesh around his watery blue eyes sagged and settled into tired pouches as though too weary to care anymore. He wiped his forehead with a soiled handkerchief and opened his notebook again. “Maybe you could wait outside while I talk to Mr. Callahan and his daughter,” he said, nodding to Luis. “I’ll call you when I need you.”
Even after Luis left, Tonya felt claustrophobic in the small kitchen. Sergeant Abarca leaned against the counter, his solid six-foot, three-inch frame seeming to take up half the room.
Royce and Tonya sat at the table with the lieutenant. “Now then, Mr. Callahan, what can you tell me about this groom of yours? What was his name again?”
“Alfredo Gomez … Alfie.”
“Right.” Kubisky made a note. “How long have you known him?”
“Alfie came to work for me here at the track about the same time Luis and I started in business together. About twenty years ago.”
“When did you see him last?”
The door opened with a bang and Alton Jeffers stormed in, his clothes disheveled, his face red. “Why wasn’t I called? Security is my responsibility. I should have been called first.” Tonya noticed that his limp was a little more pronounced today.
“Sorry, Alton,” Royce said, sounding like he did when trying to soothe a nervous two-year-old colt. “All we could think to do is call the police.”
Jeffers’s huffiness subsided a little. “Well, okay, but I need to hear this. Whatever you’re doing,” he said to Kubisky, “I need to know about. I’m in charge of security at this track and I don’t like people getting murdered on my backstretch.” He stood behind the lieutenant, his arms folded.
Kubisky sighed like a man who had seen it all and was just hanging on until he could collect his pension. “Keep your hair on, Jeffers. We weren’t going to leave here without clueing you in.” He turned to Royce. “Go on, Mr. Callahan. What else do you know about this Gomez?”
“My best groom. Good worker. Always on time. Good hand with the horses. Never abusive toward them or anything like that.”
“What about his habits? Did he gamble on the races? Was he into drugs? Did he drink? Any women?” Tonya wondered if Kubisky had already made up his mind about poor Alfie.
“Not that I know of. But Luis can tell you a lot more about him than I can.”
“What about you, Miss?” the policeman said. “Did you know him?”
Tonya hesitated, wondering if she should reveal what she had seen just days ago. It hadn’t meant anything at the time, but still. The last thing she wanted was to help this offensive cop come to the wrong conclusion about a harmless little man like Alfie. The handsome sergeant looked at her kindly. “Go ahead, Miss Callahan. Anything you can do to help find the one who did this.”
“I only know he was a reliable worker and kind to the horses, like my dad said. But I did see something.”
Kubisky peered at her through slightly squinted eyes. “Go on.”
“A couple of days ago, Alfie had a black eye. At least I think that’s what it was. And the day before that, I saw him talking to this a stranger.”
Kubisky made a note. “Description?”
“Dark hair, about Alfie’s height, younger than Alfie. I don’t remember ever seeing him around here before. I didn’t think anything of it at the time. The grooms from all the different stables are friends. They tend to hang out together, especially the Spanish-speakers.”
“Don’t I know it,” Kubisky said, half to himself. “The bean-eaters are as thick as thieves.” Tonya was shocked by his racist attitude and looked at Sgt. Abarca as if to say Is he serious? The sergeant shrugged his shoulders and shook his head slightly. Jeffers seemed unfazed by the comment. He stood staring into space and chewing his lip.
Royce bristled. “The Hispanics in my stable are the best workers I’ve got. I resent you talking about them that way. Alfie is dead. I’ll thank you to have some respect while you’re in my home.”
Kubisky ignored him. He handed Royce his card. “If you think of anything else, give me a call. Now let’s get the other wetback in here. What’s his name again?”
Royce looked like he was going to punch him. “His name is Luis Mendes. And he’s an American citizen.”
“Whatever. Abarca, bring in this Mendes character.” Her father left for the barn still fuming, but Tonya busied herself at the kitchen sink so she could eavesdrop on the conversation. The sergeant brought Luis in.
“Sit down, Mendes.”
Sergeant Abarca took his place next to Jeffers and resumed taking notes.
“Ok, amigo, Callahan tells me you knew the victim. What can you tell me about him? How long have you known him?”
“I meet Alfredo near El Paso many years ago. He was from Colombia. Wanted to get away from the drug cartels. They run everything in his village. So he crossed the border illegally with a coyote who took all his money and left him. I told him the track here always needed help cleaning stalls and walking the horses. He came with me, and Señor Royce gave him a job. He has been with us since that day.”
“So he’s illegal.”
“No. Señor Royce helped him get his green card. Then he became a citizen years ago.”
“The girl said she saw him talking to some stranger last week. Do you know who that might be?”
“I may have seen him once or twice.”
“Was he a friend of Gomez?”
“Not a friend. Just someone he knew, I think.”
“Did he work on the track?”
“No. I don’t think so.”
Kubisky tapped his pencil on the table. “There’s no use hiding anything from us to protect your friend’s memory. We’re pretty sure we know who this guy is. Tell him, Jeffers.”
Alton Jeffers cleared his throat. “I’ve been helping the local police to identify some drug dealers they suspect have been working the backstretch. That’s the reason for the new security cameras. I have film of the man you describe. His name is Carlos. He’s on the video talking to Gomez last week.”
Luis’s eyes narrowed for a moment. “Alfie had nothing to do with drugs. He wouldn’t do that.”
Kubisky gazed at him skeptically for a moment, then pried his body out of the little chair like a swollen cork from the narrow neck of a wine bottle. “Might as well go look at that film now. Abarca, give Mendes one of your cards. I’m all out. Let’s go, Jeffers.” The two mean headed out the door.
Adam handed Luis a card and said, “Feel free to call any time if you think of something, Mr. Mendes. And don’t mind the lieutenant. He doesn’t mean half of what he says. Thank you for your help.”
Kubisky’s voice boomed from outside the door. “Abarca! Shake a leg!”
Tonya sat at the table. “Would you like some coffee, Luis? I’m sure my dad has some here somewhere.”
“No, thank you, mija. I should go back to work.”
Tonya cleared her throat, wondering whether she should risk being presumptuous to this man who was like a second father to her. “Luis, if there’s anything you need to talk about, I mean about Alfie. Or anything really.”
Luis nodded and looked steadily at her. “I know Alfie could not have been buying drugs from this Carlos. Alfie was a good man. Lately he talked about his village in Colombia and how his mother took him to church when he was a boy. He wanted to be the kind of man his mother would be proud of. This was not a man who would take drugs or get into fights or break the laws of the country he loved. No, mija, I will never believe it.”
“Why didn’t you tell that to the cops?”
“Because that man has made up his mind about Alfie. About all Chicanos. He would not have listened to one of us defend another.”
Tonya chewed the end of her pony tail. “But why would this Carlos want to kill Alfie? It makes no sense.”
“We don’t know that he did.”
“But who else? No one on the backstretch could be a murderer. Could they?”
From Dangerous Turf by D.M. O’Byrne. Published by Black Opal Books. Scheduled for release December 2, 2017. Copyright 2016. All rights reserved.