1:20 P.M. | 0:50 TO GREEN FLAG
Nothing surprised me about pre-race festivities anymore. Skydivers, samba dancers, Clydesdales—we saw them all. Uniformed cops and security guards generated no excitement. But two police officers with their serious faces on, heading my way? Unusual. I stood in pit lane, enjoying the view of overcast skies, an enormous racetrack, and some ten thousand people, all of us buzzed on anticipation and adrenaline. Drivers, teams, and fans savored the buildup to the green flag. Everyone focused on the world inside the giant bowl of Daytona International Speedway. Everyone was ready for the marathon that is the legendary 24 Hours of Daytona endurance race. Then the sight of badges, gunbelts, and somber faces, flanked by Series staff, shot my heart rate into race-stint territory.
I straightened up from my slouch against the side of our number 28 Corvette. Tug Brehan, the number two guy in operations for the new United SportsCar Championship series—and, hands down, the most stylish guy at the racetrack—led the officers to me through the sea of people.
Tug put a comforting hand on my shoulder. “Kate Reilly, this is Detective Latham with the Daytona Beach Police.” He gestured to the tall, slender man with a shaved-bald head and mocha-colored skin. “And Officer Webster, Daytona International Speedway Police.” That was the older guy, shorter and rounder, with graying red hair and pale skin.
Webster nodded, then turned to scan the crowd around us.
Latham looked from me to Tug. “Is there somewhere quieter or more private we could talk?”
I shook my head. Dread curdled my stomach. “Tell me.” When the cop didn’t respond, I pointed to the front of the grid. “We could fight our way to my team’s pits, but it’s at the far end of chaos. What is it?”
Tug beckoned to someone. Holly Wilson, my best friend and new manager/assistant, appeared next to me.
I panicked. “My grandparents?”
“Your family is fine.” Tug started to say more, then stopped. Relief left me lightheaded.
Latham cleared his throat. “I understand you know the Series Vice President of Operations Stuart Telarday well.”
“Stuart?” Twelve hours ago I’d have said he was my boyfriend. I’m not sure what he is now. “He’s a good friend. Is he in trouble?” “I’m sorry to tell you he was involved in a hit-and-run accident a couple hours ago.” Latham watched me intently. “He’s
in critical condition.”
My mind went blank. I shook my head. “Hold on. What?” “Stuart Telarday was injured in a hit-and-run shortly before eleven this morning. He was crossing International Speedway Boulevard, possibly on his way to a restaurant.”
“Outside the track? He wouldn’t leave the track on race day.
It can’t have been him.”
“He carried three kinds of photo identification.”
The news slammed into me with the force of a couple Gs. I must have swayed, because Holly put her arm around my waist. Tug stepped forward again.
“A restaurant?” The details didn’t make sense. Stuart. Hurt.
“A security guard at the track exit said Telarday mentioned the Mexican place,” Latham responded. “On the corner of Bill France Boulevard.”
I looked at the detective, but pictured Stuart instead. Black trousers, crisp white Series shirt, horn-rimmed glasses, and a slight frown on his face as he scrolled through messages on his phone. He saw the green light and stepped into the crosswalk with his typical determined stride. Then a car careened through the intersection, inspired by the racetrack nearby, tires squealing—bam. I closed my eyes on the horror of impact and a person—Stuart—flying and hitting the ground.
The pedestrian and car were easy to imagine. I’d witnessed nearly the same accident yesterday, in the same location. Then, however, the car braked and swerved in time, and the pedestrian jumped out of the way.
I opened my eyes, astonished to find a vibrant world around us. I looked at Detective Latham. “How bad is he?” It came out as a whisper.
Latham spoke first. “The official word is critical.”
“We’re not releasing anything more than that,” Tug—Stuart’s employee—put in. He pitched his voice low, though the cacophony around us made it unlikely anyone else could hear. “But I think it’s appropriate to tell you, Kate—” he eyed Holly.
I exhaled sharply. “She won’t repeat it.”
He nodded. “Stuart has compound fractures of multiple limbs, broken ribs, internal bleeding, a broken collarbone or shoulder. But the concern is the skull fracture and possible brain injury. He’s in surgery right now.”
I had to concentrate to make sure I was breathing. “Is he going to—” I couldn’t finish the question. Not out loud.
Tug took my hand. “Kate, we don’t know. He’s got the best team of doctors around.” I stared at him, trying to process his words. Tug was short for a man—which still meant taller than me—with dark hair, perpetually tan skin, and something around the eyes that hinted at some kind of ethnic ancestry—part Native American was my guess. The charm he always oozed was mixed now with sympathy and concern.
I need to sit down, pronto. I pulled free of Tug and Holly. I curled up on the pavement next to my car, my arms and head on my bent knees. I tried not to think about the pain and terror Stuart must have felt. Tried to think positive thoughts about the work surgeons were doing. How Stuart would heal. I processed the idea of him fighting for his life in a hospital room. Not being at the race. Maybe ever. I tried not to cry as I argued with myself. I should be there. You can’t do anything. I should be there anyway. You have a job to do here. How can I be here with him hurt? Are you willing to let two dozen people on your team down or damage your career to sit in the waiting room? Would my boss let me? Would Stuart want me to?
Slowly the buzzing in my head faded, and I looked up. Detective Latham and Officer Webster were talking with Jack Sandham, my team owner and boss, and Tom Albright, our team media, computer, and everything-else-unassigned guy.
Holly crouched down next to me. “You going to make it, sugar?”
“No alternative.” My voice shook. “This going to stop you from driving?”
“Not getting in the car won’t help him. He wouldn’t want me to stay out of the car and sit at the hospital.” I grabbed Holly’s hand. “Would he? Should I be there? I feel like I should be there.”
She shook her short, red curls. “He’d tell you not to let your job be another casualty of his accident.”
I looked at my feet.
“Time for you to stand up, though.” She tugged on my hand. “Come on. They’re starting to clear the grid.”
When I pulled myself to my feet, everyone closed in again, physically and emotionally. I turned first to Jack. I had to look up a foot and a half to meet him in the eye.
“You okay, Kate?” His voice was low, gruff. At my nod, he blew out a breath. “Do you need—if you need to go to the hospital, I won’t stand in your way, but it’s problematic. I wouldn’t say that, except he’s in surgery, and it’s not like you can see him anyway.” Jack was uncharacteristically flustered.
“I’ll stay here now. Later…” I swallowed hard.
“We’ll see what happens later,” he agreed. “For now, you’re third stint in the car. Do you want extra time?”
“Let’s stick to the schedule. Let me do my job.”
“Business as usual then. Keep me posted on how you’re doing.” He moved away.
I turned to Tug and the cops. “Thank you for bringing me the news. Tug, who can keep me updated on his condition? Who’s at the hospital?”
“Let me have your cell number, and I will call or text.” He handed me a business card. “His family is en route, and in the meantime, Polly’s there.”
I recited my cell number, feeling a flicker of relief. Polly was the office manager for the operations team, helping Stuart and Tug ensure every team, supplier, and sponsor had the information or tools they needed to race. I knew Polly viewed Stuart as a second son. Even better, she knew I was dating him, and I could contact her directly.
Latham recorded my number in his notebook. “We’d like to ask you a few questions.”
I had a terrible thought. “Was it an accident?”
“Based on witness accounts, we believe it may have been a deliberate attack.”
No one would want to kill Stuart. I had to pause to be sure my voice was steady. “I have no idea what I can tell you, Detective. It doesn’t make any sense to me—and I certainly didn’t run him down in a jealous rage.” I faltered, remembering my last conversation with Stuart wasn’t all sunshine and roses.
Webster, the track cop, raised an eyebrow. But before he or Latham could follow up, Tom interrupted.
“Kate, get ready, Zeke’s on his way to you.” He bounced on the balls of his feet.
I didn’t give the cops a chance to argue. “That’s SGTV with a live shot. You’ll have to wait.”
I walked to the front of the Sandham Swift Corvette where Tom had cleared a space for a good camera angle. I took a deep breath. My mind churned with Stuart’s condition, the argument I had with him that morning, and what the cops wanted to ask me.
“Tom,” I shouted. “Topic?”
He shook his head at my unasked question. “Race only, not Stuart.”
Zeke and his cameraman were on final approach. Fifteen feet away. Ten. Five. I took another deep breath.