The March half-moon played hide-and-seek behind a screen of huge clouds that scudded across the midnight sky. After moving silently up the concrete walkway to the Large Animal Barn at Croft College, she bent down a few feet behind the dark blue campus police car and peered through its rear window. A young officer was in the driver’s seat, hat tilted over his eyes and his earplugs in as he dozed to the low volume country western song twanging out of his iPad mini.
At the back entrance to the long, white barn she crouched at the door, quickly used her tension wrench and steel pick on the simple lock, and slid inside the long, dimly lit, one-story wooden building. The corridor ran between stalls housing a couple of Black Angus heifers and a Holstein cow. She softly walked forward. Her masked face momentarily split in a smile as she inhaled the familiar smell of hay and horse.
The lock had been easier to pick than Secretariat in a Fantasy League Race. That was a relief, she thought, as she brushed a trickle of sweat from her forehead, took a deep breath. No noise from the wide metal door either opening or closing, very little from the dark bay mare looking out from her stall at the north end of the barn. So far, so good. The inquisitive mare twitched her ears in a tentative greeting as the dark-clad figure slowly approached. She watched the visitor with luminous brown eyes above her long face with its large crooked white star. Her racetrack days, when regular attention was paid her by attentive humans, were long behind her.
As her soft muzzle was being stroked, the mare heard a gentle voice saying, “You’ve been probed, prodded, perhaps bred to a lesser representative of your species. You are not an object of well-earned affection, but of experimentation. No more, babe, no more.”
The needle sank deep into the broad bay neck delivering the large dose of phenobarbital. The mare twisted her head away but quickly stopped as the drug took effect. With a shudder, she collapsed on the stall’s floor.
The woman put the needle and syringe into her right jacket pocket. From the left one, she took out a printed card and quickly entered the stall. She placed the white placard on the dead horse’s neck. In large dark letters, it read:
NO MORE EXPLOITATION OF THIS ONE OF GOD’S CREATURES
It was the second time she had left such a message. After a final pat on the mare’s neck, the woman exited the stall and moved rapidly, silently, to the south barn door and slipped out into the dark night. The heifers and the Holstein swiveled their heads to watch her go.
Jack Doyle slid into the driver’s seat of his gray Accord, feeling, as his good friend Moe Kellman would put it, “top notch.” He turned on his windshield wipers as he pulled out of the Fit City Health Club parking lot in Chicago’s Loop and drove up Dearborn Street. Not even this wet, chilly, dreary, unpleasant early spring morning could dim his mood as he looked forward to his breakfast meeting at Petros’ Restaurant, two blocks from his north side condo.
He had joined Kellman, Chicago’s reputed furrier-to-the-Mob, at Fit City at six thirty for their regular workout in the small boxing room with its ring, light and heavy bags, free weights, and space for jumping rope. The two had met and bonded there several years before, both eschewing the other exercise areas of what they considered this yuppie-infested club. Their friendship during the previous two years had featured ownership of a talented colt named Plotkin. This fifty thousand-dollar purchase had wound up winning more than three hundred thousand dollars on the track and was now churning out more profits for the pair. Plotkin was serving his first season as a popular young stallion, with a stud fee of ten thousand dollars, and a book of fifty mares he would be bred to this spring.
For Doyle, these workouts gave him a chance to replicate old moves he’d employed as an amateur boxer twenty-five years earlier when, at age eighteen, he’d won a Golden Gloves title at one hundred sixty pounds. The diminutive, seventy-something Kellman, as a boy growing up on Chicago’s tough West Side, had fared well in many a fracas. His brief amateur career as a lightweight boxer had been aborted by service with the U.S. Marine Corps during the Korean War.
After Doyle’s first set of seventy-five push-ups and then three minutes of rapid jump-roping, and Kellman’s fifty sit-ups and push-ups, they both paused and the little man said, “What do you hear from the breeding farm? How’s Plotkin doing?”
Doyle took a towel to his head of sandy-colored hair now darkened with sweat. “I called the farm manager, nice guy named Paul Mann, yesterday afternoon. He said Plotkin has ‘serviced’ eighteen mares so far. That’s what they call it in their business, ‘serviced.’ He’s got another thirty-two scheduled in the next few weeks. If a mare doesn’t get pregnant on the first try, she gets another attempt free of charge. So far, that hasn’t been necessary, Mann told me.”
“Great news,” Moe said, picking up his jump rope and placing it on the bench beside him.
“Absolutely. I went out to the farm, Hill and Dale, one morning last week. Watched Plotkin being bred to a couple of mares. I must say that our stud approached his assignment with considerable enthusiasm. Probably has a libido much like that of his younger owner, if I may say so myself.”
“You just did,” Moe laughed.
“Mann at Hill and Dale gave me a little tutorial on breeding horses and famous breeders. One of the latter group, he said, was an Italian named Federico Tesio. He bred a bunch of good runners. According to Mann, Tesio’s famous quote about his success was that he had ‘learned to listen to the stars and talk to the horses.’” Moe reached for a towel and began drying himself off. “Yeah?
Well, I remember reading somewhere that breeding thoroughbreds is like playing chess with nature.”
As he pulled on his gloves before heading for the heavy bag, Doyle noticed Moe taking a pair of cross-trainers out of his gym bag and pulling the crumpled paper from within them.
“New kicks today, Moesy?”
“Right.” Kellman held one of the shoes up to his face. “Which is the best smell in the world? Newly mown grass? The inside of a new car? Or brand new shoes?”
Doyle grinned. “I’d vote for the smell of a new woman.” “Good luck to you there,” Kellman replied before they began their forty-five minute workout routines.
# # #
Doyle’s decision to make this post-workout breakfast appointment resulted from a phone call he’d received the previous evening. Picking up his cell at the programmed sound of the first bars of jazz standard “Take the A Train,” Doyle heard a gruff voice he recognized say, “This is Damon Tirabassi. I presume you haven’t forgotten me, Jack.”
“I’ve tried mightily,” Doyle said, “but to no avail. What’s on your bureaucratic mind? I guess it’s not worth asking how you got my unlisted cell number.” Doyle had first met Tirabassi and his FBI agent partner, Karen Engel, six years earlier when he had aided them in bringing to justice a sadistic media tycoon who was killing his own thoroughbred stallions for their insurance values. “Don’t bother about how we got your phone number. I’m calling because we could use your help, Jack. Karen and I want to meet with you.”
“Help for what? Don’t tell me that stallion killer wangled an early parole.”
Tirabassi said, “No, no. What we’re dealing with now is another horse killer, or horse killers.”
“You’re jivin’ me!”
“If only,” Tirabassi said. “How about meeting at that greasy spoon in your neighborhood that you like? Tomorrow at nine?”
“Agreed. Breakfast will be on you.”