It was nearly 11:00 p.m. and I was down on my knees in the frozen dessert section of the local convenience store, looking for something to eat. I had been working on a craft project at home, realized I was starving, and went searching for something different. That's when the sudden realization hit me that I might look like Diane Keaton in Looking for Mr. Goodbar, or in my case, Mr. Klondike Bar. How pathetic was that?
Fred could already be on his way home from the hockey game downtown after a beer or two with some of the investment advisers from the office. He might even be home now and wondering where the little woman was at that hour since I never went anywhere anymore.
To hell with the ice cream.
I started to stand and happened to catch a glimpse of myself in the frosty glass of the freezer case. My blond hair was a fright and I looked like a ghost.
Ginger Caulfield! What the hell happened to you?
As I slowly stood up, I noticed two punks at the far end of the aisle reach under their zip-front sweat tops and then pull up their hoods. They saw me a half a second later. My first instinct was to reach inside my jacket for my gun, but it wasn't there. What was I thinking? I wasn't a P.I. anymore.
"Hey, lady!" said the closest guy as he pointed an MP.25 automatic in my direction. He waggled the weapon at me and I took two zombie-like steps toward him. His greasy friend eased next to me.
The young Asian man behind the counter heard the first guy's snarky remark, but I didn't think he was going to react until he saw the two punks pushing me forward. The one with the .25 had grabbed a handful of my jacket and was edging me toward the counter, using me as a human shield.
My purse and key ring with the knife attached were still on the floor near the frozen food case where I'd dropped them while pondering the desserts. Defenseless, I scanned the aisles for potential weapons, but the only things handy were rolls of breath mints in the bins fronting the counter. If they were rolls of nickels, I could bunch one in my fist to power punch the son-of-a-bitch manhandling me. But there I was, an unarmed female, helpless, and knowing it.
"Gimme the money," said the other punk, twitching in his faded black sweats, waving his gun, a cheap RG .22 revolver. Tattoos crawled up his neck and down his wrists while he leaned over the counter, leaving his fingerprints, and repeated his demand.
"We don't keep much money in the register," said the clerk in a calm voice. "You want the loose change?"
"Gimme the money," Tattoo Boy grunted again. He was keeping his head down, avoiding the surveillance camera. He must have forgotten that he came in the store with his hood off.
"You okay, lady?" asked the clerk as he keyed in a number and the cash drawer sprang open.
I said nothing, frozen like a Popsicle, and about as useful. All my options seemed to have melted.
"Shut up and get the money," said the guy strangling my jacket. He was easing me to the side so he could get closer to the loot coming his way.
There were a sorry number of bills inside the cash register, but lots of coins. The clerk pulled out the folding money. "Want a bag?"
He yanked a plastic bag off the stack and stuffed the few bills inside, and then he scooped out all the loose change and dumped it in as well. As he attempted to lift the sack off the counter, he dropped it. The guy holding onto my jacket pushed me out of the way and lurched for the bag. The clerk jerked his head at me before he bent down, and a second later, I heard a very familiar sound. I hit the floor right before the shotgun blast went off over my head. Debris flew through the air, and wet, hot, stinging fragments came from all directions. Bits hit my back, neck, and the side of my face.
This can't be happening again. I don't want to die in an all-night convenience store anymore than I did in that dark alley over five years ago.
Another ca-chunk, ca-chunk got my attention, so I waited.
The second blast was followed by screaming. It wasn't me, so I rolled over on my hip and watched the second guy falling slowly to the floor like an autumn leaf. The punk who'd been holding onto me was already down on his back, writhing in agony.
He no longer had the .25 auto in his hand, and the second guy had lost his gun, too. The clerk reloaded before he joined me in front of the counter.
"You okay, lady?" he asked again, resting his shotgun on his arm.
I still had no snappy reply. My life was flashing before my eyes and it had gotten quite boring, except for this little episode. Finally, I tuned back in to what the clerk was saying.
"You were so calm," he said. "I thought you were with them, but most thieves don't wear aprons."
That's when I looked down and noticed I was still wearing my artist's smock over a pair of washed-out jeans.
What did happen to me? I used to be a kick-ass private detective with a wardrobe full of Prada. Somehow over the last two years I had turned into a middle-aged hausfrau in a smock.
The police arrived with sirens blaring. They ushered the clerk and me out to the sidewalk while the ambulance crew tended to the dead. Birdshot at close range shredded the punks' hoods and inflicted terminal damage.
The lights outside the store were glaringly bright, and neon is never flattering. I wanted to slink home before anyone else saw me. That's when the sound of deliberate footfalls stomping across the parking lot got our attention. The cops eased the clerk and me out of harm's way and confronted the intruder. One of the cops unfastened his holster, but he didn't pull his weapon. The others did. I looked up and saw the face that belonged to those boots coming our way.
"Fred," I managed to squeak.
My husband was beside me in a second with his arm around my shoulder. I wanted to crawl inside his pocket.
"I saw a silver car like yours in the parking lot," said Fred, squeezing my shoulder, "but I figured you couldn't be crazy enough to be out at this time of night. When I realized you weren't at home, I drove back. What happened? Did you rob the place?" He was grinning.
I was happy to see Fred's face and glad he hadn't lost his sense of humor, but I was even gladder it wasn't me being wheeled out on a gurney. Finally, the officers said we could go home, so Fred walked me to my car and I explained a little more about the ordeal.
"If you can't drive, I'll take you home." He pointed to his truck at the curb.
"I'm okay," I said, as a slight twinge in my back made me grimace.
That's when Fred saw the blood splattered across my back and the side of my face. "You weren't shot again, were you?" He tried wiping it off.
I shook my head and then looked at him. "I should have done something."
"What could you have done?" he said. Then he added, "They had the guns."
I don't know, maybe it was the way he said it, but I felt worn out and empty and useless. I had finally weaned myself off the pain pills I'd been taking after getting shot several years earlier, realizing that was one crutch I didn't need, but lately I'd been restless. Something was missing in my life.
Sliding onto the driver's seat, I started the car and noticed the knife hanging from my wad of keys. Maybe if I had my knife I could have‛&
I put the car in reverse.
What could I have done? My business was closed. I wasn't a P.I. anymore. I wasn't anything.
Rolling down the window, I asked, not really caring about the answer, "Who won the game?"
"Tied 5-5 in double overtime."
How depressing. I drove home.
The next day I moped around the house in my bathrobe. My craft project lay untouched on the worktable. I didn't go out and pick up the mail, either. Fred brought it in when he came home from work. I didn't even have a glass of wine half finished before he walked in the back door.
Our two dogs jumped around him as he dropped the mail on the center island and gave me a kiss. Then he picked up the assorted correspondence and sorted through it.
"Want to go to the Oak Tree races at Santa Angela? They sent free tickets?" He held up a snazzy green and white envelope.
A flicker of excitement ran through me and I nodded.
Then I remembered something my dad used to say, Be careful what you wish for - you just might get it.
A Week Later
I was really looking forward to the outing. I wanted to go someplace special, someplace fancy. I wanted an excuse to pull some of the good clothes out of mothballs. My years in a trench coat had deteriorated into a life of T-shirts, shorts, and Lysol. I wanted to wear a dress and high heels and perfume. Entirely too much of my life was being spent over the toilet bowl inhaling the smell of pine-scented bathroom cleanser. I needed to get out of the house.
I dabbed on some perfume from a crystal bottle. Fred never cared whether I wore fragrance around the house or not. He probably didn't notice I wore it that day, but I had. Je Reviens. My signature scent.
The tickets had come in the mail. Two separate sets. One envelope was addressed to my maiden name. It probably came from our car insurance company's mailing list. My trusty old Toyota Corolla, dubbed the Silver Bullet, hadn't been reregistered even though Fred and I had been married almost a dozen years. I'd get around to changing the registration sometime or maybe buy a new car.
Anyway, we were going to spend a day at the races. It was a Sunday, the 25th of October. The day dawned clear and blue skyed with just a hint of autumn in the delicious California air.
"Why are you getting all dressed up?" asked Fred, pulling on a well-worn pair of jeans.
It was two weeks before his forty-third birthday and the old boy still looked terrific. I don't know if it was the tight jeans or the fact he kissed better than anybody I ever dated, but he still made my heart do that little flip.
He didn't have any gray in what was left of his coffee colored hair, something I couldn't say with any honesty, but then I had been coloring my blond hair for so many years, God only knew what color lingered at the roots.
"We are going out," I said, sliding into a long black slip. "I want to wear a dress."
"Are you going to wear those?" He pointed to a pair of high heel shoes.
"This is Santa Angela, not Ascot."
"I know. Out of deference to you, I'm wearing a denim dress, if that helps."
"We'll look like twins," he said, with no sarcasm intended.
"Not if you wear white socks with those loafers," I replied, with sarcasm.
"I'll wear my boots. I hope you don't think I'm wearing a tie."
"I can dream, can't I?"
"As long as you realize it's just a dream. Nobody'll dress up."
Famous last words.
We got to the track early so we could look around. Both of us had read all the Dick Francis mystery novels, and we were pretty sure we knew which end of the horse came out of the starting gate first. That was about the extent of our horseracing knowledge.
We parked the car and made our way toward the beautiful Art Deco clubhouse and grandstand. It looked pretty much the way it did when that section was built in 1933. I had seen newsreels of Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, and other luminaries at the track on the Biography Channel. Santa Angela had stayed about the same, except this episode was in color.
The impressive sea foam green façade of the building rose high in the bright azure sky. The steeple-shaped cupolas looked for all the world like Churchill Downs.
And they're off…
A large, eager crowd waited in line at the admission gates outside the clubhouse. Our tickets said: INVITED GUESTS-FREE TURF CLUB ADMISSION. We saw a huge sign that read: Turf Club, so we headed for it.
We picked the shortest line behind a very distinguished looking couple. The man was in a nice Hugo Boss suit and I saw the glint of gold cufflinks at his wrists. The woman wore a gray Oscar de la Renta outfit that accentuated her silver hair styled and lacquered to withstand Hurricane Andrew. The coif glistened in the California sun like the collection of diamonds on her well-manicured hands.
I indicated the couple's elegant attire with a jerk of my head. Fred got the subtle message. He dropped his head in husbandly conciliation and then froze. I could see his jaw tighten in that familiar grimace he usually got when he was caught in one of his "mean wittle kid" stunts. But something was different. He was afraid to glance up and look me in the eye. He kept looking down, staring at his feet. Finally I looked down and saw them-the loafers. White socks and brown loafers. I rolled my eyes.
Ma and Pa Kettle Go to The Races.
Finally, I shook my head and smiled. Actually, I laughed. I can have, on occasion, a very loud, earthy laugh. The man in the nice suit in front of me turned around. That's when I noticed the hairpiece perched on his balding pate. As he glowered at me, the rug slid a little further off its mark. He adjusted it while staring me down. My mouth was open by that time. I didn't know what to say. Fred stood there looking all innocent, leaving me to suffer the embarrassment all by myself.
The man nudged his wife who, in turn, gave me an icy stare before saying in a rather loud stage whisper, "Where did all these people come from? Are they giving away free coffee mugs again?"
I looked away; knowing anything I said would be used against me. I hung my head and stared at Fred's white socks and brown loafers, hoping the procession would move along and we could disappear into the crowd.
Fred shrugged off the awkward moment. The other people in line with us drew his attention. "Nobody has these kinds of tickets, Ginger." He held up the plain blue on white tickets we had received in the mail.
Patrons standing near us had what looked like season passes. Most of the men sported tweed suits, ties, and the occasional hat. The ladies wore their share of suits, sans ties, but with silk blouses or sweaters, and lots of jewelry. They looked like they were going to church.
"We must be in the wrong line," Fred finally said. "And that one is taking cash." He indicated the line to our right. "So are those on the other side."
"What about the booth up there?" I asked, pointing toward a glass enclosure. People were filing through there rather rapidly. "Let's try that one."
We moved to the line with the glass booth. It was hard to tell what kind of tickets the people were holding, but nobody was tendering any cash and our tickets were for free entry. We made pretty good time and soon we were ready to squeeze through the narrow chute beside the booth after holding up the pair of tickets, but the keeper of the gate had other ideas.
"You gotta go to the General Admission gate on the east side," he said, not even bothering to look us in the eye.
We quietly walked out of the crowded line of well-dressed, paying Turf Club members around to the back where we found the general admission gates. The area was virtually empty. A small handwritten sign on a piece of white cardboard read: FREE GENERAL ADMISSION TODAY.
Humph. Not exactly the royal treatment I had expected. "And I got dressed up for this."
"Well, at least we're getting in free," said Fred.
I followed Fred with my head down, kicking stones with the toe of my high heel shoe. We went through the open admissions gate and I saw that we were standing in a small park-like area filled with beautiful flowers. I kicked another rock and it sailed into a flowerbed. It landed on something. It was a dead bird. I sighed.
That's when I noticed a statue of a horse standing in its center.
"Look, it's Seabiscuit," I intoned.
Fred was dubious. He walked over to the life-size bronze statue standing on a marble platform and read the inscription.
"That is Seabiscuit. How did you know that?"
"It's the only famous horse I've ever heard of, except maybe Whirlaway, Citation, Secretariate, Seattle Slew, Trigger."
"Very funny," he said. "But how did you- Never mind." He rolled his eyes and then added, "Are we going to place a bet?"
"I don't know. Do you feel lucky? ...Well, do ya, punk?"
I morphed into a pretty poor Clint Eastwood impression. Private eyes, even retired ones, are actor wannabes. You have to assume many different identities when you go undercover, so you have to be adaptable. I was trying to adapt to being out in public after such a long, dry spell.
We rode the escalator to the fourth level of the grandstand and presented our tickets to an usher. We had seats 1 and 2 in Row 1, Section E. Right up front, I thought.
The man in the official Santa Angela green vest walked us along the lower aisle until we got to Section E, then he pointed up, and up, and up. They started their numbering from the top at Santa Angela.
So we climbed‛∧ climbed. "Tenzing Norgay" in the green vest decided to skip the trek up Mt. Everest. Our seats were at a long desk that ran the length of that section of the grandstand with folding chairs lined up for all us "invited guests." Oh well, you get what you pay for.
"Your folding chair, Madam," said Fred, pulling the chair out for me and bowing. "I'm glad I brought the binoculars."
"You should have brought an oxygen bottle," I said.
"You agreed to this, Ginger. The closest I ever came to horse racing was a can of Alpo."
A woman sitting in one of the box seats below us cocked her head and gave him a dirty look. We were becoming a very popular couple. The lady turned back to her racing form and to a small television set housed in a console in front of her. On the postcard size screen I could see horses parading onto the track.
Picking up my small, pocketsize pair of binoculars, I tried to see where the horses were on the track below us, but there wasn't a nag in sight. That's when I spotted somebody else in another box seat watching a football game. Most of the seats directly below us came equipped with one of the miniature TVs. I was going to mention the football game to Fred, but his eyes were already glued to the guy's small set by way of his own high-powered binoculars.
I went back to searching for the horses that were now being loaded into the starting gate on that small TV below us, but for the life of me, I couldn't see where they were on the track right in front of my eyes. The next thing I knew, the horses were out of the gate and racing around the track, but by God, there were no horses kicking up dust at Santa Angela.
"Where are they running that race?" I asked Fred.
"What? Which race?"
"That one." I pointed to the small screen.
Fred stared down at the empty track and then back at the screen and got a questioning look on his face. He glanced over the back wall, probably checking to see if there was another track at Santa Angela.
"Beats the hell out of me," he finally said. "We are at the right track, aren't we?"
"That's it," I said, figuring it out. "They're showing races from another track. That must be what they call satellite wagering. Boy, they'll take your money anyway they can."
I saw her eyes first. The woman in the box seat stood up and stared into the lenses of my binoculars. Her dark brown eyes squinted and sent me all kinds of threatening messages. She twisted around, shut off her television set, and then left her box.
"So, are you going to bet?" said Fred, after the woman stomped away.
"The free tickets came with two betting slips worth at least $2 each. I'll cash them in and place a bet with the winnings. Let me see who's running."
I perused the Official Program. It provided a thumbnail sketch of each horse's record for the past twelve months. I studied the stats intently, but nothing jumped out at me.
"Are you going to pick a horse, or not?" asked Fred, exasperated with my slow pace.
"Okay, okay, okay." I did my Joe Pesci impression and checked off two names. "I picked one for you and one for me. Do you want to go with me?"
"You're on your own, Lucky."
As I stood up, I happened to glance over the back wall just in time to see a car back out of its parking spot right into the front end of the car behind it. The clamor of the crowd muffled the metal impact, but it made me flinch and that made my back spasm.
First the dead bird and now the dented grille. I wasn't superstitious, but they say trouble comes in threes. All of a sudden those stairs looked like Mt. Rushmore and I was dangling from George Washington's nose.
I grabbed the handrail and descended.
I negotiated the steep steps in my high heels, and expected any minute to sail headlong to the bottom. Good thing I decided to wear a lovely pair of black, lace-trimmed underwear, because if I did go sailing head over heels, the audience would be able to glimpse some pretty under things as I lay in a heap on the concrete below.
Well, I made it to the bottom without losing my balance or my dignity and started toward the wagering room. There were entrances close to every stairway and I was going to enter the one nearest Section E, but I saw the woman from the box seat below us, and decided to save myself further humiliation and strode farther down the concourse to another entryway.
People were backed up to the doors in the betting room, eager to place their wagers. I was going to join them, but first I needed to cash in the two betting slips. An information window with no one standing in its line was available, so I squeezed through the throng of impatient bettors, and made my way to the booth.
"Go to one of the betting windows," said the woman behind the counter, pointing to the long lines, before I had a chance to ask what I was supposed to do with the slips.
I got in another line. Standing near me was a woman in a stunning black pantsuit with a bright red, orange, and yellow scarf draped over her shoulder. She was barking at some man who gave her a very irritated look. When the woman finished, he launched. I hadn't really been paying attention when the woman was speaking, but I couldn't help but hear the man.
He stood about 5'10", was painfully thin, his facial features angular and dark. His cat-like eyes were jet black, but as he spoke little flecks of red, yellow, and orange seemed to appear in his pupils. It had to be a reflection of the woman's scarf, but it was eerie.
"It really doesn't matter how you do it. Just do it," he growled. "Write another check."
Not as clearly, the woman answered, "I should spread it over a few days. Donald doesn't close his books until Wednesday and the accountant won't close 'til Friday. I can lay a few bets at Suffolk Downs. They race Monday through Wednesday."
"You won't have time," he said, getting closer to her.
"But he's watching everything I do," she said.
"You're smart. Come up with something." He snatched the racing form out of her hand and looked it over. "Don't bet on number four in the 2nd. You could screw up everything."
He tossed the form back to her and she grabbed for it as he stormed off. Two betting slips floated to the ground behind her. I waited for her to realize they were missing, but she didn't. The man hadn't seen them either. I stepped out of line and picked up the pieces of paper.
"Excuse me. You dropped these."
The woman turned around and I saw her face.
I don't think she was happy to see me.
We became acquainted at a woman's club we both belonged to. Membership in the club came at a premium and Fred and I weren't quite in that tax bracket, but the bylaws of the organization allowed the current president to bring in a "special member" if circumstances warranted it. The circumstances were that someone was skimming money from the various charity events this group ran throughout the year. We're talking serious money. Their annual take had dropped by over a hundred thousand dollars. It had been going on for several years and she needed somebody on the inside.
"Inside" meant someone to work on the actual committees. As a detective, I had done lots of undercover work, but dealing with a bunch of club women was almost as bad as getting shot. My cover story was that I was a recently widowed sister-in-law of a very prominent investment company executive. The investment firm was the place where Fred worked. Since I had recently done a bang-up job finding their embezzlers, Robert Knight was gracious enough to allow me to pose as an in-law.
Both Bob's wife and I had ash blond hair and a light complexion, so the similarity worked in my favor. I leased a maroon Mercedes and bought some new clothes to match, and then pushed my way onto the next committee. I dropped a few hints that I was "short of funds" and waited to see if someone approached me with a remedy while I checked out other ways someone could walk away with their profits.
Good old Deirdre was trawling for contributions for the charity and she started feeling me out as a potential big donor. She hadn't heard my pitiful story about my "dead husband's" insurance policy not being adequate and my stocks taking a nose-dive. Deirdre thought I was just another rich lady and thereby an easy touch. I had to disappoint her.
When I started talking about my personal life, she opened up and told me things she probably wouldn't have confessed to her priest if she had been Catholic. Funny, most people blab about every little detail in their life. Deirdre was no exception. I did a rudimentary background check on her, found out that her husband did business with Fred's investment firm, but only had a nodding acquaintance with my husband. Other than that, no flags littered the field. I went on to another woman.
This gal was a real clam. I couldn't try the direct approach, so I made my pitch for needing funds by letting her overhear me deal with a "creditor" on my cell phone. It was Fred at the other end of the line, but she didn't know it. I dropped the hook and she bit.
She actually approached me with her scam. If I helped her abscond with some of the expensive donations given to the club through their thrift store, she would give me a piece of the action. That first night I filled my trunk with a load of pricy items before they were logged into the club's inventory.
The woman had another way to lower the organization's bottom line. Their thrift store sold gently used items like Gucci handbags for $200 instead of their usual $500 price tag. I'd go in, buy the item for $20, and resell it through her co-conspirator's consignment shop for $300. We divided up the profits and I turned over the evidence to the president and the board members, Gucci bag and all.
They wanted to give me free lifetime membership at the woman's club for my efforts, but it would have been hard to explain my reincarnated husband without telling the entire story. Only a few people ever learned my real reason for being there, and the incident never made the papers or local TV news. Deirdre was high enough up in the club to learn about my undercover work, but I am sure she didn't like the fact she had taken me into her confidence. I have to admit, that was one aspect of the job I didn't enjoy. I always learned more about people than I really wanted to know. The majority of the people I encountered weren't crooks, just friendly and extremely gabby.
"Hello‛&Ginger. How‛&nice to see you again," said Deirdre, a little frost forming around the edges. Then her face thawed like she was reevaluating me. Her eyes did a little roll like she was searching through her brain for another name. "Uh... How's...Freddie?"
I stifled a chuckle. "Freddie" was only called "Freddie" when I was in an amorous mood. "Freddie's fine. Here. These are yours." I handed back her betting slips.
"Oh, thank you, darling. Are you wagering?"
"Giving it a try."
"You poor dear," she said. "You're not a regular, are you? Place your bet. Then you must come with me. Donald and I have our usual seats in the Chandelier Room."
"Thank you, but-"
"The view is spectacular from up there. And I could use some help with Donald. I know he'd love to talk with someone besides me."
I'd really like to, but-"
"Nonsense," she said, adjusting her scarf. "It's just what the doctor ordered."
I got back in line. It had dwindled down to only two men ahead of me. That's when I noticed a list of rules on a placard next to the betting window. There was a method to this betting madness. You were supposed to state the name of the track, the amount of your wager, which race, which horse, and the placement, as in win, place, or show, in that particular order.
As I hurriedly tried to memorize my spiel, I remembered the two betting slips. How were they going to fit the format? Deirdre hovered nearby and I was trying to look like I knew what the hell I was doing. I went over the spiel again: Santa Angela, second race...
That's when I glanced over my shoulder and noticed Deirdre was watching one of the huge viewing screens suspended from the ceiling in the wagering room. A football game was in progress. The snap of the ball elicited shouts from the people in the room. They were absorbed, as was I.
"Lady," came a voice at the edge of my realm of consciousness.
Men in different color jerseys overran the guy with the ball. The room was alive with Monday morning quarterbacking.
"Oh, lady?" said a man who had stopped watching the screen. He turned toward me and pointed.
"Huh?" was my brilliant reply.
"You're next." He pointed over my shoulder.
The man behind the wagering counter motioned to me to step on it. "Okay, lady," he said.
"Uh...Can I cash these in?"
He took the stubs out of my hand and ran them through the machine. $10 appeared on the tally. "Do you want to place a bet?"
I forgot my spiel. "Uh..."
"Better hurry. The race is about to start."
"This is for the second race here at Santa Angela," I said. "I want five dollars to win on horses 5 and 8."
"Both of 'em to win?" he said, with no emotion. He must be a very good poker player.
"Do you want to box them?" he asked.
Thoughts of Fred's Alpo comment raced through my head. "What's 'boxing'?" I asked.
"If one of your picks comes in first and the other places, you win no matter which order they come in. Work for you?"
"Sounds good. Let's do that."
He punched up the bet and handed me the slip.
I walked over to Deirdre and she led the way out of the room.
"Big bet?" she asked.
"It's everything from our earlier winnings," I said honestly.
"Good girl," she said with approval.
"Who was that guy you were talking to?" I asked, my curiosity getting the best of me.
Deirdre blinked. She didn't ask which guy. She looked straight ahead and said, "He was asking directions. Don't know who he was. Have you had lunch yet? They serve a fantastic penne with sun dried tomatoes here."
"That sounds wonderful, but Fred's waiting-"
"At least stay for a drink. That'll keep Donald occupied for a while," she said cryptically.
She was off before I could ask her what she meant.
A little voice told me to run, but I decided not to listen, because another, louder voice, was telling me to stop being such a coward. It was time to start living again.
Deirdre took me into the high rent district of the Chandelier Room. Season tickets and large bankrolls populated that turf. No tourists allowed. I was the only person wearing denim. The rest of the crowd looked like a bunch of professional models in designer suits and dresses. They glided across the floor like they were on wheels. I felt like a field hand.
Six huge crystal light fixtures gave the room its name. They sparkled down on cherry wood tables, upholstered dining room chairs, and a thick maple colored carpet.
I was taking in the grandeur when all of a sudden everybody in the room stood up and rushed toward the observation windows. The first race had started and the spectators trampled anybody in their way. I was carried along in a big crush and shoved into a man with a glass of scotch in his hand. He managed to hold onto it without spilling a drop, even though its aroma wafted over the edge of the heavy glass tumbler and up my nose.
"Deirdre!" he exclaimed, seeing her in the crowd next to me.
"Donald, dear. You remember Ginger...Caulfield. Her husband works for Knight Investments."
It was Donald Delvecchio, Deirdre's husband. "Donald Dear" knew Fred's investment firm. Anybody worth more than five million dollars in Los Angeles knew of it. I was quite sure Bob Knight was on Donald's Rolodex, but I didn't think he remembered the Caulfields.
"How is Bob?" Donald said. "Ask him if the Fed chairman is gonna cut interest rates anymore. And tell him to take the president on his yacht a few more times before I lose any more of my portfolio as well as my shirt. This roller coaster market is setting me up for easy pickings."
"I'm sure Ginger doesn't have any sway over Robert Knight, Donald, dear," said Deirdre with cool disdain. "And poor Freddie isn't in investing."
"Freddie?" Donald questioned.
Donald Dear didn't know "Freddie" from Adam Smith.
"He's all business, Ginger," Deirdre said to me. "Donald! Fred's her husband."
"Sure. How is Fred?" he asked, being polite.
"Want a drink?" asked Donald, not waiting for an answer to his first question.
He was going to call for a waiter, but was distracted. The noise in the room had gotten progressively louder as the horses rounded the quarter mile turn and the roar of the crowd became deafening. It came in a wave until the horses crossed the finish line right in front of us. Cheers went up and just as suddenly, the room quieted and everybody went back to their earlier activities.
"What'll ya have?" he asked after the crowd dispersed.
"I can't stay very long. Fred's waiting and-"
"Aw, take a breather. Whataya drink?"
Donald Delvecchio was a beefy man in his mid-fifties with thick gray hair and thicker eyebrows. He was a good ten years older than Deirdre and one of the things she had told me during her "confession" was that he married her for her money. He spent it wisely, building up his modest industrial instrument case company into one that NASA used to house most of their delicate instruments for shuttle missions. He even had a line of aluminum briefcases that many businessmen chose as their signature carrying case.
"White wine," I said in answer to his question.
"No, I mean, whataya drink?" He held up his glass of scotch.
"She wants white wine, Donald," snapped Deirdre.
I looked at Deirdre and shrugged, again feeling like I had just gotten off the boat. I should have picked a stronger libation. I was going to switch my order to a martini, but she waved me quiet.
"Two white wines." She made her wishes known in no uncertain terms. "Make it a Chateau d' Y'Quem."
Deirdre was everything Donald wasn't. Sleek as a cat, her bony frame wore clothes like an expensive coat hangar, and her hair was cut shorter than her husband's. She looked so professional and, the only way I can put it is: aggressive. She had on a pair of high heels that might as well have had steel toes on their pointed ends. They were an older pair because no designer had brought back that sharp a toe for ten years, but they matched her pantsuit right down to the rhinestone clips. She aimed them in such a way she could give old Donald a swift kick if he didn't obey. He, in turn, took it out on the waiter.
Donald snapped his fingers in the face of a very surprised young man and barked his order. "A bottle of Sauterne. Chateau d' Y'Quem. Two glasses. At our table." He pointed to the best seats in the house.
In truth, I would have preferred a nice, crisp Chardonnay. I'm not fond of sweet wine, even at $500 a bottle. But who am I to look a gift horse in the mouth?
The waiter spun instantly on his heel and obeyed. Donald looked satisfied that he had at least intimidated somebody in front of me. He stomped to the table and dropped heavily into the well-upholstered chair.
The wine came with a flourish and we sat looking at each other, nobody having anything in common. I drank the expensive fruit juice a little too fast, because I knew poor Fred would be wondering where the little woman had gotten to, and I wanted to leave.
The awkward silence looked like it would provide an opportunity for me to make my excuses and escape, but Donald recognized a friend of his in the crowd near the bar and waved him over. The conversation might have been rescued, but my getaway had been thwarted. Fred would be sending out the dogs.
I sat back in my chair and looked at the man coming our way and had a flash of recognition. I couldn't believe I actually knew three people who went to the races. Paul Bradshaw was a tall, good-looking guy, a few years younger than I with sandy hair just starting to thin. He looked like a pro-wrestler with his suit straining just a little over some very well developed pectorals. Surely he wouldn't recognize me. It had been a few years.
"Hi, Ginger. I didn't know you knew my old nemesis, Don the Box."
Paul reached over and shook my hand first. All I could do was gloat. So, shoot me. The old social animal was trying to get out of its cage.
"So nice to see you again, Paul. Everything go well?" I asked.
"Everything turned out fine, thanks to you. Are you here on business or pleasure?" Paul kept grinning at me.
"Pleasure," I said.
"Ah," he said.
Donald's face was blank. Deirdre blinked, but she said nothing. Paul noticed. He gave me the most charming conspiratorial smile and let the moment hang just long enough to have Donald itching for an answer.
"You two know each other?" asked Don the Box.
Paul continued, "I hired Ginger's firm...How many years ago was it? Eight, ten? Anyway, I hired her firm and the matter was handled with great efficiency."
A blank look was still plastered on Donald's face.
"Glad to be of service," I replied.
"What kind of business do you have?" asked Donald.
"I don't have it anymore," I said. "I'm retired."
"What was it?" asked Don, sitting back in his chair, sizing me up.
"I had a private detective agency."
"You're kidding," said Donald. I think he was slightly surprised. "How many people did you have working for you?"
"I handled most of the cases myself, but I hired a couple of people to work for me the last few years."
"No shit." Donald looked impressed. "Why'd you stop?"
I felt that twinge in my back again. I could have told him some asshole set me up and when I realized what he was doing, I went after him. The guy got mad and tried to get even. Then he shot me, leaving me for dead, but I have this stubborn streak and‛&
"The business changed," I said instead. "Industrial espionage became acceptable and frankly, so did fooling around with other people's spouses. Clients wanted me to dig up dirt on decent people. Or make it up. Or…stage it. I didn't want to do that."
Deirdre started to frost over again. I was surprised she hadn't mentioned my undercover job at the women's club. I tell Fred most of the things that happen to me, though it's always good to keep a few secrets. Had she not told Donald about my private detective gig after all these years? She looked away from me, at her watch, and then at Paul. He gave her a friendly wink. But Donald had more questions.
"What did you do for my old buddy Paul?" asked Don.
Leveling my gaze at him, I said, "That's confidential."
"What did she do for you, Paul? Come on, give," said Don.
"She did a good job, Don. A damn good job. You should use her."
"I'm still retired, Paul. But thanks for the reference."
Paul glanced from Donald to Deirdre and back to me, and then smiled. "How are you doing in the stock market, Don? Personally, I'm buying like mad. Not a dime's going to the ponies today."
Donald, unafraid to tell everybody his business, said, "I think I'm gonna shoot my investment broker. He had me in hedge funds. He hedged with my money and I think he bought the other side, so no matter which way the index went, I'd lose."
"Have Ginger check into him for you," said Paul. "She'll get to the bottom of all your problems."
"Wait a minute," I interjected. "I'm still retired, remember?"
"Donald!" Deirdre said in a voice so brusque it sounded like a punch in the gut. "I really don't think you should be discussing our financial matters in front of the whole world." She stared directly at me before looking back at her husband. "And you never said anything about Conrad. He's made you lots of money."
"I've made more money for us just working my butt off," Don said before taking another swallow of his drink. "He sits on his narrow rear end in a cushy chair and steals me blind."
"Really, Donald. I can't believe you're saying this in here." Deirdre waved her hand around the very plush surroundings. She pushed back her chair and stood up. "I'm going to get some fresh air." She grabbed her purse and left.
Paul gave me a knowing stare. Too bad I didn't know what the hell it was about. "Sorry to cause such a stir," he said to Donald. He gave me a slight nod and then returned to the swarm of people around the bar.
I smiled at Don and was going to take the opportunity to make my excuses and get back to Fred, when a loud murmur went through the room. It sounded like the wave of noise that preceded the culmination of another horserace. People had bunched up near the main door. The waters parted and I saw a tall man emerge from the throng. He had silver hair and lots of showy, white teeth. He also came equipped with a phalanx of bodyguards. They had to be hired muscle because they wore the regulation dark sunglasses and uninteresting suits.
"Harlan!" Donald called out.
The silver-haired man turned slowly and spotted Don. Even more teeth showed as he walked over to our table. I finally recognized the guy, though I usually saw him while channel surfing. He looked more intimidating in person.
Harlan Schaefer was one of our state senators. When he showed up on television, you would find him lurking in the background near the president up in Washington, D.C. It was during his first reelection bid that I realized he was just the state senator. Here was a guy with great aspirations.
"Delvecchio. You old scoundrel."
He might have been talking to Donald, but he was looking at me.
"What'd you do, Harlan? Miss your bus back to Sacramento?" asked Donald, shaking the man's hand. Don didn't bother to stand up.
"It's two weeks 'til election day, old man. I'm out pressing the flesh."
Again, he looked at me and then back at Donald.
"Who's your friend?" asked the senator.
Don gave me a double take. I had obviously slipped his mind.
"Oh. This is an old friend‛& of Dee's. Ginger Caulfield. Ginger, would you vote for a no-good reprobate like this?"
I'm glad Donald smiled, because I couldn't tell if he was kidding or not.
"Let's talk about money and religion, next, Donald," I said. "Then we can move on to racially insensitive jokes."
"She's funny, Don. A friend of Deirdre's, huh? Where is that wife of yours?" The senator glanced around the crowded room.
"Wandering aimlessly. Probably betting my last nickel."
"Women," acknowledged the senator. "If they aren't blowing a bundle on Rodeo Drive, they're redoing the beach house."
"Don't give her any ideas," said Don.
The politician smiled again. In fact, he never stopped smiling. That's the curse of those always in the limelight. They're stuck with that perpetual grin on their face like the one morticians stitch into a corpse for eternity.
"Actually, I wanted to talk to her about the charity drive," said the senator.
"Is that what you're calling campaign contributions now?" kidded Don.
The senator's hundred watt smile dimmed. "Come on, Don. I'm on the hospital board. I raised more money for the children's wing than for my own campaign."
Don started to take another swallow of his drink, but set the glass down instead. "I've heard some great things about that board, Harlan. Good work."
Crisis averted. Harlan turned on the high beams. "We could use your check, Don. Donate your winnings from one of the races today."
"Lately my luck has been all bad." Don picked up his glass and drained it.
"Well, I guess I'll be off," I finally managed to say to Don. "Fred is probably wondering what happened to me. Tell... um...Deirdre I said thanks for the... tour." To the senator I nodded and acknowledged a simple, "Senator."
I don't think old Donald knew or cared that I had left. The senator still had the grin on his face, but it was now aimed at Don. I slipped out the door into the more congested throng. I eased my way back to Section E and made the climb up to our seats. I couldn't wait to quiz Fred about those curious Delvecchios.
"Where have you been?" asked Fred when I finally made it back to my folding chair.
As the second race began, I told him the story of my encounter with the Delvecchios and the senator. The senator got short shrift. We wouldn't vote for him even if he were running unopposed. I was more interested in the Delvecchios.
"Donald parks part of his portfolio with us," explained Fred. "He hasn't done badly with some of the high risk investments. Everybody lost money when the market tanked. Warren Buffett lost a couple billion. I don't hear him complaining. It's all on paper, anyway. The market is starting to turn around. When it goes back up, even old Donald will be singing a different tune."
The second race at a mile and an eighth began and ended with the Caulfields no richer than they were when they arrived. Both my horses lost.
"You bet on both of them to win?" scoffed my pseudo racing expert husband.
"No. I boxed them," I said, knowing Fred had no idea what the term meant.
"What does that mean? You tie their legs together."
"Ha, ha, ha. No, smarty-pants. You pick two horses. One has to win and the other place. In any order."
"What were the odds?" he asked.
"I don't remember. But one was the favorite and the other was a long shot," I said. "One would have paid a lot, the other a little."
"You should have bet them to place or show," he explained. "Then you would have had more chances to win if they came in second or third."
"That wouldn't have helped," I said, knowing I was going to win the argument. "They came in sixth and ninth."
I waited for the logic to hit him.
"Do you want something to eat?" he asked, no doubt overwhelmed with my betting acumen.
"Yeah. You want me to go with you?"
"No. I'll brave the masses alone," he said.
Fred brought back hotdogs. Mine was covered with sauerkraut, which I love. Half my ancestors were Czech and I think cabbage is the national flower of Czechoslovakia. Fred's dog dripped with chili. My tall Texan husband considers chili one of the seven basic food groups. We are a multiethnic family. We shared a $3 beer and watched the next race. I didn't bet.
After we ate, I used Fred's binoculars to watch the crowd and get the lay of the land. The third race winner was being led to the winner's circle near the finish line for the official photos. The owners patted each other on the back and the jockey shook hands with somebody in a pin striped suit and colorful tie.
"What's that in the middle?" I asked, pointing.
In the center of the tracks (Santa Angela has both dirt and turf tracks) was some kind of park. A beautiful fountain at one end shot strands of liquid silver into the cobalt blue sky. The large central core housed a kid's playground with rides and a massive open rhombic polyhedron for the little darlings to climb and break their little necks on. And there was a huge inflatable rubber room filled with rubber balls for them to jump around in. Massive tents covered the picnic area along with a few other small structures vending what looked like newspapers and soft drinks.
"That's the infield."
"How do you get over there?" I asked.
"You run really fast," was Fred's clever answer.
That's when I spotted what looked like a subway entrance on the ground level.
First, you have to visualize our seats. We were as high up as you can get without having wings. Directly beneath us were a series of box seats, the ones with the neat little television sets. Below that were stadium seats. Further down were more stadium seats. Keep going and you found even more seats. On the ground level were regular stadium seating and stairs leading down to a tiled patio where people could set up folding chairs (their own) or lay out blankets for a picnic so they could watch the racing al fresco. On the far side of this patio area on the left were stairs leading underground. I could see the egress on the infield section.
"There's a tunnel." I pointed. "It comes out on the other side of the track right past that hedge."
"Well, there's no challenge in that," said Fred.
I'm married to such a kidder. I guess working with millions and millions of dollars worth of stocks and bonds makes you kind of giddy.
"And there's another tunnel on the right," I added, indicating another egress on the infield side.
Just before the fourth race I scanned the racing program while Fred watched the Jaguars-Broncos game on the mini television set in the box seats below us. He couldn't hear the play by play, but I guess football is one of those sports men tune into without sound. He was totally absorbed.
"Here's a horse, Fred. Ginger's Music. If that isn't a sign."
"Ginger's Music. It's running in the fourth. 6 to 1 odds."
"How much are we going to bet?"
"Ten bucks. To show."
"Go for it."
He handed me the money. I hadn't brought my purse with me. I hate carrying the cumbersome thing. I had a few necessities in the patch pockets of my dress and Fred for emergencies.
I stood up, eager to throw my money away, but I still had to traverse those damn steps. With ten dollars in one hot little hand, the racing program and my binoculars in the other, I descended.
I was getting the hang of racing jargon. Finding the nearest tote, I laid my big-time wager and decided to go to the Ladies Room. I had a dollar and a half of that $3 beer to deal with.
After exiting the Ladies, I heard a familiar voice.
Between the Powder Room and the wagering area was a divider that acted as a backdrop for those big screen TVs hanging from the ceiling that carried whatever game was in progress - football, baseball, mud wrestling. The same football game Fred was watching on the small screen topside played on one of those giant screens as I entered the back hallway to the restrooms. The voice came from the wagering side. The divider was raised a few feet off the ground so I had no trouble recognizing those rhinestone clips on her shoes as well as her voice this time. It was Deirdre Delvecchio.
She was giving somebody a piece of her mind. I could see the shoes of the person she was haranguing. Expensive. He wasn't speaking at the moment.
"‛&So you had to bring up the market, you stupid twit. He almost had the track director shut off my credit. He'd do it, too. You know it."
"Deirdre, I'll lend you the money."
"I have money. Just don't help me any more," she said.
"Anything you say. I've got to get back."
The expensive shoes departed. Deirdre followed shortly thereafter. I waited and pondered. I may not have recognized his shoes, but I did know the voice. Paul Bradshaw's. Yep, that's the drawback of being a snoop, paid or otherwise. You get into people's dirty laundry and sometimes the smell gets a little strong. I had to wrestle with that aspect of the job often when I had my business, but I figured the truth was worth the self-loathing I felt when I had to investigate people I thought I might actually like. Maybe that's why I made few friends back then. I knew what was in their underwear drawer.
When I guessed the coast was clear, I walked back to Section E.
"You're getting a lot of exercise," said the usher in the green vest, leaning against the railing on the lower level. He had nodded each time I made my way up or down the steps.
"Guess it's all that goat cheese I eat," I said.
His eyes went a tad blank. I started up the stairs. Four seconds later he burst out laughing. I turned slightly and smiled at him.
Back in our perch, I told Fred about the latest episode with Deirdre. He was privy to a few tales that were floating around Knight Investments about various people, but he was always too tactful to talk about it. Unless the gossip was too juicy and I pestered him into giving me the details. Unfortunately, he had nothing to add to this interesting plot.
We settled in for the fourth race. We lost. Somebody out there in the crowd would be spending our ten dollars. According to the info in the brochure we got in the mail, Santa Angela is a "pari-mutuel" racetrack. You don't bet against the house like in Las Vegas. They take a cut, to be sure, so does the State of California, but the betting is done between bettors. Somebody wins. Somebody loses.
"Don't spend it all in one place," I said rather loudly across the noisy crowd.
A gambler, or at least a lucky gambler, I am not. Don't get me wrong. I can throw money away with the best of them. Just ask Fred. But, I'll leave games of chance to somebody else.
"I'm going to take a walk," I said, standing up. "Do you want to go with me?"
"No, thanks. Don't get lost‛∨ get into any trouble," he cautioned with a knowing look before returning to his interminable football game.
"I'm not a trouble magnet‛&anymore," I said, noticing a bit of wistfulness in my voice. Shrugging it off, I faced those steep steps.
I descended. The usher laughed again, remembering my goat cheese joke. He gave me directions to that tiled patio on the ground level and told me not to get lost, just like Fred did. Hey! I'm a woman. and not afraid to ask directions. And I had a map of the place. How lost could I get?
My treacherous downward climb continued until I ran into a small group of people, each with a camera slung over one shoulder, a travel bag suspended from the opposing shoulder, a handful of brochures, pamphlets, and maps in one hand, and a plate of food in the other. They all had eager, yet slightly harried, looks on their faces. No doubt a bunch of tourists.
I didn't recognize the language being spoken, but it sounded Eastern European. I had a wild whim that the people could be distant relatives of mine from the old homeland. Ever since Czechoslovakia kicked out the commies in 1989 and adopted freedom, a few Czech tourists have ventured to America for a little R&R. California would be a huge curiosity.
The labels on their camera cases and knapsacks thrown over their shoulders were unreadable. There were scads of umlauts and accent marks and a plethora of consonants, but nothing registered. It reminded me of the signs they always used on Mission: Impossible, the TV version, when they wanted to imply a foreign country of Eastern European origin.
A larger group of what sounded like die-hard gamblers came charging up the stairs to their box seats. They were full of good cheer and expensive beer and before I knew it, the foreign tourists and I got swept up in that tide. We were dragged further and further away from the stairs that would have taken me down to the patio.
The tour guide was trying to get her charges untangled from the revelers when she saw me scrambled in the mix and halted the group. We were at the top of Level Three, looking down another flight of stairs.
"You are not with the group. Yes?" she said with an Eastern European accent.
"I am not with the group. No," I said. "Excuse me."
I turned to leave.
"You Czech?" she asked.
"Half," I said, turning back to her. "Are you Czechoslovakian?"
"Yes. We from Praha," she answered with a charming accent.
"So were my great grandparent's," I said, wishing I knew at least one word of the language.
"I see it in your eyes," she said, noting their gray-blue color.
"The family settled in Omaha, Nebraska," I said.
"Many of our countrymen are in Omaha," she said.
She translated something to the tour group and they all brightened at the word: Omaha.
They each had very similar grayish-blue eyes as well. Small world.
"Let me ask you something. How do you say sauerkraut in Czech?"
"Kyselé zelí," I repeated. "I love kyselé zelí. Thanks."
Waving goodbye, I peeled myself away from the tour group, and with a sigh, once again descended the steps, and finally made it to the lower level. People were sitting on the concrete stairs leading to the patio. I had to step around them.
Once free of chairs and steps and people, my high heels made contact with the slick tiles. Barely. It was like an ice-skating rink and it sloped down toward the track. I thought I was going to have another chance to make a fool out of myself by tobogganing across the slippery surface. I slowly made my way to the entrance of the tunnel that ran under the racetrack to the infield.
It was a little forbidding going down, but a steady stream of people kept coming up the concrete steps, so I sallied forth. The passage below was narrow, dark, and long. More tunnel doubled back under the grandstand, but I wanted to get to the infield. I stayed close to a woman pushing a baby carriage, with two more rowdy kids in tow. Safety in numbers. Finally we emerged into the sunlight.
The other side of the track was a lot bigger than it looked sitting in our skybox. A fence enclosed the area and a four-foot hedge rimmed the main section. There was actually a third track at Santa Angela, a training track, located right against the perimeter fence. From my vantage point, the grandstand rose up like a title wave ready to engulf all us little pebbles on the verdant colored beach.
I looked through my binoculars and searched the grandstand for Fred. I calculated where our seats were and focused in on him. He sat there in his faded blue shirt with a cigarette in his hand. He took a drag and then picked up his binoculars. When I thought he was looking in my direction, I started to wave. He either didn't see me or didn't want to make a spectacle of himself by waving back. I kept waving. Maybe he didn't see me.
The rumble of the crowd in the stands escalated. I had a strange sensation that the ground under my feet was pulsating. I felt a pounding in my eardrums and the earth was definitely throbbing. The thunder came with a vengeance from my right. I turned the binoculars in that direction and saw them.
Nine horses and a flurry of multi-colored silks flashed before me. The sound, the smell, the sight of horseflesh overwhelmed all my senses, right down to sand stinging my face from the mighty gallops of the horses on the track to the taste of dirt in my mouth from the cloud of dust sent over my head in their wake. I held onto the fence and hoped I wouldn't be sucked over the hedge in their furious drive.
In a moment it was over. The dust settled and everything reverted back to its normal hum and color. I took a deep breath and dusted myself off.
I walked around the infield, watched the kids climb through the hi-tech Jungle Gym, and bounce in their rubber room, and glanced through the newspapers at the newsstand before making my way back to the tunnel.
There were no other people going through it and I hesitated, but then, hell, it was just a tunnel. My footsteps echoed along the dank corridor and I did a little two-step just to hear my shoes click over the concrete.
A man entered from the opposite side and started running toward me. His eyes glistened as he came nearer. I flattened against the wall and bunched my fist at my side. He looked right at me, smiled, and then jogged past me and out the other egress. Motionless, I could smell the damp concrete around me. Dark, enclosed areas aren't my favorite things. I remembered when I was lying face down in an alley, my cheek skinned and bloodied, and a bullet lodged somewhere near my spine. I couldn't move then, either.
Suddenly, I was aware of people entering the passageway. Their loud voices snapped me out of my trance and I felt my legs working again. I emerged from the tunnel feeling numb except for that unrelenting pain in my back. If I didn't get my act together, they'd be measuring me for a straight jacket. Men in jogging gear descend the steps and some people were trotting up and down the patio area getting a little exercise between races. Now I really felt like a complete nincompoop.
My shoes still slid on the slick tiles of the patio. I stuffed the tiny binoculars in one of my large pockets and carefully traversed the open area before I got to the concrete stairs leading up to the stands. Then some smart aleck sitting on a step in front of me, blocking my way, decided to be cute.
"Hey, lady. Whatcha doin' tonight?" He smirked.
Just what I needed, some punk getting smart. Where was the old Ginger? If I were wearing jeans, I would have kneed him in the mouth and knocked that stupid grin off his face, but I was wearing that long denim dress and could barely lift my leg high enough to make the steep step.
That's when I stubbed my toe and nearly fell on my face, but managed to catch myself on the third step with both my outstretched arms and then stood upright. The young guy didn't make an effort to help me. He just grinned along with the gang around him.
I couldn't get out of there fast enough. I was actually glad to see my old friend, the usher, when I got back to E Section. He wished me well as I went up the steps…again.
"Where did you go?" asked Fred as I sat down.
"I was in the infield. Didn't you see me?" I said, slightly winded this time.
"You were all the way over there?"
"I went through the tunnel," I answered, not mentioning my paranoia or my stumble.
"Sacagawea at the Track. You do like adventure."
"I'm getting a little rusty," I said, mostly to myself.
"Are you going to bet again?" asked Fred.
"No. I'm lucky in love, not in horses."
Fred leaned over and gave me a rather passionate kiss.
We watched a few more races. I could understand the thrill of the race, but I couldn't handicap worth a hoot. At home, watching TV, I usually picked a horse that looked like a winner. I was actually pretty good with my television picks. But not that day.
By the beginning of the ninth race I was using Fred's binoculars to scan the crowd to amuse myself. It was almost a quarter 'til five and the Hornblower, in his red hunting outfit, had played his last call-to-the-post of the day. The horses were led to the starting gate and the anticipation mounted. As the animals were being stuffed into the chutes, I watched the people in the stands watch the horses. Everyone was eager for the final race.
A flash of bright red, yellow, and orange flapped in the gentle breeze far below. It was a scarf pinned to someone's suit and I realized it was Deirdre Delvecchio. She walked out on the tiled patio, stopped, and looked around. People and their collateral debris filled the area, but she gazed around like she was looking for someone in particular.
A man approached. It was the strange, dark haired man from earlier that day. He still had the scowl on his face. Deirdre noticed him and walked toward the tunnel entrance.
"Fred. That's the man I saw earlier talking with Deirdre. She's down there with him now."
Fred turned away from yet another football game he was watching on the mini television set below us and glanced in the direction I was looking.
"Near the tunnel," I said, handing him his binoculars.
He focused the lenses and scanned the people near the tunnel.
"There are about a million people down there. How'd you spot one guy?"
"I recognized Deirdre."
"Oh, I see her. I think that's her. With a scarf. Right?"
The last race was getting underway, so Fred turned his attention back to the track. I picked up my binoculars and continued watching the patio as the horses left the starting gate.
Deirdre headed toward the tunnel. Those pointed toed shoes of hers slipped on that treacherous tile. She inched her way to the stairs and descended. The strange man advanced, but stopped at the top step while several people seemed to bunch up around the entrance. He turned and checked out the crowd near him. His eyes scanned the grandstand. For the briefest moment I looked right into his black eyes. A chill went down my back at the thought that he could see me staring at him. I shook off the feeling.
The noise in the stands started its familiar hum as the horses rounded the first turn. I watched the dark man as he looked around the patio. Who was he looking for? He turned abruptly and stared at the racing horses. Finally, he stepped quickly down the stairs.
I adjusted my focus to the other side of the track, waiting to see Deirdre come into the light. No one emerged. I kept watching, switching back to the entrance on our side of the track to see if she had reversed herself, but she didn't come back up the steps. A crowd still clogged the entrance.
That's when I noticed a young, dark-haired woman being helped to her feet by a bunch of eager young men. She must have slipped on those stupid tiles. She was cute enough to have a pack of youthful admirers rush to her aid. I wondered if she, too, had thought to wear black, laced-trimmed underwear in case she found herself butt up in front of a gawking crowd.
The spectators in the stands were focused on the horses rounding the near turn. The ponies pounded over the dirt track as the mob urged them on. Like a wave, the yells swept over the grandstand as the horses crossed the finish line.
But I was still watching for Deirdre. She hadn't come out the far side and she didn't reemerge on my side. I took one more look at the tunnel exit and saw the mysterious man step into the dwindling sunlight. He hurriedly crossed the open area of the infield to the far tunnel and disappeared down the ramp. From our seats, I couldn't see him come out of the tunnel on the grandstand side. I continued to scan the area.
Where was Deirdre?
People yell, scream, and shout during horse races, but they usually don't shriek, especially after the race is over. But I heard shrieks, and then saw people running toward the tunnel. A man from the patio side ran up to one of the men wearing an official Santa Angela green vest and spoke to him. The official hesitated at first. I could see him look around the area, probably hoping to find someone else who could do something about the situation, but he finally descended the steps.
watched the proceedings with growing interest.
In fact, I couldn't tear my eyes away from
the scene, just like in a horror movie when
you know something really bad was going to
happen. All that was missing was the creepy
music...and the body falling out of the closet.
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