Jill is a professional horse show photographer. She never expected to capture the murder of an international dressage competitor on film. Pursued relentlessly by a trio of murderous gangsters determined to destroy the only evidence of their crime, she finds herself in mortal danger and takes refuge in a remote, northwoods cabin. Jill’s only hope is to trust the courage and resourcefulness of a police detective and a surly, adolescent boy. Before long, she realizes trust is not enough when friends can be bought and betrayal is deadly.
GENRE: Mystery (Murder) ISBN: 978-1-921636-10-3 ASIN: B00422LG3C Word Count: 65, 894
She found him in her viewfinder. Her sophisticated digital camera took care of the focus and exposure. All she had to do was get the timing.
The rider was in perfect sync with his horse, a magnificent gray Andalusian. The horse was round, his hocks underneath the girth.
It was poetry in motion. It was beauty come to life. It was…
Damn it, didn’t the arrogant prick ever make a mistake or lose his cool?
Jill snapped shot after shot of Andrew McFry and his horse, Equalizer. McFry was one of the top dressage riders in the country. Last year Equalizer rated the regional Grand Prix dressage horse of the year. He was well on his way to qualifying for the regionals this year. All the important horse journals expected McFry and Equalizer to make the nationals.
McFry was halfway through his Prix St. George ride, an upper level competitive dressage test. As usual, it was flawless. Jill should have been pleased for the man, except the S.O.B. was such an unpleasant person. And it would be nice if he’d buy a photo once in a while. Oh, he’d look at the photos, especially after his bevy of groupies…that is, students, would fawn all over him.
They, the groupies, would make all sorts of appreciative expressions while Andrew inspected photos on the computer screen. “Oh Andy, you look so handsome in that one,” or “Andrew, if you don’t buy an eleven-by-fourteen print, I will.” Saying nothing, McFry simply stalked off, leaving his students looking like rejected wallflowers.
Oh yeah, got the horse right on the flying change of lead. Waste of time, but it’s good practice. Wonder if the jerk would give me a model release, let me use his pics for some stock photography?
Wish those three idiots would get out of the way. They’re right in the center of the frame. They’re not supposed to be standing next to the arena anyway.
The beautiful gray suddenly tossed its head.
The horse threw its head again and stumbled.
Jesus, I’ve never seen Equalizer do that before. Did he get stung by a bee or something?
The horse lurched forward. McFry sat stiff and rigid in the saddle, very bad for a dressage rider. He had a death-grip on the reins, causing the horse to shake its head. McFry suddenly grasped his hat with his right hand and tried to yank it off his head.
McFry grimaced, gave a small cry, then slid sideways off his horse. Equalizer trotted forward a few steps, seemingly pleased to be free of his erratic rider. The horse stopped and looked back. McFry lay motionless on the ground. Several people ran to his side.
Good Lord, Jill thought. I wonder what happened. A heart attack, maybe?
It didn’t seem likely. McFry was only forty-three and in peak athletic condition.
“Christ, he’s not breathing!” a young woman said. “Someone get the paramedics.”
“Anyone know CPR?”
“Let me through, I’m an RN.” A sturdy, gray-haired woman pushed through the growing crowd and pounded on McFry’s chest. One of McFry’s students caught his horse and led it out of the arena.
I guess I’m just in the way here, Jill thought.
Jill didn’t like McFry, but she hoped he’d be all right. In the meantime, she had pictures to shoot and sell. She headed over to the second arena where competitors performed lower level dressage tests. Jill felt a prickling on the back of her neck. She turned toward the stable and noticed three strange men staring at her. One of the men gestured toward her with a flip of his head.
Well, it’s been a long time since I’ve turned a man’s head.
But the forty-five-year-old show photographer had no time for such nonsense. Jill was here to shoot pictures and hopefully make some money. She continued on to arena two.
The competitors in this arena were only riding first-level dressage tests. The pictures were not nearly as exciting or artistic, since the horses didn’t perform high-level skills such as pirouettes, half-passes and flying lead changes. But Jill often found she sold more pictures to the lower-level competitors. The reason was simple enough; most of these riders were novices or kids who didn’t already have a billion pictures of their precious horses.
Shooting pictures of a pretty Arab mare, Jill felt the prickling on her neck again. She glanced sideways and saw the three strange men approaching her.
Now what? Can’t they see I’m busy?
The man to the left wasn’t too bad looking. He was about five-feet-ten with a full head of gray hair. The man to the right was younger and taller, over six feet with a heavy, body-builder’s physique and pocked-marked face even a mother would find difficult to love. The man in the middle was about the same height, but skinny. He tried to hide his hair loss with a bad comb-over.
Jill continued to shoot pictures.
Maybe if I ignore them they’ll go away.
No such luck. They stopped a few feet away. The muscle-man leaned over her, as if to intimidate.
“We want the pictures,” the balding man said.
Jill kept shooting.
“I said, we want the pictures.”
The three men surrounded her, faces grim, angry. Jill looked at each in turn. She felt a chill run up her spine. No! She was in a public place with lots of people around. She had no reason to be afraid of these creeps, however intimidating they appeared.
Jill lowered her camera and looked the balding man in the eye. “You’ll have to go into the office and see my assistant. She’s showing pictures on the monitor.”
Muscles leaned closer to Jill. “You want I should take her camera?”
The man in the middle put his hand on Muscles’ shoulder. “What do you mean, showing them on the monitor?”
“Gentlemen, I’m sort of busy right now. Go see my assistant and she’ll take care of you.”
They heard a siren in the distance. The three men looked at each other. Without another word they walked off and headed toward the office.
My, weren’t they creepy? Oh well, I hope they buy some pictures.
The rider finished her test with a halt and salute to the judge. The siren sounded closer. The next competitor prepared to enter the arena. The judge asked her to hold off until the paramedics arrived.
An ambulance switched off its siren and lights just as it entered the show grounds. The facility manager directed the driver to arena one.
“There will be a brief pause in the schedule,” the show announcer said over the P.A. “We will resume with competitors fifty-four and sixteen as soon as possible.”
Jill headed back to the office. She might as well download the card during the lull.
She entered the office where Darlene, her eighteen-year-old niece, worked the notebook computer. Darlene was showing two women digital images of their tests.
“Oooh, I love that one!” a young woman said. Darlene wrote the image number down and clicked the mouse to bring up the next image. “Wow, that’s even better!”
Jill smiled. Her niece was the perfect assistant. While Jill shot pictures, Darlene showed downloaded images to the riders. Darlene was a great sales person. She allowed customers plenty of time to view photos and make decisions. She helped them fill out the order forms and collected their checks or credit card information. Jill gave Darlene fifteen percent of sales revenues.
The competitors finished their selections and proceeded to fill out order forms. Jill took the digital card out of her camera and handed it to Darlene. “More pics to download.”
“What’s with the siren?” Darlene asked. She took the card and inserted it in the computer.
“Andrew McFry had some sort of accident. He fell off his horse.”
“McFry? I thought he was such a hot-shot rider.”
“He is. It looks like maybe he got sick or something,” Jill said.
One of the women looked up from the order form she was filling out. “I saw him fall. I hope he’s all right, even though I never liked the man.”
“I don’t think anyone does,” said the other competitor, “except those bimbo-students of his. It’s funny to watch them fight for his attention.”
“Most of the bimbos don’t like him either, from what I’ve heard,” the first woman said.
“So why do they suck-up to him all the time?”
“Who knows? Students get weird with their trainers. According to my husband, I act like a ten-year-old with mine.”
“All I know,” Darlene said, “is he treats his students like crap. He was in here with two of his girls about three hours ago. He looked at their pictures and made all sorts of nasty comments. One girl left in tears. The other was just about to buy a couple of photos, but he told her not to waste her money until she learned to ride.”
“Well, I suppose he needs to provide criticism to his students,” Jill said.
“Criticism is good,” the woman said. “Harsh put-downs are not. I’ve seen Andrew work with his students. He’s a superb rider, but in my opinion he’s a lousy teacher. I’ll stick with my trainer, even if I do regress to childhood.” The woman handed her order form to Darlene. “If you’ll just total this up for me I’ll write you a check. You know, Jill, I compete in a lot of dressage shows, and I think your work is by far the best I’ve seen.”
Jill blushed. “You’re very kind.”
“I agree,” the other woman said. “How long have you been doing this?”
“I’ve been shooting the small, schooling shows at my local stable for about three years. This is the first year I’ve shot larger, recognized shows. I hope to be doing it full time next season. Of course, I won’t have my handy assistant with me. She’s decided college is more important than helping her aunt.”
“Good for you,” one of the women said to Darlene. Both women paid for their orders and left the office.
“So, how’re we doing?” Jill asked.
“Not bad. We’ve got over twelve hundred dollars so far. Hopefully we’ll get more this afternoon.”
“Not as good as the last show, but I’m not complaining. A few more weekends like this and I might be able to quit my stupid day job.”
“By the way,” Darlene said, “three weirdoes came in a little while ago.”
“Let me guess; one decent looking middle-aged guy, one strip-club bouncer reject, one bean pole.”
“Pretty good guess.”
“They came to me demanding to see pictures, so I told them to see you.”
“Thanks so much. They gave me the total creeps.”
“Me, too. Did they buy anything?”
“No, they just kept asking for the film.”
“Yeah, mostly the bean pole. He kept saying, ‘I want the film’. I told him you don’t use film, it’s all digital. They didn’t get the concept, said they’d be back later for the film.”
“You’ve got to be kidding!” Jill said. “I mean, how could they not know what you meant? Everyone has a digital camera these days.” She chuckled. “Made your day, I’ll bet.”
“Yeah, right. The big dude kept leaning into me, like he thought he scared me or something. Gray-hair just stared at me. Skinny did most of the talking. He told me he’d give me five-hundred bucks for the film.”
“Five hundred!” Jill said. “Go down to the drugstore, buy a cheap roll of film and sell it to him.”
“Good idea. I’ll split the money with you.”
Jill laughed. She loved spending time with her niece.
Frieda Hensworth, the show facility manager, burst into the office. She was crying.
“Frieda, what’s the matter?” Jill asked.
“It’s so terrible. The paramedics couldn’t resuscitate Andrew. He’s dead!”
“Goodness, how awful!” Jill said. “Do they know what happened to him? Was it his heart?”
“I don’t know. I suppose they’ll do an autopsy.” Frieda grabbed a tissue and blew her nose. “I feel so bad.”
“I’m so sorry, Frieda. Were you and Andrew friends?”
“Are you kidding? I couldn’t stand the man. I feel terrible about what this may do to our show schedule. What if people think we’re jinxed or something? What if the owners decide it’s my fault and fire me?”
“I certainly don’t see how anyone can blame you. Accidents happen, after all.”
Frieda sniffed. “I suppose. We’ve had a few here, just broken bones and sprained ankles from falls, but never a death! By the way, we’re canceling the rest of the show, which is more trouble for me. Now I have to refund competitors who signed up to ride this afternoon. The owners are going to love that! Well, I have to go. Hope you sold some pictures, anyway.” Frieda left the office, wiping her eyes with another tissue.
“Boy, she’s really broken up about McFry, isn’t she?” Darlene said. “You’d think a man’s life would be worth more than her precious schedule.”
“I guess I’m not the only one who disliked him. Oh well, we might as well pack up. I doubt anyone else will come in to look at pictures. You know how dressage riders are; once the show is over they split in a hurry.”
Darlene shut down the computer while Jill packed up her camera. “Are you still driving up to Waukegan to see your boyfriend?”
“Yeah, my last chance before school starts.”
“College is so overrated. Give it up and come work for me.”
Darlene laughed. “I’ll think about it when you become a full-time photographer. In the meantime, I’m off to Bloomington.”
They packed the computer, monitor and camera equipment into Jill’s Subaru. Jill walked Darlene to her old Chevy, where she hugged her niece. “You take care of yourself, girlfriend. Give me a call before you head to Bloomington.”
“I will, Aunty Jill.”
“Aunty Jill! There you go, making me feel like an old lady. Get out of here, and drive carefully.”
Darlene started her car and pulled out of the parking lot. Jill checked the back of her Subaru to make sure the equipment was secure. She didn’t notice the black Cadillac following Darlene’s Chevy out of the lot.