A Distance to Death by Holly Menino is the second mystery in the Tink Elledge series about an elite equestrian turned sleuth (available August 12, 2014).
Tink Elledge is a woman who doesn’t take well to sitting still—not when it comes to husbands, not when it comes to looking after her stepson Stephen, and certainly not when it comes to horses. So when she gets the chance to ride in a competition again—even on a trail as grueling as the steep twists and turns of the legendary Tevis endurance trail ride—she jumps at it. In the Sierra mountain wilderness, she and her friend Isabel—an avid horsewoman and Darwin devotee—will race across one hundred miles of spectacular gorges and cross heart-stopping fords.
Meanwhile, Stephen and Tink’s husband, Charlie, are nearby working on a new partnership with the brilliant but secretive scientist James Grant-Worthington. When Grant-Worthington suddenly dies of not-so-natural causes, the entire deal is thrown into question. Eager to help, Tink begins searching for clues, starting with Josh Untemeyer, the PR manager for the institute Grant-Worthington founded to promote the theory of intelligent design, who has also been pursuing Isabel. As Tink and Isabel join the pack of elite riders and their horses scramble up the vertiginous, narrow trail, Josh goes missing. Tink must sort through the secrets and lies in a race against time to cross the finish line and save the two people she cares for most.
Stories like this usually start out with a body, the form that holds the person in his or her last earthly state—God knows what comes after that, I don’t. I could show you this body, the arrangement of the head, neck, and the arms and legs, the location of the wounds or the lack of them and the details of blood and semen, the juices that keep our species viable. But if I started with the body, you would miss half the ride.
Ride is what the people who rode the horses called it, but the Tevis Cup was really just a race, a very long race with strict requirements for staying in it. As the miles passed under the horses’ hoofs, a lot of information would come with them, information that should help you understand what happened to her and why he died. So let’s leave the bodies for the time being and start out with the bang at the beginning.
The trailer ramp crashed down, and the sound reverberated from the barn and corrals and the edge of spruce forest that descended into the meadow. After five days on the road, the springs that let the ramp down had gone slack, given up, and it slammed down loud enough to wake the dead. But apparently there was no one here, dead or not, to disturb. I looked around in road stupor. Three thousand miles with only one overnight stop. Isabel and I took turns driving and sleeping until we came to this barn at the end of a driveway high in the Sierra Nevada not far from Truckee, California. I was woozy from the altitude and fatigue.
The scene could have been a photo shot in black and white and then tinted with pewter and green. The sandy soil was gray with outcroppings of lighter rock, and the spruce trees that stood back at a respectful distance were a dense blackish green. The weathered wood of the barn and corrals needed no tint. The little ranch was an establishment called Farrell’s, just up the mountain from the flat rim of land that surrounded Donner Lake. The Donner party, coming from the East through Utah, had met starvation here just a couple of years before the Gold Rush, when the prospectors and miners stampeded in from the West. After the gold petered out, a fat vein of silver was claimed by Henry Comstock, and then fifteen years after the Donner party’s ordeal, two haphazard miners came in from the West in search of silver. They found gold, and the Squaw Valley rush was on.
When I read those facts aloud to Isabel Rakow as we came in view of Donner Lake, she said, without giving thought to what it must have been like to start in chewing on the hide roof over your head in the middle of winter or to strike it rich by accident, “Eighteen sixty-three? Four years after Origin,” referring to Darwin’s book on evolution. Isabel had a trick of the mind that sent many topics boomeranging back to Charles Darwin or to endurance riding. We had spent the last five days confined to the cab of a diesel pickup where the noise of the engine was constant and conversation not. Occasionally Isabel would make a brief comment. It would seem to come out of the blue, but it didn’t. Her mental life was something intense, and her remarks were what boiled up from it. “You know, he,” she might say—was there any doubt about who he was?—“gave a mirror to a female orangutan in the London Zoo?”
Why would I know something like that? I had never really considered Darwin’s importance or the importance of the theory of evolution. Although I had no objection to being edified, as far as I could tell from Isabel’s sporadic commentary, Darwin’s life was pretty dull, and when I said something like this, Isabel said, “Read the Beagle,” as if I would ask her to stop the rig at the very next public library so that I could comply. So far as I had been able to determine, Darwin was the only man she had ever allowed in her life.
If Isabel was as highway-addled as I was, she certainly didn’t show it. The little veterinarian looked as snugly put together as usual. She was tiny and plump, with dark hair and bright blue eyes. Everything about her radiated energy—and control. Her hair was a curly black cap. She never let it grow, and she never let her lipstick wear off. She was inclined to be aloof and keep me at a respectful distance. But over the months I had spent training with her on the trails, she had become what I would consider a friend. With me at least, if not with her pet-owning clients, she was candid about the fact that she ministered to cosseted dogs and cats because that produced enough income to keep her in horses. Although she never actually told me this, I had the impression that she had grown up without much money, and I think she kept up appearances to fit in with her well-heeled clients—also maybe because she wanted to hide the highly intelligent mind behind her carefully maintained face.
What betrayed the quite deliberately composed Isabel was her voice. When she opened her mouth, what came out was startling: a thin, penetrating call ushered by a heavy New Jersey accent. This voice sounded just now as she was looking around.
“Wonder where Farrell is.”
The ranch we had driven into was at seven thousand feet, a bed-and-breakfast that had trail horses to rent out, and we had come out a couple of weeks before the Tevis ride to let the horses adjust to the thinner air. Way back in April we had reserved beds for ourselves and stalls and turnout for the two horses on the trailer. I took a look inside the barn and found two empty stalls freshly bedded with shavings.
“He may not be here,” I reported, “but he is expecting us.”
We turned our attention to the horses, Darwin and Owen. In the trailer Darwin’s round brown rump was aligned side by side with Owen’s remarkably bony gray backside. It was time to unload the horses, and I went forward to the door at their heads.
“Watch him, Tink,” Isabel warned, but I knew exactly what to expect. Owen was a phenomenally competitive trail horse, and competitiveness made him envious, and envy made him tricky. If Darwin was asked to back out of the trailer before Owen was, the gray horse would explode backward, tearing out pieces of the trailer and anything else that came between him and his little margin of victory. Owen had to be first, and he was always invited out of the trailer before Darwin. Even so, he usually made a big, thumping, rattling deal about it.
I snapped a long lead rope to his halter and took a step toward the ramp, where Isabel was standing by. The horse began scrambling and launched himself with a backward leap. This ballet was standard operating procedure, and I gave him enough slack in the rope to let him make his move. Probably too much slack, because he immediately took advantage of it. He stood straight up on his hind legs and, bracing against his backward momentum, threw one gray foreleg over the rope and bolted. The lead rope ripped out of my hand, and the horse galloped free, speeding past the barn to the nearest corral in search of other horses. What Owen was expecting after so many hours on the road was a ride camp inhabited by endurance horses and their riders. He was well accustomed to what ride camps should look like, and this place did not meet his expectations. He sped along the corral fences, and evidently determining he was not in the right place, shot out of sight looking for the kind of camp he had in mind.
“Little cheat,” Isabel commented levelly as I ran past her on my way after the horse. Sometimes aloofness is a form of graciousness.
Owen had got the jump on me, and he blew by the last corral, charging down the lane toward the steep road we had taken to get to the ranch. His bony backside flew down it and out of sight, giving us pitiful humans a farewell salute with a flip of a silver tail. Owen was barefoot like so many of the horses that run endurance these days, and without the definition of a steel shoe, each hoof left only a rindlike impression.
When I got to the paved road, I stopped running because I could see there would be no gain in it. I couldn’t run and follow Owen’s tracks at the same time. In fact, I could barely run at all. The high thin air stole my breath. My legs felt oddly weighed down, and the road and the gray-green mountainside spun unsteadily before my eyes. It was the altitude and our fast trip up to it that day.
The sudden climb up to Donner Lake on Interstate 80 began a few miles east of Reno, where the Sierra Nevada stood up abruptly from the desert. The mountain range was a daunting prospect, offering nothing to an approaching traveler but challenge and hardship. From a distance it was hard to imagine a way over or through the steep, dry mountains, which held out no promise of sustenance for humans or wildlife. As the truck and trailer turned up the interstate, making easy work of our passage, I thought of the Donner party laboring to get their wagons up into occasional high meadows. It must have taken real fortitude to even contemplate, let alone undertake, a crossing. Every face of every mountain was steep, sometimes sheer, and when we left the interstate and the roads were narrow with no shoulder, I couldn’t figure out whether it was more scary to look down into a breathtaking drop-off or up at the heights still ahead of us.
“This country,” Isabel commented, “is enough to make you believe in God.”
“Or at least pray,” I suggested even though I knew she didn’t do either, believe or pray. “I can’t figure out how people got here in the first place or why they stayed.”
“I think once we are on the horses and moving over the ground stride by stride, the mountains won’t look so tough.”
To Owen the terrain hadn’t looked tough at all.
A half mile downhill, at a break in the enormous spruce trees, Owen’s tracks stopped. He seemed to have lifted off the road into the bright sky above the trees. I stood at the edge of the road and looked down. The sunny mountainside was steep and covered with stone rubble until it met the same road I stood on as it switched back across the grade. Straight down would be the shortest way, but the footing in the loose rock would be terrible. So I discounted this possible path and tried to clear away fatigue and think.
Owen wasn’t my horse. He belonged to Isabel, like this whole endurance enterprise. I was a newcomer, introduced to Isabel and her sport by my friend Frankie Golden. People who knew Isabel and Frankie said things to me like “You’re riding the Tevis? Wow, that’s a tough ride. How many rides have you finished?” Only a few, just enough to amount to the three hundred miles necessary to qualify for the Tevis. I was a green, green gringo, but this ride, the Tevis Cup, was important. More specifically, finishing this ride was important. The motto of endurance riding is To Finish Is To Win, and the finish line a hundred miles west of where I was now was something I had fixed on like a man overboard fixes on the ring buoy at the end of a line. So, okay, now I had managed to lose the horse that could carry me to the finish. I thought of Charlie and Stephen, my husband and stepson, back on the farm south of Philadelphia. Right now they were probably situated comfortably in Charlie’s study, which over the past couple of months had become a cheerfully messy war room. Charlie’s reading matter had been cleared from the sofa to make a place for Stephen and the rubble on the coffee table relocated to the rug nearby to allow space for a laptop. On weekends, I would find them there, Charlie hunkered down in his armchair and Stephen hunched over, poking at his laptop, deep in contemplation.
Charlie’s venture company, Halefellow, was involved in what he called a protective buyout of a small company that somehow turned protein into medicine, and he wanted to put Stephen in the middle of the deal. Which I thought was very sweet and also smart. It was a friendly kind of merger, and we had begun a friendship with the aging scientist who owned the company. He had turned to Halefellow for help. He knew exactly what kind of help he needed, and he had turned to the right investors. While Charlie understood the money and the statistics of research and development, he had no experience with the computing part of the biology. Stephen did.
James Grant-Worthington was a molecular biologist who was on the faculty at Stanford University and, working in a lab there, had developed an innovative method for rapidly and accurately producing artificial proteins. Why was this important? he asked rhetorically when he made his presentation to the Halefellow board of directors. Because some of the proteins that had resulted from this laboratory breeding—recombinant proteins—had powerful therapeutic capacities and they were of intense interest to the pharmaceutical industry. Grant-Worthington had started a small business to exploit his process, AccuGen. Then two of the proteins Grant-Worthington had developed had proved themselves effective weapons in the fights against AIDS and hepatitis, and this had led to the little company’s rather explosive success. It was clear to Grant-Worthington that he could not manage the company’s future on his own, and this is what he told the Halefellow board of directors. He was—as everyone in the boardroom could see—getting up in years, and he wanted, first of all, help in restructuring the company as a publicly held corporation with a plan for stable succession of management. Next, there were some aspects of the company’s production process that were beginning to limit its growth. These were primarily computational—Charlie had pounced on this like his cat Greenspan on a mouse—Stephen! Here was a role tailor-made for Stephen.
What followed was the happiest time of my life. Stephen or Stephen and his girlfriend Alex were at the house constantly. Charlie went into Philly and New York only when absolutely necessary. And I was starting to get back on the horse. Not young stock, nothing spooky, no fences. It was just Owen and just enough to keep me looking ahead to competition.
Stephen dug into research on generating recombinant proteins and the computational requirements for sorting through the myriad proteins that resulted. He glowed from the effort, and Charlie, designing the Halefellow reorganization of AccuGen, basked in his new role as mentor. He had lost his own father at the age of fourteen and had never had children of his own. Stephen kept the surname of his father and my former husband, Frank Elledge, and although Charlie had always had a warm relationship with Stephen, working together had cemented something almost biological between them. In his own way Charlie too needed this deal to come along.
About a month into their evaluation of the company and its prospects, Charlie invited Grant-Worthington for his first visit to the farm. When he mentioned the scientist would stay for dinner, I panicked. My cooking skills and repertoire were decidedly limited. But Charlie said, “Don’t worry about what you fix. If I read this guy right, he’ll be happy with scrambled eggs.”
In a way, Charlie was right about the scrambled eggs, but what actually happened is that Dr. Grant-Worthington sensed my apprehension and joined me in the kitchen to take over operations there. “No need to be proud, my dear”—in British-inflected English and as if I were in junior high—“this is my idea of a vacation. You know, not answering questions about the balance sheet.” All of us—Alex, Stephen, Charlie, and I—benefited at the table, and somehow Grant-Worthington managed to shift the credit to my side of the ledger. It was the first of quite a number of visits. Sometimes we went out to dinner. Sometimes James cooked.
It wouldn’t be long before James would be doing the cooking again. My friend Frankie Golden, who had suffered a number of defeats in tennis at the hands of James, was on her way out to these mountains to help with the horses during the race. The plan was for Frankie and Isabel and me to meet him in Palo Alto after the Tevis ride. We would leave the horses in Truckee for a few days and converge near Stanford with James and Charlie and Stephen for what James called “a real celebration of our new arrangement.” Although Isabel had met James only briefly, I had a pretty reliable hunch that her interest in Darwin and evolution and James’s intimate knowledge of DNA would instantly put them on common ground.
Standing in the steep road that led to God knows where, I only hoped that at the end of the day Isabel would still be on common ground with me. Her horse was gone, quite gone, and no doubt about it, the fault was mine. What in hell was I doing chasing somebody else’s homely horse in these godforsaken duotone mountains? I had no business way out here. This wasn’t my sport. I belonged back home eventing, running at cross-country fences, flying, and I was only doing this endurance race because when Charlie agreed that I could start riding again after a fluky accident and a year of physical therapy, he said, “But no jumping.…”
I missed him now, missed him looking after me, trying to keep me out of predicaments like this. I was wishing myself off the mountainside and back to the farm and Charlie and Stephen when I looked down over the scree that tumbled far below to the switchback and noticed something there. The round rubble rocks were decorated with dark pearls. Manure.
This was hard to believe. Why had Owen careened down this steep rock-strewn slope when any ordinary horse would have taken the easy way the road offered? The answer, I feared, was because he was an Arabian. I started down carefully, sometimes dropping back on my butt to skid more safely. How could the horse have navigated the grade and the rocks without hurting himself? He might bang his legs up badly enough to put us out of the race before we even made it to ride camp for the start. After hauling two horses across the country and being attached to Isabel and the specter of Darwin for two thousand miles, this would be pretty hard to take. I wasn’t getting any younger, and I was aware of rust settling in. I had been out of competition for more than a year, and I needed this ride. While I was pretty sure Owen would have been able to go the hundred miles, I wasn’t at all sure I could. But to try to get through the miles and be reassured about that was an almost physical need.
Thirty yards from the road, the flat, green-brown spheres of manure led in a curve to the left. I followed Owen’s turn, followed the road into a narrow valley between the mountain I had come down and the one rising next to it. Now the view along the road was a straight shot, and there was good visibility for almost a mile. No horse in sight. Evidently Owen had already started his own race.
I was struggling for breath. My lungs seemed to take a long time to fill up. And I was losing heart. Often a horse that finds itself loose becomes frightened and disoriented, and it will run until it is exhausted and then wander lost and spooky until death claims it in one way or another. Could be a semi or maybe just a broken-down fence. There would be no way to make up the loss to Isabel. It wouldn’t be a simple matter of paying for the horse, because she hadn’t paid for him, and she hadn’t bred and raised him the way she had Darwin. She had inherited him from a client whose Blue Heelers she treated and who was a friend and challenger in endurance racing. When Owen’s owner was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer and she had to stop competing, she told Isabel, “I want you to have my little mare.” Isabel agreed but only reluctantly because there wasn’t anything special about the mare. Sometime later, however, when her friend’s death was in plain sight, Isabel said, “Why don’t you give me your good one too? Be better for him.” This gift was a compliment, and it made Owen irreplaceable. A priceless little bastard.
Owen’s tracks followed the dirt shoulder of the road down the mountain for about half a mile then veered into what was an obvious trail. For the horse this seemed to make sense. Trails, which were usually forgiving underfoot, were preferable to the hard asphalt road, and when he was under saddle his rider often made this dirt-over-pavement choice for him. This particular dirt thread was a rollicking, up-down passage that continued to carry his hoofprints until it met another road. The new road was just gravel, but it had the curious appearance of being well cared for. Evidently Owen had found this a promising avenue, and I trudged along dutifully in his wake until a quarter mile on there was a metal sign embossed with the message PRIVATE ROAD—AUTHORIZED ACCESS ONLY.
The road was a level track cut through spruce trees on the floor of a narrow valley between the mountains. I could see the horse’s hoofprints cutting into the gravel far ahead. I considered turning back. But I had no idea how far from the ranch I was, and no idea how far this mighty endurance horse might run before he tired. Even so, whatever the distance, the fastest way to get back to the stable was on the horse’s back. Then again, if I stuck to the gravel road and someone challenged me, I couldn’t pretend I couldn’t read. I would have to plead forgiveness—borrowed horse, valuable horse, no harm intended. While I deliberated, Owen was gaining time. So I kept going, kept passing spruce trees. I passed plenty of spruce trees. When I had started after Owen I was road weary, and now I was genuinely tired. My feet, although in sensible grippy trail shoes, hurt, my back hurt, and my legs wondered why the hell they were trying to stand between my back and my feet.
Remorse was setting in. I’d pulled a fast one on Charlie to get him to let me ride and compete. What I’d said was, “Compared to the jumping, to the speed of a three-day event? Charlie, this is a walk in the park.” Some park—2,500 square miles of unbelievably dry, boulder-strewn mountains. Too far from Charlie and Stephen and the horses in my own barn. I was ready to retire from the chase when the trees lining the road receded to offer a grassy, mowed berm, and the berm opened out to a carefully landscaped mountain meadow. At the far end of the meadow, against the dark green backdrop of spruce, was a remarkable building, churchlike but too large for a church and not large enough for a cathedral. Its spruce timbers lifted huge facets of dark glass skyward. Except for this glass, every piece of the building was direct from nature. I was struck by the structure’s ethereal reach, by its perfect accommodation to its ragged mountain setting, and by how much it must have cost. Very expensive, and very private. I was an intruder, and my weedy, rack-hipped horse was now trespassing on the lawn to one side of the parking lot, making free with privately owned grass. There were two cars in the lot, and if anyone who had arrived in them was even close to the glass walls, there was no way that person could have failed to see me approaching the horse. He was still wearing the halter and lead rope, and I put a big smile on my face because to the horse you must always seem to be the same welcoming, powerful person.
“You conniving little piece of Arabian shit,” I told him sweetly, when I actually wanted to break his legs one by one. Then, just as abruptly as he had left me, Owen came forward to put himself in my hands. He dropped his head against me and breathed in to get my scent and then let out a long sigh. I looked over his legs, and miraculously, the only marks on them were a few places low on one hind leg where the hair was scraped off. Owen was what is called flea-bitten gray, which means only that he was old enough so that his coat was sprinkled with chestnut freckles. Grays change color from the moment they are born black or some other dark color until they die white. Right now it was hard to tell exactly what Owen’s color was. His sweat had dried, and his freckled gray coat was caked with dust from the mountainside.
My sweat hadn’t dried. My T-shirt was splotched with perspiration, and my breathing was still quick and ineffective. But Owen wasn’t breathing hard, and his ears stood at attention. I realized I didn’t understand these Arab horses the way I understood my Thoroughbreds at home. However harebrained an Arab might act, the horse always assumed great intimacy with you. Now alert and curious, he lifted his sweetly shaped head way up so that he could focus better on me, and he as much as said, “So where is camp? I need to get to camp—and when does this race start?”
The main door of the glass and timber building opened and two men wearing sport jackets and carrying computer cases started toward the cars in the lot. Spotting me, one of them, a young, square-chested guy with an unruly thatch of blond hair, started in my direction. He was smiling and at the same time coming toward me with big, bounding, I-belong-here-you-don’t strides. I stayed put, wary and uncomfortable at being apprehended. He set down the computer case and put out his hand rather forcefully. “Josh Untermeyer,” he said with good humor. “What are you doing here?”
There didn’t seem to be anything unfriendly in this, but I was on the defensive.
“Horse got away from me,” I said in case this man didn’t understand that Owen and I had just reunited. For a moment, my attention wandered to the other man, who was just now sliding behind the wheel of his car. He was older than this Josh by a good bit, tall, with not much hair and a pair of dark glasses riding his shiny crown, and he looked a little rumpled, newly disheveled. But even after he settled his glasses back on his face, there was something almost familiar about him. I couldn’t define what it was. But I didn’t think about this any longer than it took for him to back his car around, send an absentminded wave in our direction, and drive out of the lot and down the gravel road. I dismissed him and responded to the younger force confronting me.
“You ride in here?”
I could see that he wasn’t really all that young, maybe early thirties. It was his energy, barely under wraps, that was youthful.
“No, he ran, I walked.” I said. How could he see my sweaty shirt and not believe that?
“Okay, you walked,” he said in a good-natured way. “Who are you?”
“Tink. That’s not your real name, is it?” Without waiting for me to speak, he drew what looked like a cell phone from the pocket of his sport coat and raised it close to his face. I saw that it was in fact a radio. He pressed a button on its side and spoke into the static he raised. “Kurt? Kurt?”
He reached only static. He smiled and shook his head at this, then turned the unit off and stowed it back in his pocket. “Asleep at the switch. Was there anybody in the booth at the gate?”
“I never saw a gate.”
He shrugged. “That’s why they didn’t ring you in, then.”
I couldn’t tell what his intentions were. He was hard to read because he was both aggressive and friendly. Maybe he was just trying to piece in the backstory. I tried to help with that. “I started up at Farrell’s ranch, this horse ran off, and I ended up here.”
“Do you know how to get back to Farrell’s?”
“Not a clue. Where am I?”
“The Institute for Biology and Higher Mind, about ten miles from Farrell’s. Educational foundation,” he explained. I wondered where the students were, why the parking lot held only two cars. And if this place was here to educate the public, why was it so intensely private?
At that point this Josh Untermeyer seemed to go off duty. His interrogation ceased. He went into his laptop case for a pen and a small portfolio with a pad. He drew a map. Looking at the lines he had made for the gravel road and the paved ones that connected with it, he said, “Are you going to have to walk all the way back there?”
“No, he is. With me on his back.”
“Pretty easy to get lost out here.” Josh’s concern seemed genuine. This guy was a bundle of mixed messages. And all of them came on strong. “Do you want me to go inside and phone Todd Farrell? He could come down here with his trailer and pick you and the horse up.”
“No thanks. In a couple of weeks, this horse is supposed to go a hundred miles, so he better be fit enough to go back over the mountain today.”
He registered this and said, “Oh. Out for the Tevis?”
Like everyone else I had talked with, he didn’t bother to add Cup to the name of the race, Tevis was all that was necessary. Short name, long race.
I was eyeing one of the boulders that ringed the parking lot. It looked like it would make a good mounting block. I folded the map into my jeans pocket. Then I was up on Owen. No bridle, but his run between the mountains had smoothed off any edginess so that I could steer him with my legs and the lead rope attached to his halter. For an Arab, Owen was long-legged and angular, with higher withers than most of his breed. Ten miles with Owen’s slat-sided body bumping up and down between my legs without the buffer of a saddle could leave quite an impression.
Josh saw I was about to ride away, but he wasn’t going to be put off. “I’ll just drive up and let Todd Farrell know where you are, tell him you’re on your way.”
How could I stop him? This guy was a little overwhelming. “Very thoughtful of you—if you really don’t mind. My friend—the woman who owns this horse—has no idea where he is or whether I’ve found him.”
As his car pulled away I realized I hadn’t given him Isabel’s name or cell phone number. No doubt he was as wired in as everyone in business was these days. Wouldn’t it have been simpler to just phone ahead?
When Owen and I headed out the private road, I looked back at the remarkable structure. The place radiated some kind of awareness. I had the sense, completely without grounds, that my departure on Owen was being observed. I knew there was no one inside, but the glare off the huge windows made the building appear watchful.
When I slid off Owen near Farrell’s barn, Josh was still there, leaning back against the fender of his car and talking to Isabel, who took our return as a matter of course—what goes up must come down, Arabs that run off must come back to the tent. When I made a vague apology about not offering a cell phone number, he turned briefly from his conversation with Isabel to say cheerfully, “They’re no good up here. Not enough towers, too many mountains.”
He directed his attention back to Isabel, and tired as I was, I could see that it was, in fact, his full attention. I turned Owen loose in his stall, offered him water, and when I returned to the conversation, Josh Untermeyer was still focused on Isabel Rakow. This guy was a force of nature; a positive, forward-going force of nature. Apparently he wasn’t put off by her voice or her cool intensity. Maybe he was a match for the intensity.
I heard him say, “Oh really? I know quite a bit about Darwin.” I thought this was an obvious lie made to impress her. But it caught Isabel’s attention, and she offered a cautious interrogation, evidently trying to plumb the depths of the knowledge Josh claimed to have. He was carrying most of the conversation, and only occasionally did Isabel’s voice keen over his.
Although Isabel didn’t appear to see it, there was something going on inside Josh Untermeyer, and that something was about her. It was a little improbable. Pretty, bright-eyed, but sober-sided Isabel—and Josh, very friendly, a little too pushy, and trying to control his wiry blond cowlicks with an occasional swipe of his hand. I was embarrassed without exactly knowing why. It was as if I had blundered into something very private, as if I was present at a moment of creation that nobody else recognized.
Todd Farrell rescued me from this discomfort. He drove the dirt lane very slowly, probably because his pickup was fifteen years older than the one that had carried Isabel and me across country. Even at a crawl, the truck came on with a sound track of rattles and clangs, and when he pulled up to the barn and stopped, a gong sounded somewhere in the drive train. He had a dog with him, a red-brown Border collie that jumped over him and out the window before he could open the door. The dog raced toward us, low belly, butt high, like we were sheep to be cut from out of the flock and penned.
Todd emerged from the truck, a sturdy, barrel-chested man in jeans. Under the shade of a cowboy hat, he wore a chestnut beard that framed his muzzle, and the white hairs growing into this beard gave it an odd pinkish cast. He strode after the dog hollering. “Baby, quit that! Baby! You hear me?”
Evidently not. What stopped the dog was Isabel. It circled us newcomers warily, growling and gradually homing in on Isabel.
Todd Farrell laughed. “Must be a vet. Baby knows one as soon as she sees one.” Then he remembered himself. “Hey, girls! You got here. I’m Farrell.” This greeting put me off because we were definitely not girls any longer. But it wouldn’t be long before I would get used to this term for us, and its power to offend would disappear. Also, I would soon discover Farrell was the way everyone in these parts referred to him. I shook his hand, and Isabel turned politely in his direction.
To Josh he said, “Hi, kid. Still doin’ God’s work?”
When Josh didn’t respond immediately, Farrell looked from Josh to Isabel and realized he might have stepped in the middle of something. He said, “Anyways, it’s always nice to have riders here. Horses all in one piece? Mind if I take a look at them?”
I followed him into the barn. “Maybe this seems nosy,” he said to explain his interest in seeing the horses, “but sometimes people will haul all the way across country and never bother to check whether their horses are acting right. Sometimes they’re not. Don’t want to drink and eat right. Then before you know it, I have to get the the vet out here in the middle of the night.”
He looked over our horses, the new manure in the straw and the level of the water in the buckets, and said, “Bay looks pretty good. But this gray”—he stroked Owen’s shoulder with a sunburned hand—“doesn’t haul very good, does he?”
“Oh, he hauls just fine,” I assured him. “He just didn’t like where we unloaded him. Took off.”
“He did? These Arabs can pull some really funny stuff.”
“If you think walking miles in strange country is funny.”
“Which way did he run?”
“I don’t really know, but I ended up way the hell off and gone at this amazing building.”
“The Institute,” he deduced. “And that’s how come Josh is here.”
I could see that this corner of the Sierra Nevada might look vast and endless to me, but to him it was just his little hometown. Now he turned his offhand hospitality to me.
“So how about you? Got the brain fuzz?”
So there was a term for this debilitated state. “Definitely. And slow. I’m really slow.”
“Give it a few days,” he advised. “It’ll go away—now how about your rooms? Want to see them?”
On our way to the house, we passed Josh and Isabel, still talking. The red-and-white Border collie was still menacing Isabel, crouching behind her and making little dives in the direction of her heels. Isabel, who spent her work life dealing with serious biters, paid no attention. Farrell snapped, “Baby! Didn’t I tell you to cut that out?” but not really expecting Baby to mind this command, moved on.
Without hurrying, Farrell crossed from the barn to the low, rambling plank-sided house. I trotted back to Isabel’s truck to rescue my purse and then caught up with him. In the front face of the house there was a door, but it must have been largely ceremonial, as there was no path leading up to it. We used the back door and came in through a hall, where a telephone perched on a small oval table, passed the entrance to a large bright kitchen, and went through the dining and sitting rooms to arrive in a long hall on which the doors of the guest rooms opened.
“You can take any one of these you want. Bathroom’s down the hall. Fix you a drink?” He turned to go. “I’m fixing one for myself.”
The five guest rooms were identical, and looking around the one I settled in assured me that Farrell’s place was the genuine article. The walls were plain plaster without any Wild West tchotchkes or phony Native American gewgaws. The big window offered the room’s real ornamentation, the mountains rising and falling, rising and falling until their outline met the sky.
I took off the trail shoes and stretched out on the double bed. The dramatic view made me a little homesick. I was used to the roll and gentle camber of the fields in the Brandywine country, and I was used to being with Charlie and to having Stephen and Alex in and out on weekends. I hadn’t seen Charlie in five days now. This was the longest period we had been separated, and I hadn’t talked to him since the morning before we started up into these mountains. I had told him, “There’s no point in you coming along. It’s not a spectator sport, and you won’t see anything, Charlie. You might be able to watch me ride two or three fifty-yard stretches if you’re fast enough between the holds.” Now I wished I hadn’t said any of this. I rolled over to retrieve my purse from the floor and dug out my cell phone.
On the little screen, the roaming symbol lit up. Higher charges. But what the hell? I was very far from home. I needed to talk to Charlie, and I had never been very good about money. Which was one reason—there were others, of course—why Charlie was my third or, depending on how you counted, my fourth husband. The tiny wireless charges were nothing compared to what I would have been spending if I’d been at home with my own horses. And these, my own horses, were another cause for homesickness.
Speed dial brought up Charlie’s number and then in a punctuated burst of tones transmitted. The ringtone sounded. It rang and kept ringing. I looked at my watch. Five-thirty, which meant that Charlie should have been getting ready for bed. Thinking he might be out with my terriers, I hung up, waited for a few minutes, and then worked the speed dial routine again. Again, the phone rang through willingly. No one picked up. I was a little troubled but not worried. So I left the phone on my pillow and went in search of the drink Farrell had promised.
I found Farrell in the kitchen. Without the cowboy hat, which was a bit of a shock. The beard around his muzzle was the only hair on his head. Thoroughly modern cowboy, he had shaved the rest of his head. Also, my sexism had led me to expect to find someone else, specifically a woman, in the ranch kitchen. But evidently Farrell was the sole proprietor here. He swept a welcoming arm toward a stool parked near a spotless counter and then brought out a glass.
If Farrell’s truck was a rattletrap, his kitchen was a starship, a technological marvel. Evidently all the rust on the Farrell ranch had collected on the old pickup. In his kitchen the long counters and several sinks gave off antibacterial glints, and a line of restaurant-grade appliances marched along them. There were machines here whose purpose I couldn’t guess.
“This is beautiful,” I said after a swallow of scotch.
“You like? So glad. I love this room, live in it. I always dreamed about having a place like this”—this passion for a kitchen was something I didn’t expect from a man—“planned for it, but couldn’t make it come true until I got her out the door.”
“Wife,” I suggested.
“Right. I had to buy out her half of the ranch. But”—he smiled, his eyelids closing self-consciously—“you’re probably not interested in that old story.”
“Oh, I’m very interested,” I contradicted. “I’ve been through three divorces myself, so I know every one of them is hard but hard in a different way.”
He regarded me seriously now, looking me over carefully. Finally he decided, “You seem to be doing okay. I mean, you’re out here to ride the hundred and you must have a little bit of money somewhere.”
“A little bit. And I’m fine,” I assured him. “Better than I’ve ever been in my life and with the best man I’ve ever known.”
“I had to fight for every inch of this place.”
He forgot about not wanting to burden me with his story. He’d started it, and now there was no way he would hold back. Farrell was going to be a talker. I thought I’d try to help him segue to the end and said, “So how did you finally come up with the money for this place and this amazing kitchen?”
“Borrowed it from a friend—or actually through a friend—she was doing business with a real estate guy who liked to invest.”
“Your friend—is she that special kind of ‘friend?’”
He laughed. “No way. It wouldn’t work. I’ve given up finding somebody else. I’m not young, you know.”
I laughed. “Neither was I.”
“How’d you meet him?”
“Charlie? At a benefit dinner—silent auction.”
“Haven’t tried that.” But he was giving the idea some thought.
“Give it time.” I advised him about women as he had advised me about brain fuzz. “She’ll come along.”
Isabel, pulling along both of our suitcases, came into the kitchen with the Border collie driving the suitcases from behind, herding them. Isabel looked around and said, “Wow.”
“Wow yourself,” Farrell responded and went into a cupboard for another glass. Skulking past Isabel, Baby took up a position on her cushion under the end of the nearest counter and sat, lids half-closed on her gimlet eyes, observing the veterinarian who had invaded the kitchen. “The way Josh was acting, you must be giving off pheromones. You know what they are?”
Isabel gave our host a fixed look and said, “Of course.”
“Well, I didn’t until I heard this thing on the radio about insects and most other animals giving off these chemicals to attract a mate. Josh was acting just like that, wasn’t he?” Farrell laughed. Isabel looked a little startled and, trying to change the subject, said she’d rather have wine. She wasn’t really into whiskey, she’d rather have just a little wine. Without halting his conversation, Farrell obediently drew a bottle of white wine from his enormous stainless refrigerator. “Just like he caught a big whiff of something and was stoned on it.”
“He is a little appalling,” Isabel commented.
“Josh? He’s all right. Maybe a little forward, but he’s a good guy—and part of his job is being forward.”
Isabel did not appear to be interested in this, so I took the bait.
“What does he do?”
“Public relations.” He stressed both words of the term as if we might not understand it. “Consultant. Does some work for the Institute. So how he is fits in really good with what he does.”
“He didn’t mention any of that.” Isabel was trying to turn the conversation.
“Course he didn’t!” Farrell hooted. “Those pheromones you were giving off were so strong he couldn’t think. Maybe you could bottle some of the stuff and give it to me.”
Reflecting on the conversation she had just escaped, Isabel said seriously, “He did seem to know something about Darwin and evolution.”
“Sure,” Farrell said as if we should have seen something this obvious ourselves. “He’s working for the Institute.”
“The Institute.” Isabel had no idea where I’d been that afternoon.
“Evolution is what they worry about.” Our host was going for another drink.
“Why should anyone worry about evolution?” I wondered and then, remembering the Scopes trial and the textbook fights, felt idiotic.
“I don’t know, really. Seems like maybe it’s against their religion.”
“Not if it’s what I suspect it is.” Isabel suddenly understood what Farrell was alluding to. “I think what you’re talking about is intelligent design, and it’s true that people who believe in intelligent design believe in that for religious reasons. See, when Darwin published his theory of evolution, it was pretty scandalous because it held that changes in plants and animal species came about over very long periods of time and that man was just another animal who came on Earth through the same process. It contradicted what the Bible taught about creation—you know, the seven days and all—and the bishop and the church crowd really didn’t like that. There are still people who want to stick with the Bible’s account of how the world came to be, the creationists. But then there is the intelligent design crowd. They believe evolution is okay. But they want God to be involved. So they believe that God created the world and everything in it, including the process of evolution.”
“If they believe in evolution, then why can’t they believe anything else they want to believe?” I said this because I could just hear liberal old laissez-faire Charlie saying it.
“The problem with it is,” Isabel plowed straight ahead, “that it is scientific bullshit.”
This was the first cussword I’d heard her utter. It caused me to revise my notion about what Charlie would have thought. If it was scientific bullshit, he would try in his gentle, genial way to dissuade anyone of that opinion.
“Where is this institute?” Isabel asked as if she was looking for directions so she could go there and straighten out the people who ran the place.
“I don’t know, but I was there this afternoon.”
“Well, in case you might be thinking of heading over there…” Farrell teased Isabel and launched into directions to the Institute if she were going to drive.
“Thanks,” Isabel cut in, “but it doesn’t sound like a place I’d be interested in visiting.”
“Never say never.” Farrell glanced over at the two suitcases Baby was harassing. “Now, is this all of you? I thought you made a reservation for three.”
“That’s right. Frankie is driving up from Sacramento tomorrow.” Frankie Golden was my oldest and closest friend and, ultimately, the person who had arranged to get me out to these mountains with Isabel’s horse.
“She’ll probably find you sitting right here,” Farrell predicted. “Supposed to rain like hell tomorrow.”
“We’ll be sitting on horses in the rain,” I advised him.
Using his term for us, which I was still finding annoying, Farrell remarked, “You girls are serious, aren’t you?”
“They won’t call off the Tevis if it rains, will they?” Isabel asked pointedly.
The rain did, in fact, come in. It woke me early the next morning, pelting the big window in my room in long, steady waves. It draped the mountains in a dense gray heavier than any fog. The rain was impenetrable, and it had moved in for the day.
Even before I shed my pajamas to dress and go off in search of Farrell’s coffee, I retrieved the cell phone from my purse. I was hoping to catch Charlie early in his day. I let the phone ring a long time. He didn’t answer. I was puzzled until I remembered Josh Untermeyer’s comment about cell phones in the mountains. I pulled on breeches and a T-shirt and headed to the kitchen to ask Farrell about how to call home.
I found him peering into the oven. Unlike any number of women I knew who had made big investments in their kitchens, Farrell justified the expense of his. The night before he had laid out plates of beef bourguignon for Isabel and me and then, ignoring the usual protocol of professional hosts, settled with his own plate at the table with us, passed a basket of bread and a bowl of salad, and poured red wine. Delivered without fanfare, Farrell’s dinner brought unexpected pleasure. Now he waved me in the direction of the coffeemaker.
“What’d you girls do to deserve to ride in this shit?”
I squelched the urge to advise him that I was no longer a girl. “Farrell, what is it about the phones out here?”
“It’s good shit,” he continued, “but it’s still—you’re not trying to use a cell phone out here, are you?”
“It rings,” I explained to justify my attempts.
“Somewhere out in the ionosphere. Damn things are useless out here. Use the phone in the hall. It’s a landline.”
His phone reported the ringing on the other end of the line with reassuring authority. But it too failed to bring a response. Charlie didn’t pick up. This worried me a little. But it was midmorning in Philadelphia and Charlie might have gone off to some appointment or other. I dialed the phone again, this time using the number for Stephen at his office in the modem company. Stephen would know what was going on.
But his buddy who answered reported that Stephen wouldn’t be in that day. In fact, he didn’t know when Stephen would be in. This was a little more alarming than Charlie being out of reach, because Stephen’s discontent with his job and his restlessness anticipating marriage had been worrying me for the last couple of months. I hoped he hadn’t done something rash like quitting, but at such a great distance, nearly the span of the continent, there was nothing I could do about it. Feeling cut off from my stepson and husband, I meditated on the steam rising from the cup Farrell offered me, hoping there was a dirt-simple explanation for the silence from home.
“Problem?” Farrell inquired.
“I guess not.”
“Rain makes everything harder,” he suggested.
“No kidding!” Isabel arrived for coffee with her rain suit over her arm, signaling the impending necessity to mount up and jostling me out of my worries.
If there is anything that can douse your enthusiasm about riding, it is not your last fall from the back of a horse or your last visit to the emergency room, it is a good rain. Even in the finest high-performance rain gear, your body becomes as slippery as an amphibian. Every inch of leather or biothane becomes slimy. Every effort you make to communicate with or even just stay with the horse slides away into the damp.
That said, I certainly wouldn’t beg off riding or putting in the necessary miles before the Tevis. I hadn’t competed on a horse in any sport for almost two years, and I had come all the way out here to do just that, compete on a horse. I had no delusions about winning or even placing in the Tevis Cup, but in this sport whose motto is To Finish Is To Win, I intended to finish. In order to finish, you have to start, and in order to start, you have to ride, even in the rain.
From the oven Farrell withdrew a baking sheet that carried a flaky, delicately browned ring of coffee cake. He considered his work critically, turning the baking sheet to search out flaws. Then he said, “Now there’s one thing that’s gone right today, anyway.”
“Well,” I said by way of a nosy compliment, “whoever she is who invested in your kitchen knew what she was doing.”
“You sure she’s not that kind of friend?” I teased, partly just to flatter him and partly because the night before, on my way to the kitchen for a glass of water, I’d passed him in the hall. He was talking on the phone, apparently in extended conversation.
The pastry had a raspberry filling, and Isabel and I lingered over it while Farrell briefed us on the local trails. Our plan was to ride a slow twenty miles that day, then use the following three days to ride the hundred miles of the Western States Trail from Robie Park to Auburn in three sections. Frankie Golden would come to chauffeur us with the horses to the starting and ending points each day. When we told Farrell this, he offered Isabel and me a pearl of endurance wisdom. “The Tevis trail runs generally downhill from eight thousand feet to about twelve hundred. So why don’t you get the advantage of working uphill? That’ll make the race feel easier. For each piece of the trail, you could drive south and then head back up in this direction.” After that, the horses would rest for a week.
Apparently Farrell, who didn’t seem to have the passionate attachment to horses that Isabel and I had, thought of his horses the way I thought of my little John Deere tractor, a tool to get a specific job done. In the case of my tractor, the job was to spread manure. In the case of his horses, the job was tourist income. Because he regularly took groups of tourists out on horseback, he carried Lake Donner geography and geology in his head. He drew a series of maps on napkins, marking important features like water crossings and treacherous footing. “Keep in mind, girls, that this whole area west and south of us, what we call the Divide—on the maps it’s the Foresthill Divide—is littered with old mines left over from the gold and silver rushes. Some of them are actually still in use—but in any case, it’s not a good idea to go exploring by yourselves.”
“We won’t be off the horses long enough to do that,” Isabel promised him.
I was trying to pay attention to the lines Farrell’s pencil was etching into the soft paper of the napkins. But I was a little distracted by worry about Stephen and Charlie. I wished the phone in Farrell’s hall would ring. But the sound that came from the hall the next moment was a voice, with a high edge, tight with urgency.
“Farrell?” a woman called. “Farrell!”
He turned just as she came into the dining room.
“Oh good. Here you are.” She looked around a little frantically, without taking notice of Isabel or me. “I need to talk to you, Farrell.”
“Sure thing.” He waved at an empty chair. “Sit down.”
But the woman didn’t do that. She went on, “I’m sorry. I know you have guests, Farrell—”
“Sit down, Celeste,” he said more firmly. “These girls are Tink and Isabel, Elledge and Rakow.”
Celeste didn’t respond to his instruction, in fact, didn’t respond at all. She was a tall, slim person in urbane clothes—gray slacks sharply creased and a short-sleeved sweater with swashes that crisscrossed from her shoulders to her waist—that seemed at odds with the rustic furnishings of Farrell’s dining room. Her shoulder-length dark hair turned under in a carefully sculpted bob, and she held it back from the sides of her clear, fine-featured face with combs. Her wide cheekbones were set at a classical angle, and if her eyes hadn’t been nearly bulging with anxiety, her face and her person would have been attractive. As it was, her eyes sought Farrell from behind a bleary red mist, their color hard to define. Maybe gray, maybe hazel.
“Farrell, please.” Her hand went to her temple, and she struggled for composure. “I need to talk to you.”
It was an awkward, uncomfortable moment. I knew that Isabel and I shouldn’t be witness to this stranger’s distress, but by unkind happenstance we were. We should leave the room, I decided, and allow the poor woman her privacy. I tried to get Isabel’s attention.
Then Celeste spoke again. “He’s gone, Farrell. James has gone.”
Farrell seemed to shake himself and come alert. “What do you mean?”
“He was just lying there,” she reported, “and he wouldn’t wake up.”
The awkwardness now multiplied. We were submerged in an intimacy that had nothing to do with us. Yet how uncaring it would look if we stole away.
“You sure?” Farrell rose to take Celeste by the arm, maybe to support her, maybe to guide her to a chair. “Has someone come for him?”
“No, I couldn’t—” then, still oblivious to Isabel and me, she managed, “I was so upset—I haven’t moved him.”
“We can’t have that.” Farrell pulled a chair away from the table and settled her in it. “You know that.”
I found his assurance comforting. I hoped Celeste found that too.
“Wait here,” he instructed, and this seemed to include everyone in the room. He went through the hall to the telephone.
I heard him say, “Todd Farrell, and Celeste here was with him. Thinks he’s died.” After a pause he said, “Yeah, that’s him. Comes out here all the time from the university.” Then he said, “Right. How long you think you’ll be?… Meet you there.”
Farrell returned to the dining room. “Sorry to take off like this, girls. But I need to drive Celeste back to the Institute.” He had her by the arm again. “Hardly fit to drive the way she is.”
This much was quite evident. In fact, I wondered how she had managed to get to Farrell’s on her own. Isabel watched through the glass in the back door as the two of them made their way out through the rain. There was a gold Hummer parked haphazardly where the driveway curved up from the barn.
“Poor lady,” she said. “So sad and I felt somehow, you know, that it wasn’t right for us to be here.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” I told her. We cleared the table, and as we were pulling on our rain suits, I said, “The only good part is that Farrell really knows how to take care, doesn’t he?”
As soon as I had folded the napkin maps into an interior pocket of my rain jacket, we braved the rain. This first twenty-mile foray on the trails was to let Darwin shake the travel stiffness out of his legs—after Owen’s self-guided tour the day before, the gray horse hardly needed this.
The red-and-white Border collie, bristling with fear and hostility, trailed Isabel and me as we walked out into the rain. I was surprised that, dense and heavy as it was, the rain was soft. There was no wind. Even so Owen ducked his head and pinned his ears back evilly as soon as I led him out of the barn. Darwin, something of a Boy Scout if you don’t count the remarkable spook he had developed, stood watching and wondering at the rain.
Just as Isabel and I mounted up, Josh pulled up next to the barn door. Checking his image quickly in the rearview mirror and taking a swipe at his unruly hair, he pulled up the hood of his rain parka. As he left the car and headed toward us, Isabel, who now knew enough about this guy to consider him slightly feebleminded, let out a long, impatient breath. But Baby, who had seen enough of Josh to find him socially acceptable, trotted up to him expectantly, and when he stroked her head, she wriggled against his knees. This dog, who had a strong aversion to veterinarians, had a strong affinity for men who didn’t smell as if they were in that profession. In a moment, the dog was belly-up at Josh’s feet.
“We’re going out,” Isabel said the obvious to head off a time-consuming encounter.
Josh grinned and said what was equally obvious, “I see.”
Isabel said nothing. Owen milled restlessly, his coat already soaked, but Darwin, the soul of equine patience, stood in the rain without offering to help Isabel escape.
Josh persisted. “When will you be back?”
There was another awkward silence. I finally broke it. “Why don’t you come back midafternoon, Josh?”
“Oh.” He brightened. “You’ll be out all day? Why don’t I meet you with some lunch?”
“We don’t do lunch,” Isabel said immediately, and I nodded. It was true. Until we returned there would be nothing but the rain and the two beats of the trot, steady trotting broken only to let the horses drink. Truth to tell, I wasn’t looking forward to it. It wasn’t only the rain that dampened my enthusiasm or the fact that Farrell was having to deal with a dead man and a grieving woman. Concern about Charlie and Stephen and why I hadn’t heard from them revisited me every few moments, and even before we rode out of the lane, I was longing to return to the ranch house, where a telephone would be within easy reach.
Riding when you really don’t want to ride is essential to endurance racing, and I’d been conditioning for racing long enough now to accept that. Riding when I wanted to hover by the telephone and really all of this—conditioning for races, nonstop journey to the California mountains, worrying about Charlie and Stephen while I was slip-sliding in the saddle on top of a bony gray horse that belonged to somebody else—was ultimately Frankie Golden’s doing. She had provided my introduction to Isabel Rakow. Frankie owned two French bulldogs, small, rather useless but adorable dogs whose punched-in, wide-eyed faces could have been Japanese anime. Useless, but I can tell you these fellows were an improvement over the dachshunds, which became perfect cylinders because Frankie couldn’t keep her hand out of the treat jar.
Isabel took responsibility for the Frenchies’ health care, and spotting a potential trail buddy in Frankie, she’d pestered her to start riding. This was somewhat self-serving. Isabel kept two competition horses because in endurance a spare is essential, but she didn’t have time to condition more than one of them. Frankie took Owen out for a test drive and phoned me as soon as she got home.
“I need some help, Tink. I need to get out of this riding deal.”
Frankie could ride. She wasn’t great but, mainly due to my indoctrination, had workmanlike skills. She said, “I play golf, but I don’t play endurance golf. I can ride, but I don’t want to ride endurance. It just goes on and on. It’s going to take up so much time—my tennis will go right out the window. And this horse—I can’t tell Isabel this—but I hate him. He just will not quit.”
This piqued my interest. “Sounds like he was custom-made for his job. Who is this Isabel person?”
At the time I had spent more than a year in rehab for neurological damage from a freak accident in which the promising filly I was riding sent me headfirst into a fence post. The rehab was slow going because it involved retraining nerves. I was sticking with it, but frustration had set in early on, and I was at the boiling point. I wanted to ride, and I wanted to compete. But I had made an agreement with Charlie, who had been badly scared by my accident. About my return to the back of a horse, he was adamant. It was too soon, he kept saying month after month, to get back on the horse with the goal of eventing.
Without mentioning it to Charlie, I paid a call on Isabel and found Frankie’s veterinarian a small person with a sweet face and a cool head. I rode Owen, and this was the first time I’d swung my leg over a horse in sixteen months. On that first day Owen was not exciting. He was not a horse I would’ve picked for myself. He was narrow-bodied and slat-sided—“That’s the way we like them,” Isabel reported about the preferences of endurance riders, “built like a radiator, so they disperse heat”—but he had a pretty face and ears that turned in toward each other. More important, he liked to go. Apparently go was all he knew.
I hadn’t even dismounted before Isabel said, “I’m taking him and Darwin to California next summer. How would you like to get him fit and then go out with me?”
The abruptness of this request caught me off guard. I never would have offered a horse of mine to a rider I didn’t know and who had been on his back only once. But she had seen I could ride, and what she needed was another rider. She was quite determined to have that, so I could understand why Frankie had opted out. I said, “I don’t know anything about your sport.”
“Best time over the distance,” she gave me the elevator speech, “And every time the vets check the horse, he has to be fit to continue. You know, survival of the fittest.”
I recognized this phrase, of course, but had no idea it was the key to Isabel’s riding ambitions or that Darwin the historical figure was a passion equal to endurance riding. In fact, the nineteenth-century scientist’s ideas about competition and survival were the reasons for her attraction to a sport where surviving a distance and besting others were the goals. Although I didn’t know it when Isabel proposed the California ride, I would hear a whole lot more about competition and survival in the days ahead. I would learn the story of Darwin whether or not I wanted or needed to, the way kids learn stories from the Bible without being offered the choice not to. Isabel wasn’t ordinarily a talker. In fact, she would be quite taciturn until either Darwin or horses got her started, and with me as captive audience, she would make use of our hours on the trail to dispense sizable chunks, unrelated by chronology or science, of her knowledge of Darwin and evolution.
I tried to dodge her question about California. “He’s pretty green,” I suggested. She said, “He doesn’t need schooling. Nobody schools. So don’t try to teach him anything. Forward is all he needs to know.”
If forward was all it would be, I realized, Charlie might go along with this. No running at big cross-country obstacles that didn’t come down. He might be talked into it. Owen might just be my ticket back into competition. I looked him over more carefully. He had nice big feet—I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t shod—and his legs were really pretty good, set correctly under him with no jewelry, no bony bumps from injury. His dark eyes were large and soft and steady, an indication of intelligence and honesty. He might hold up over the long haul.
I said, “Okay, this horse is your understudy. Suppose I ride him for the next six months and then your bay gelding—what’s his name?—goes lame. Who rides Owen? And who goes to California?”
Isabel had to think about this. “Very good question. Maybe the fair thing would be that, depending on when Darwin went out of commission, we could both compete Owen but not at the same rides. Then if Owen looked good to go to California, we would lease a horse out there. You know, there are guys who keep a string of distance horses fit so they can lease them.”
That did seem fair. I wanted to spend the time with someone else’s horse only if I were assured of competing him. The opportunity to ride in competition and, along with it, the chance to win with a horse would certainly brighten my horizon. If rehab and its stultifying repetitions were the stick, endurance riding just might be the carrot.
“Okay,” I decided, “let’s talk about the conditioning schedule.” What I planned to do was to invite Charlie to take me out to dinner, put on a dress, and lay out a plan for this terrific opportunity that could not be turned down. But what I did was to walk back into the house in my riding breeches. Charlie, my brilliant, affable third husband stared—hard.
“Yes?” he said in as cold a voice as I had ever heard from him. “What is this, Tink?”
I was unprepared for his reaction. He felt betrayed. “Wait a minute, Charlie. Could you? It’s not what you think.”
“It is a trout in the milk.”
“I’ll only ride on the flat. No jumping. No high speed. And I am able right now to sit on a horse. You know that, don’t you? Charlie, you have to let me do this.”
“Even though you go behind my back, you break our agreement?”
Eventually Charlie, who is a liberal and more forgiving than God and who is fond of saying “Forgive but don’t forget,” calmed down. Because he is a businessman and businessmen like to do things by committee, he said, “We will meet with the occupational therapist and get her assessment.”
The upshot of the therapeutic consultation was that I must keep working at the rehab assignments and I could start riding. “But,” Charlie decreed, “no jumping. Ever.” I didn’t take ever very seriously because I knew I would recover fully. I had come a long way and didn’t have that far to go.
* * *
We sought out a new trailhead Farrell had indicated on one of his napkin maps. The openings to these trails were frustrating similar, the napkin was turning to pulp, and the first trail we sent the horses up dead-ended at the base of a bluff after a couple of miles. We turned back, maintaining the same long trot on which we had ridden in. This was according to Isabel’s training system. No matter the late start, then the false start, she wouldn’t hurry the horses to make up the time. She wasn’t racing now, just building the capacity to race. In this sport time stretches with the distance, and the name of the game was to keep the machine—the horse’s body—in working order. We rode with heart and body-temperature monitors whose displays we wore like wristwatches and whose sensors fit under the saddle girth. What endurance riding required was patience, but now I was decidedly impatient.
Asking Owen to move up a big grade, I lifted myself out of the saddle to let his body work more freely under me, and after a couple of minutes the heart monitor showed a slower pulse rate. At a wide passage farther up the trail, Isabel, bumping up from the saddle occasionally, brought Darwin alongside Owen. The gray horse pinned his ears.
I said, “Determined to be vile this morning, isn’t he?”
“That’s the way he expresses himself,” Isabel said. “Just like Owen, the real person.”
I knew I was supposed to ask the question, even though I also knew it would automatically send Isabel back to the middle of the nineteenth century, geology, species, and whatever. “Okay, Isabel, who was Owen?”
“One of the first fossil scientists. Looked at dinosaurs. Darwin thought he was a friend, but he stabbed Darwin in the back.”
“Literally? Stabbed him?”
“Nope. In those days you could publish a book review without signing your name. Owen had a mean streak in him, and he saw how Darwin’s ideas about species and evolution were putting Darwin in the public eye. He was jealous, and so he wrote an anonymous review of Origin. Scathing, a real shredder. Darwin wasn’t fooled. He knew right away who the reviewer was because Owen had praised the work of ‘Dr. Owen’ in the review. Made Charles mad, made him sad. Betrayed by his friend.”
“This horse isn’t mean,” I defended the paleontologist’s equine namesake.
Isabel smiled sympathetically. “No, he’s just a determined old bird who will make you work for every steady step you get out of him.”
This may have been true, but there were other aspects of his personality, and I said, “He wants to get there first. He wants to win—so why aren’t you riding this horse instead of Darwin?”
“Because I don’t think he’s tough, at least not tough enough to take care of himself on the trail. A really good horse has to be conservative, has to assess how much effort to put out at any given time.”
“But he”—Darwin—“spooks,” I pointed out the hole in her argument. “That’s a waste of energy and distance right there. You could save yourself some mileage if you could fix that.”
“It’ll fix itself.” She turned her wrist to look at her heart monitor. Her hands were pale and shriveled from the wet. My hands were equally pale and shriveled. Gloves wouldn’t have helped, because once they were soaked, they would only accelerate the pickling process. “As soon as he gets past the start, he’ll get down to business.”
We rode on. The more often I thought anxiously about getting back to Farrell’s telephone, the more our twenty slow miles stretched out to become some of the longest miles I’d ridden. I said, “Sometimes I feel like I’ll never get off this horse,” and Isabel just nodded.
When we finally put the last stretch of the ranch lane behind us and dismounted, there was a car parked by the barn door. His cool reception that morning hadn’t deterred Josh. He waited behind the runoff from the barn’s eaves and went immediately to Darwin’s head. We led the horses inside, and as I settled Owen for the evening, I was in lower spirits than I had started the gloomy day in. Isabel was suffering Josh’s attention politely while she looked after her horse. Eavesdropping shamelessly but morosely, I hurried through such errands as flakes of hay and damp saddle pads. I learned that the Institute for Biology and Higher Mind was Josh’s best client and that the people there were cool. Then I heard her call his attention to the bay. “Do you know who this horse is named after?”
“Let me guess—Charles Darwin?”
I would have laughed if I hadn’t been in such a leaden mood, and I wondered whether Isabel even smiled. But something, a smile or something else, seemed to be encouraging Josh. So long as he didn’t interrupt her riding and didn’t mind Isabel’s eight-word responses, they could talk as long as he wanted. She might have been irritated if it were not for the fact that he was interested in—at least he said he was interested in—Darwin and evolution. He knew enough about this to keep her responding, and that at least, made him an improvement over me. Occasionally I heard a sharp question from Isabel challenging him—“I mean, how can you put those two ideas in the same sentence?” Josh was managing to engage her, and he seemed to be taking this as conquest.
The freshly sponged-off Darwin chewed on a pile of hay, and the two of them lingered to talk. I didn’t intend to linger any longer than strictly necessary, and as soon as I had hustled through the evening chores, I left the two of them in privacy and sloshed to the house to ask if there had been any word from Charlie or Stephen. Farrell shook his head.
“That’s frustrating,” I admitted, trying not to betray the depth of my disappointment and, especially, not wanting to inject self-pity, given the chore with Celeste he’d had to take care of. “How did things go for you at the Institute?”
Farrell shrugged sadly. “Sorry to say it, but it was just about the way Celeste expected. The old man was dead. The squad came, and there’s lots of arrangements, you know. Called the lawyer right away, then other folks connected to the Institute.”
“Did you know him well?” I asked gently.
“About as well as a guy like me gets to know an honest-to-God genius and gentleman. For someone in his position, he was pretty humble. You know, an old shoe.”
“How old was he?” As I myself got older, I found myself asking this question more often about someone who had died. Maybe just to compare the answer with my own age.
“Grant-Worthington? I’d say he was maybe seventy, maybe a couple of years past that.”
My mouth had fallen open, I guess, because I had to will myself to close it. Will myself not to make any exclamation or outburst. I was stunned.
“Why are you looking like that, Tink? You know him?”
I couldn’t absorb this news as fact. I knew that Farrell was reporting it as fact, but I couldn’t accommodate it as such. James, such a powerful intellect, just wafting passively into death? I stammered a little, editing my response as it came out. “Well, if he’s the scientist my husband does business with, I … I do know him in—indirectly. Works with proteins?”
“Right. So your husband does, what?”
“He’s a businessman,” I said, trying not to sound too dodgy, even though I was dodging Farrell. I didn’t want to say capital or investor because I didn’t want to reveal the nature of Charlie’s dealings with James. I was off balance, sad and bewildered by what seemed to be the facts—and defensive. James had been out here, not at Stanford, and he had been coming out here often. Did that change who James was or our relationship with him? Being truly muddled, I guarded my own knowledge of James while I tried to sort out the facts of his death and what it had been like for him.
“Was he alone, Farrell?” I asked because this seemed the very worst way to leave the world.
He looked at me blankly. Then he said, “No, of course not. She was there. Celeste was.”
“She was his … partner then?” I asked.
He nodded, smiling a little. “Yeah, that’s what they call it now, isn’t it?”
None of it seemed to jibe with the James we knew. He may have been getting up in years, but—what was it they were saying these days, seventy is the new forty?—he hadn’t seemed old to me. He was too vigorous. And for him to have maintained a relationship with a woman? He and I had had any number of quietly personal conversations, and yet he had never mentioned her—or for that matter, this remote place in these mountains far from his lab.
To mask the noise in my thoughts, I said inanely, “Well, maybe that makes it not so bad for her then—I mean, if she was there.”
“She was pret-ty upset,” Farrell responded without actually disagreeing with me.
“What was he doing at the Institute?” I wondered.
This brought another blank look from Farrell. After a pause, he said, as if it were something I should have known, “He owned it, Tink. Or his foundation did. One way or another, his money bought it. Celeste ran it.”
By now I felt like I had been turned upside down and shaken vigorously. But all I said was, “Oh, I see. How sad for her.” And I meant that last. How terrible to be abruptly partnerless, to be carrying on alone. I didn’t know Celeste, but that didn’t keep me from imagining her pain.
I said no more to Farrell. As it was, the information he had given me thus far was too much for me to handle on my own. I found it difficult to believe that James had died the way Celeste and Farrell seemed to describe it. But then James himself—this woman? this institute?—had thrown a few surprises into the mix. I didn’t know what to make of any of it. Charlie and Stephen were the only fix for this. And where were they when I actually needed—as opposed to would have been reassured—to see them?
I tried the phone in the hall again. Useless. Farrell came past to stand by the back door and watch out through the rain. He had his eye on a car advancing up the ranch lane. After a moment he said, “Nobody I know. This your number three maybe?”
It was. Without benefit of rain gear, Frankie Golden propped open the door of the rental car and struggled to open an umbrella without actually getting out of the car. She was locked in combat with the door and getting wet anyway. I headed out the door to rescue her, but Josh beat me to it. He had spotted her from the barn and rushed to hold the door while she forced open the umbrella. Then walking behind her, he rolled her suitcase down the walk. When she was safely delivered to me, he hurried back to the barn and his conversation with Isabel.
“Is that some of our competition?” she demanded about Josh. Frankie was a full-bodied redhead who liked clothes, any kind of sports contest, especially prizefighting, and pulp fiction. With creamy, freckled skin and a thick fall of auburn hair, Frankie was a beautiful, voluptuous woman, and she was looking ahead to the race. Being as competitive as I was, she asked the question about Josh because she was already scouting potential rivals.
“No,” I said shortly and waited impatiently for her to collapse the umbrella and step out of her pumps, which were soaked. Ditto for the dark green citified slacks.
Frankie was typically more sensible than her clothes or her voluptuousness would indicate, and with her I could always come right to the point. I didn’t say “How was your flight?” or “Any trouble driving in this downpour?” I said, “We need to talk,” indicated with a nod the direction I wanted her to take, and trolleyed her suitcase through the dining and sitting rooms, drawing Frankie in its wake to my room.
“Have you talked with Charlie or Stephen? I haven’t been able to get hold of them, and I really need to.”
“You do?” she said cheerfully, and this not so much a question, just encouragement to say more.
“It’s pretty bad, Frankie. Grant-Worthington has died.”
She blinked, her lids closing emphatically over deep brown eyes, and then straightened a little and regarded me quite seriously. “You’re right. Bad.”
“He died out here.” I began giving information out of any logical order. “He had a woman. And an institute he founded.”
She squinted a little, trying to make sense of these items, and said, “I can understand the woman, why we didn’t know about her. But what’s the institute?”
“It’s about science and Christianity, I guess. A few miles south of here.”
Her eyes widened. “Well”—she was a little indignant—“we should’ve known about that, shouldn’t we?”
“Exactly. I don’t know what to make of the Christian part.” But now as I encountered Frankie’s puzzlement, I began to recognize that what we knew of Grant-Worthington was only one side of the man. As I thought back to his visits to the farm and the growing warmth of his friendships with us, I saw now that he and I had had a number of conversations in which he could have easily included his pursuit of questions about biology and the life of the spirit—or even mentioned his woman friend—but he had held back.
In fact, on one of his early visits to the farm, he made the only reference to religion I could pull from my memory. James, as I had been instructed to call him, seemed comfortable with Spit and Polish, my two terriers—when Spit bounced off the floor to the center of the table, James’s conversation never missed a syllable—so I invited him to see my horses. When he stepped up to my young mare, whose accident had caused my layoff from competition, he started laughing. I was mildly appalled. No one laughed at my horses. They were serious forces in their competitive realm.
But it was just a memory of horses that had made him laugh.
“My mum,” he said, “was quite the rider. Tally-ho and after the hounds, you know. And she was of a mind that horses and health were intimately linked. Riding in the open would strengthen the weak and fortify the others. So from the time I was four, every afternoon there we would go—bump bump, bumpity. Of course, I adored her, but I dreaded those afternoons. I prayed that the horse would die and I would be allowed to forget the face of Mum’s groom and to go back inside to put my feet on the grate and nibble on cookies.”
Then James gave my filly an honest going-over and said, “Quite lovely—I’m sure Mum would have coveted her. Horse people, you know, always covet the horse that belongs to another—but none of the Ten Commandments goes against that, does it?”
We could have talked further about the commandments if I had only picked up on this religious reference. But I’d failed to do that, and now I couldn’t remember another remark that touched even as briefly on Christian belief. Why had he kept this part of his person out of sight?
“Why did he hide this religious stuff? Was he afraid we would think he was less of a real scientist or maybe a crackpot?”
“Slow down, Tink,” Frankie suggested. “Grant-Worthington had enough social polish to cover up just about anything—and maybe he was just intensely private. Lots of people hide their private lives.”
No doubt this wisdom came from one of the mysteries she read. Still, the point was valid.
“How did you find out that our very private friend died?”
“His woman friend—Celeste—is a friend of Farrell. She rushed over this morning looking for help.”
“So the part about the woman is probably true.” Frankie was starting to come around, to accept some of the same information that was so hard for me to accept. “But I keep thinking of the tennis. He seemed so fit.”
“I’ve thought of that, too.”
Tennis, it seemed, was another physical pursuit that James’s mother thought promoted health, and as soon as he figured out it would free him of any obligation to spend time around horses, he began to develop his game. When he’d mentioned this to me, I—intent on being a good hostess—had offered to play.
I made no claims about my tennis game and was not surprised when, on his next visit, James quietly thrashed me at tennis. That is, he was quiet, I was panting, grunting, running all over the court.
“That was no contest at all,” I accused him. “You never even broke a sweat.”
“I don’t like to do that.”
“Let me fix you up with my friend Frankie. Her game is much more up to yours than mine.”
But that didn’t turn out to be the case. Frankie was still red in the face when she and James returned to the farm. “How can a person win at tennis without moving his feet?” she demanded.
“But I do move my feet,” James protested mildly.
“I was too busy to notice,” Frankie protested in return.
Now I said, “He seemed so fit.”
Contemplating this, she agreed with my assessment. “Quite fit. But let’s face it, he was also getting old—and he knew he was getting old. That’s why he came to Halefellow and Charlie in the first place. Maybe a heart condition was just one more thing he was keeping from all of us. So I don’t think we should leap to any conclusions.”
“Right,” I said and returned to my most immediate worry. “Charlie. I need to get hold of Charlie, or Stephen—or both. They have to know about this.”
“Of course they do.”
“I’ve left messages for both of them.”
Frankie thought about the dead end in communications and made an inspired proposal. “You have a girl taking care of your horses, right? Why don’t you call her?”
I explained that we would have to rely on Farrell’s landline and said, “He knows I’ve been trying to reach Charlie, and he knows Charlie has done business with Grant-Worthington. But until I talk to Charlie, that’s all I want Farrell to know. We didn’t know as much about Grant-Worthington as we thought we did, and we know absolutely nothing at all about the people he had around him here—Celeste, this guy Josh who’s trying to latch onto Isabel—”
“Oh, is that what’s going on out in the barn?”
“—or even Farrell himself. So please, nothing about AccuGen or the buyout.”
“Course not,” Frankie snapped. “James may have thrown both those things into question.”
I was glad she mentioned this before I did, because it seemed crass to worry about a business deal at the moment of a friend’s death. But it was precisely this worry that made it so urgent that I locate Charlie and give him the news.
“As far as anyone else is concerned,” Frankie said, “I know nothing. Not James’s death. Not Charlie’s deal.” She took up the handle of her suitcase to steer it out of the room. “You go call your horse helper, and as soon as I can park this, we’ll see what this place has to offer.”
Like everyone else who entered Farrell’s, Frankie was drawn to his kitchen. She padded into it barefoot, carrying the wet pumps. Her toenails were painted a rich wine color, and she had retrieved the soggy shoes from the hall. Farrell took them and set them over a hot-air register. Now he would have his social event because to Frankie there was no event that wasn’t social. She was a hugger, she sometimes gushed, and she could flirt. She loved this place, she told Farrell. “Tink and Isabel tell me you are a fabulous chef.”
Farrell blushed. The color surged up from his flannel collar to cover his shiny head. She had him. Talk about pheromones.
I could see why men were attracted to Frankie, because I loved her for some of the same qualities that drew them. We had remained close confidantes through five divorces, three of mine and two of hers. The reason that my total was one higher than hers was that she had a different perspective on marriage than I did. Frankie loved men, and she loved romance. But marriage was the business end of romance, and having been financially successful in two such businesses, which as marriages failed, Frankie had cashed out her winnings and gone out of business. She wanted to keep the fun in what romance stopped by, and the door was always slightly ajar.
Farrell brought out the scotch and the white wine. Frankie gazed at these happily. “You wouldn’t happen to have fixings for a martini, would you?”
Farrell couldn’t believe his luck. Isabel and I were used to Frankie’s magic, but our host was innocent. He applied himself assiduously to a shot glass and a cocktail shaker. In the midst of this production, the girl who was taking care of my horses at home returned my call from the phone in my barn. There was no one at the house, she reported. No sign even of the dogs. The house was locked, and there was only my car left in the drive. My head was pounding.
Farrell poured the results of his mixing into an honest-to-God martini glass and presented the precious product to Frankie like a gem on a velvet cushion. I tried to hide my anxiety about the situation at home, but I blurted it out.
“That’s good news,” Frankie said immediately about Charlie. “That means he planned his exit, the dogs are taken care of, and maybe Stephen is with him. You’ll hear from him, probably sooner rather than later, and in the meantime, there’s nothing to be done but ride. That’s what we came out here for.”
“You’re out for the race, too?” Farrell said. “I hope you brought some different shoes.”
“Right, sure. Boots. I’m crewing,” Frankie told him, and this brought a quick glance from him. Farrell was in for some surprises. At earlier distance rides, Frankie had demonstrated her aptitude for competition crewing. She ran a tightly organized support operation and was ferociously competitive.
“Crewing,” Farrell repeated. “I don’t know how that works back East, but in the races out here, it’s a tough job. Very competitive.”
Frankie sent him a little smile over the rim of her glass. “I know.”
To learn more about, or order a copy, visit:
Holly Menino grew up in a small Ohio college town, where her passionate interest in animals showed itself by age three, about ten years before she heard the call to be a writer. A graduate of Smith College, she has worked in both scholarly and popular publishing and is the author of Murder, She Rode.