A Stone’s Throw: New Excerpt
A Stone’s Throw by James W. Ziskin is the sixth book in the Ellie Stone mystery series, where the young newspaper reporter investigates a double murder at an abandoned stud farm near glamorous Saratoga Springs in 1960s’ Upstate New York.
August 1962. A suspicious fire claims a tumbledown foaling barn on the grounds of the once-proud Tempesta Stud Farm, halfway between New Holland and Saratoga Springs, NY. The blaze, one of several in recent years at the abandoned farm, barely prompts a shrug from the local sheriff. That is until “girl reporter” Ellie Stone, first on the scene, uncovers a singed length of racing silk in the rubble of the barn. And it’s wrapped around the neck of one of two charred bodies buried in the ashes. A bullet between the eyes of one of the victims confirms it’s murder, and the police suspect gamblers. Ellie digs deeper.
The double murder, committed on a ghostly stud farm in the dead of night, leads Ellie down a haunted path, just a stone’s throw from the glamour of Saratoga Springs, to a place where dangerous men don’t like to lose. Unraveling secrets from the past—crushing failure and heartless betrayal—she’s learning that arson can be cold revenge.
The flames leapt into the last of the night’s darkness, casting their dancing orange light against the weathered planks of the nearby outbuildings. The fire had engulfed the entire structure—a horse barn—swallowing it whole, from its timber walls to its pitched roof and wrought-iron weathervane at the top.
I watched from a safe distance, shielding my face from the heat with my hands. Deep inside the blaze, boards and beams whistled and popped, crackling as they withered and wasted under the assault of the fire. And when the last three walls collapsed upon themselves, the roof fell and sent a great cartwheeling ball of pyrotechnics skyward, spitting sparks and setting alight the cool August night, just as if day had broken. Then, flattened and starved of its fuel, the fire exhausted itself within minutes. Soon, it could manage little more than a hissing black smoke. All went dark again.
Tempesta, the derelict Sanford Shaw stud farm, consisted of forty structures—barns, stables, outbuildings, and feed sheds—spread over eight hundred acres of rolling meadow adjacent to a wooded grove off Route 67. Bordered by the highway on one side and a stream several hundred yards to the southeast on the other, the farm butted up against the Montgomery County line from the Saratoga side. As such, Tempesta Farm fell under the jurisdiction of the Saratoga County sheriff. Which was why the tall, heavyset figure lumbering toward me came as a surprise. My old pal, Montgomery County sheriff Frank Olney.
“You’re up early on a Saturday,” he said.
“Maybe I didn’t go home last night.”
Frank said nothing. And he didn’t smile either. He didn’t approve of such behavior or, for that matter, jokes about it. His rectitude was one of the traits I liked most about him. And least. Unlike the men who think a ribald story or a pat on the behind is just a little harmless fun—and their birthright as males of the species—Frank Olney always walked right and true on the side of decency. Sure, he was short-tempered, wound as tight as a spring, and partial to short ties and uniforms a size too small, but no honest person ever questioned his integrity. He shot as straight as a die. And that was what I found tiresome about him. He sometimes made me feel like a wretch on the downtown express to hell. But I loved him for never making me feel like prey or a chippy unable to resist his overweight, middle-aged charms. I ran into enough of those types at the newspaper.
“What brings you here?” I asked. “Isn’t this Sheriff Pryor’s territory?”
“I was in the neighborhood,” he said. “I’m ready to help out if he needs a hand.”
“How do you think this happened?”
He stared at the smoldering pile of cinders before us, his lips twisted into a reflective pout. “No electrical storms last night, so that’s not what caused this.”
The distant wail of an approaching siren interrupted Frank’s musings. He wiped his sweating face with his cap. It was a chilly, wet morning, but the barn continued to pump heat.
“That’ll be the Volunteer Fire Department,” he said. “Just in time to save the foundation.”
“So if it wasn’t lightning, what do you think? Arson? An accident?” “Kids most likely.”
“Any chance there were horses in there?” I asked.
“No. This place has been empty for years. Since the war. The Shaws got out of breeding and racing before they moved the carpet mills south.”
New Holland had been orphaned by the Shaw Knitting Mills after World War II, ending nearly a century of carpet manufacturing along the Mohawk River. The most powerful industrialist in nineteenth-century New Holland, Sanford Shaw had built the stud farm on Route 67 on the advice of his physician, who prescribed a relaxing pastime to reduce the “nervous tension in consequence of the rigors of the manufacturing business.” This according to his biography, Carpeting the Eastern Seaboard: The Life and Legacy of Sanford J. Shaw. While Tempesta may have begun as a pleasant distraction for a captain of industry, it soon blossomed into an important breeding stable of Thoroughbreds, especially once his elder son, Joshua, took an interest in horse racing around the turn of the century.
The son and heir’s passion kept the farm going even when New York State outlawed gambling and effectively killed Thoroughbred racing for three years in the 1910s. When Sanford Shaw wanted to send his best horses to France, Joshua prevailed upon him to keep Tempesta running. His vision was rewarded when, in 1913, a favorable court ruling restored betting— partially at least—in New York. But it wasn’t until the old man died in 1925 that Joshua threw himself—and most of the family’s fortune—into breeding champions in earnest. Tempesta horses won derbies and stakes races from Kentucky to England to France, and in nearby Saratoga Springs, while Joshua Shaw lived the life of a globetrotter and bon vivant.
Then came the Depression, which hit the mills hard, followed by the war. Horse breeding took a backseat to patriotic duty. Following a polo injury, Joshua was replaced at the helm of the Shaw Knitting Mills by his younger brother Nathan shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Tempesta Farm was abandoned and the horses sold off. The grass grew, consuming the three-quarter-mile training track, jumping course, and nearly everything else on the property. The forty barns and other buildings, including the caretaker’s house and dormitories, were left to molder a stone’s throw from the August excitement of Saratoga. Forsaken and all but forgotten, Tempesta now seemed a world away from its former glory.
“So what are you doing out here at this hour anyway?” asked Frank. “Don’t tell me Charlie Reese sent you for this.”
“Couldn’t sleep. I heard about the fire on the police scanner and called him. Woke up his wife again. I think she hates me. Charlie thought it was probably nothing, but I wanted to have a look-see to be sure.”
Frank threw a doubtful eye in my direction. “These abandoned barns burn down every so often. Not going to be one of your bigger scoops.”
At length, the fire truck arrived. The ace driving the thing attempted to maneuver close to the smoldering remains and, after a couple of aborted three-point turns in the grass, declared defeat, pulled the brake, and told his mates to make do.
Having drawn about twenty yards of hose from the truck, two volunteer firemen took turns dribbling a weak stream of water over the embers. They swamped what was left of the fire in less than an hour, all the while yawning, scratching their behinds, and even smoking a couple of cigarettes. I chronicled the touch-and-go battle with a roll of Tri-X film and a dozen flashbulbs.
I wanted to get some daylight shots, but it was just five twenty, and the sun wouldn’t rise above the trees to the east until nearly six thirty. Frank offered to stand me to breakfast until then. Fifteen minutes later, we were seated across from each other at the Ballston Diner in the sleepy hamlet of Charlton, about halfway between Galway and Scotia.
I caught Frank eyeing the waitress. She was across the room, back to us, taking down the orders of four locals who were fueling up before a day of fishing. A curvy creature with bottle-blonde hair and thick red lipstick, she was about forty or forty-five. What Marilyn Monroe might have looked like in ten years, if she hadn’t died just a week earlier. Sad story, I thought, as I watched the waitress flirt with the men. She held them in her thrall, as if charming snakes, with a simpering smile and heaving bosom. Then, with a bounce and a flourish, she dotted the last i and crossed the last t in her pad and sashayed to the kitchen. The boys clearly liked her going as much as coming, if gazing at a swinging backside meant what it used to. Frank was enjoying the view as much as the anglers. I cleared my throat.
“The coffee’s good here,” he said, suddenly aware of his own distraction. “I stop in from time to time.”
“And that pretty waitress wouldn’t have anything to do with it?” I asked, ribbing him.
He blushed and said he didn’t go in for that kind of shenanigans.
Somewhere during the past five years in New Holland, I’d learned that Frank Olney was a widower. But I didn’t know the whole story. And while he was my favorite cop—one I considered a friend—I couldn’t bring myself to ask him about it now. We didn’t share intimacies. I dropped the teasing when I noticed his discomfort. Perhaps he was lost in a memory of his late wife. Or maybe he was lonely and thinking he’d actually like to go in for some of those shenanigans with the pretty waitress. Poor Frank. This was one of those moments when I wished he would loosen the cork a bit.
She appeared above us. “Hiya, Frank. Who’s your date?”
Now his ears burned beet red. “Aw, Billie, it’s not like that. This is Ellie. A newspaper reporter. Friend of mine.”
“I haven’t seen a lot of reporters who look like you,” she said. Probably a compliment. Maybe not. “What’ll you have?”
I ordered an English muffin, dark, and coffee, black. Frank asked for his usual.
“What have you been up to lately?” he asked me once Billie had bounced off with our order. “You haven’t been around much.”
“Things have been quiet.”
“You don’t come visit an old friend?”
“You sound like a Jewish grandmother,” I said. Frank didn’t quite know how to take that. I gave him a break and changed the subject. “You said there’ve been other fires at Tempesta. Isn’t there a caretaker or a guard on the property?”
“There was a fellow named Chuck Lenoir. Lucky Chuck, they called him. He used to watch over things after everyone left. He was loyal to the Shaws. And them to him. Especially the judge’s father, Nathan. He might still be around.”
“Lucky, eh? Was that because he knew his horseflesh?”
“The name was . . . ironical. That’s the word. The only luck Chuck ever had was not dying when that horse kicked him in the head.” Frank chuckled. Then, perhaps thinking better of it, he coughed and added that Chuck was never quite the same after the injury.
“Actually, he suffered some brain damage. Went blind in one eye, limped, and slurred his words.”
“When did all this happen?”
“A long time ago. Mid-thirties, I’d say.”
“Anyone else I might contact about the property?”
Frank squinted at the ceiling. “There’s Issur Jacobs from the New Holland Savings Bank. He tied up some of the loose ends when the Shaw Knitting Mills moved south. Might still have some crumbs to take care of. He’s pushing eighty but never misses a day at the bank.”
My coffee arrived, and I took a sip. “Probably no reason to talk to either of them.”
Frank dropped me back at the Tempesta stud farm where I’d left my car. His deputy, Stan Pulaski, had shown up and, hands on hips, was surveying the scene. It must have been a slow day on the Montgomery side of the county line. A couple of Saratoga County cruisers were parked on the grass, and two deputies had taken charge of the scene.
“Stan’ll take care of you if you need anything,” said Frank as I climbed out of the car.
The day was overcast and cool for August. Barely sixty degrees. I felt clammy from the soot and the light rain, and my clothes reeked of smoke. It was barely quarter past seven, but I already wanted a second bath. The firemen had finished their task and long since decamped. Stan made small talk as I shot another roll of film in the daylight.
“You think they’ll let me take some photos inside?” I asked him. “Inside where? There’s no more barn.”
The two Saratoga deputies leaned against the fender of a county car, puffing on cigarettes. I approached to ask if they minded if I took a few pictures inside what used to be the barn.
“Have yourself a ball,” said one of them.
“Do you think it’s safe?” I asked Stan. “Walking on the ashes, I mean.”
He took a couple of steps closer to the remains and offered that, though wet, it appeared cool enough. Over the past four years, I’d ruined many pairs of heels slogging through mud and water in pursuit of news stories that didn’t pan out. I’d finally learned my lesson. Now I traveled prepared with a pair of old canvas tennis shoes in the trunk of my car for just such occasions.
I learned later on that the destroyed building was one of the foaling barns. What remained of it now was swamped by large pools of sooty water. No hotspots anywhere, but the footing remained uneven and slippery. I picked my way through the mess, stepping over partially consumed planks of wood, as well as muddy embers and ash. Already soaked and black, my sneakers would have to go. Stan wandered around in his boots, lucky dog, without a worry in the world, until he took a careless step, slipped on a wet timber, and landed on his rear end in the slop.
“Careful, or you’ll fall.”
Stan picked himself up and scraped the muck off the seat of his pants with both hands. He called out thanks without irony. He tended to take things literally.
“Have you got everything you need yet?” he asked, now wondering how to rid his hands of the mud.
“Not quite,” I said, staring at a length of charred fabric at my feet. It looked like silk. Black-and-orange diamonds on white, and soaking wet. I squatted to investigate, tucking my skirt between my thighs and calves to keep it from touching the mud. I tugged at the cloth, which was caught beneath what was left of a long, wooden beam.
“What’s that?” asked Stan, arriving at my side.
I pulled harder on the silk, and the blackened beam rose and tumbled off to one side. I loosed a scream and dropped the fabric. Stan recoiled, tripped over his own feet, and landed in the slop again.
Copyright © 2018 James W. Ziskin.