At Risk

Kit Ehrman

Chapter 1

Some mornings, before darkness gives way to light and a cold wind howls across the pasture and presses against the barn like a giant hand, I wonder what in the hell I'm doing working on a horse farm.

A week earlier, the jet stream had ferried a wall of Canadian air down the eastern edge of the Allegheny Mountains, and the mercury hadn't crawled out of the single digits ever since. I yanked a second sweatshirt over my head and walked into the kitchen.

The barn's crossbeams and joists creaked and groaned like a Spanish galleon on the open seas while familiar sounds filtered up through the floorboards. Rustling straw, the hollow thump of a hoof knocking against a wooden plank, a bucket rattling.

I opened the drawer next to the kitchen sink. Buried among a Phillips screwdriver, a past due Gas and Electric bill and a stack of old bank statements, rubber bands, paper clips, and everything else that cluttered the junk drawer, I found a dirty manila envelope with the flap crimped shut. I turned it over in my palm. My boss had printed Stephen in bold black letters on one side along with the horse's name and detailed instructions that I knew by heart. Inside, were tubes of ophthalmic ointment that couldn't be left in a cold barn. I tucked the envelope in my pocket and shrugged into my coat.

Fronds of ice feathered across the inside of the windowpanes like a crystal-growing experiment gone wrong. They might have been pretty if they didn't mean I'd be freezing my ass off in a minute or two. I scratched at the frost with my fingernails, then squinted through the glass. The thermometer read two below zero.

There were a half dozen better ways to spend my time at three o'clock in the morning, and this wasn't one of them. But corneal ulcers had to be treated aggressively, because a horse that can't see, can't jump. And at Foxdale Farm, jumping's the name of the game. Hunters, jumpers, three-day eventers. Only the dressage horses kept their feet on the ground.

Outside, I took the steps two at a time, swiped the ice scraper across the windshield, then slid behind the wheel. The vinyl creaked under my weight, and the duct tape I'd plastered over a rip in the seat shifted and stuck to the seat of my pants. I huddled over the steering wheel and cranked the engine. Listening to the starter grind, I wondered what I would have been doing if I'd stayed at college. Sleeping more than likely. Better yet, I'd probably be in Florida on spring break where the locals would be inclined to think two below zero was the name of a rock group.

When the Chevy finally coughed to life, I coaxed the truck onto the road and, ten minutes later, pulled onto Foxdale's long gravel drive. The headlights cut across the metal walls of the indoor riding arena as I swung around into my usual parking space. To the casual observer, the arena and two huge barns farther down the lane might have looked like warehouses if not for the warren's nest of paddocks radiating outward like the spokes of a wheel.

I cut the engine, and Bach's Brandenburg Concerto Number 3 in G Major died at the start of the second movement. The sudden quiet was overwhelming. So was the dark. High above me, the sodium vapor lamp was an indistinct shape against the bulk of the building. I made a mental note to have Dave replace the bulb, then I grabbed my flashlight from under the driver's seat and climbed out.

My boots scrunched on the gravel as I rounded the southwest corner of the indoor arena. When I switched on the flashlight, nothing happened. I slipped off my gloves, tightened the housing, and fiddled with the switch. Still no luck. I glanced toward the barns and froze.

A pickup and horse trailer were parked farther down the lane where they had no business being, not at three in the morning. A broad shaft of light poured from the truck's cab and reflected off the barn's metal siding, but what sent a shiver down my spine was the overall absence of light. Both sodium vapors were out.

I stood still in the cold air and shifted my weight from one foot to the other. Mrs. Hill was too efficient to have forgotten to tell me that someone was going to pick up a horse. And it was the off season. No one was showing. Certainly not in Maryland.

Besides, no one loaded horses in the dark. Not if they could help it.

There was a pay phone in the arena by the bleachers. A call to the police seemed like a good idea. Prudent anyway. I opened the door and peered inside. Couldn't see a damn thing. I stepped over the threshold and ran my hand along the wall, feeling for the phone. When my fingers touched the receiver, I heard a muffled noise behind me.

Something heavy glanced off the back of my head and crashed into my shoulder. A searing pain slammed into my brain as specks of light flashed in a dizzying arc behind my eyes. Someone grabbed my wrist and wrenched my arm behind my back. He shoved me face-first into the arena wall, into dust and dirt and cobwebs. The door slammed shut.

'Shit.' I clenched my teeth.

He leaned into me and readjusted his grip. 'Got that right, punk. And you just stepped in it.'

'What are you gonna do?' someone behind us said. A male voice, high-pitched and tense. 'You ain't gonna pop 'im, are ya?'

The guy holding me felt my muscles tense and yanked my wrist higher between my shoulder blades.

Farther back in the building, a flashlight switched on. 'No. Not yet, anyway.' His voice was ordinary, calm, as if he were discussing what to do with a stray piece of equipment. The beam moved down the wall and focused on our backs. 'I know. Get the keys to his truck.'

Iron Grip twisted my wrist and increased his leverage, then the tense guy stepped around us and clumsily searched my pockets. When he leaned forward to check my left front pocket, I got a look at him. He'd pulled his ball cap low on his forehead, but judging from what I could see of his face, I'd never seen him before.

'They ain't on him,' he said.

'All right, then. Turn him around.'

They yanked me off the wall. The one with the flashlight shone the beam in my eyes as he adjusted something on his face, and I realized he was wearing a ski mask. I glanced at the guy on my right. His mask's eye holes were circled in red, and the skin at the corners of his eyes crinkled as if he were smiling.

I stood there stiffly, feeling heat seep from beneath my coat collar. Except for my breathing, I could hear no sound. Not even a car on the road.

The guy with the flashlight stepped closer. 'You got lousy timing, kid,' he whispered. 'Lousy for you, that is. For me, now, it's a whole different ball game.' He paused. 'I ain't got my workout today.'

The guy on my right sniggered.

The blast of light shifted as he crossed over to the bleachers and balanced the flashlight on one of the planks, bathing the wall behind us in a dull wash. When he turned around, the skin on the back of my head contracted. There was nothing but malice in his eyes, his intent all too clear.

I briefly considered asking them what they wanted or telling them to let me go but knew I would get nowhere with either line. I kept my mouth shut.

He took off his gloves. As he methodically folded them and stuck them one at a time into his coat pockets, it occurred to me that he was dragging it out, trying to make me sweat. And it pissed me off. He shoved his right hand into his jeans pocket and pulled out something metallic. I couldn't tell what it was until he slid it down over his fingers and made a fist. He clenched his hand, and light glinted off the top edge of the brass knuckles.

I tried to yank my right arm free and got my wrist wrenched behind my back for my trouble. Iron Grip had a way of applying leverage that told me he knew what he was doing, that I was out of my league.

The leader stepped closer and rolled his shoulders. 'You interrupted me, boy, and you're gonna pay.'

I aimed a kick at his groin. It took him by surprise, and I would have done some serious damage, except the asshole on my right pulled me off target at the last second. I must have gotten the leader pretty good, though, because he groaned and doubled over as I slipped my left arm free. Before I could get away from Iron Grip, he

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