Friday, May 4, 2001
Detective Winston Radhauser lunged the roan stallion in the round pen on their ranch in Ashland, Oregon—a thirty-two-acre paradise they’d named Graceland. Ashland was a Renaissance village set in the foothills of the Siskiyou mountains. It was most renowned for its diversity and its world-class Shakespeare Festival. The picturesque university town had surroundings so beautiful, visitors often called it God’s Country. After nearly a decade, Radhauser and his family called it home.
The bay stallion, Ameer, the Arabic name for prince, was a lean, spirited Arabian about fifteen hands high with four white feet and a blaze. Radhauser wanted to prove he’d learned a few things about horse training. He planned to saddle break the horse for Gracie. Ever since the cancer, diagnosed during her pregnancy with Jonathan, he was a bit over-protective of his wife and couldn’t imagine his world without Gracie and the kids. She’d come through chemo and radiation like the trooper she was. All signs pointed to a complete recovery. Still, he knew how fast his world could change, and he wasn’t about to let his guard down again.
At first, Ameer had reared and kicked until he worked up a sweat. But over the last few weeks, the stallion became accustomed to the halter and bridle and had even allowed the saddle blanket to stay on his back for an extended period of time.
Radhauser stopped lunging and draped the blanket over the subdued horse, added the saddle, then carefully tightened the cinch. The air around them was tinged with the smell of alfalfa from the dozens of bales he’d stored in the alcove behind the arena.
With the coat of molasses he’d put on the bit, the horse took it without a fight. He led Ameer over to the fence surrounding the pen, then climbed up the rails until he was higher than the saddle.
“Are you gonna ride him now, Daddy?” His six-year-old daughter, Lizzie, sat on the fence beside her mother. Just like Gracie, she wore a pair of denim jeans, red cowgirl boots, and a short-sleeved, red T-shirt with the Arabian Horse Association logo, a black sculptured horse head, on the front.
Outside the round pen, seventeen-month-old Jonathan sat playing with bristle blocks in a playpen set up under the shade of a big leaf maple tree.
“I suggest you lunge him with the saddle on for another ten minutes or so.” Gracie smiled and gave him one of her looks that said, Listen up. I know more about this than you.
Radhauser ignored her advice and slowly lowered himself into the saddle until his full weight was resting on it. But before he was firmly seated or could grab the saddle horn, Ameer reared and bucked. With his ears pinned back, he snorted and jerked his head, his black mane flying. His front legs lashed out, and his dark eyes were wide open like he’d been spooked.
The detective was tossed backward off the smooth leather saddle and landed with a thud on the sandy floor.
Radhauser let out a sigh, stood and brushed off the seat of his jeans while Ameer bolted in circles around the fence line of the pen. His pride hurt more than his body.
“Better stick to what you know,” Gracie said. “You’re not exactly Bill Shoemaker.”
Shoemaker was one hell of a rider—an old-time jockey who held the world record of most professional wins for twenty-nine years. “I’m a foot and a half taller than he was and about a hundred pounds heavier. It puts me at a slight disadvantage.”
She gave him a knowing look. “Believing yourself invincible can be a handicap.”
“Daddy fell off the horse.” Lizzie covered her mouth and giggled. It came out in little bubbles, like water starting to boil.
Gracie slipped from the fence and walked slowly toward Ameer. “It’s okay, boy. You’re okay now.”
At the sound of her voice, the horse’s ears shot forward and he whinnied a greeting. Gracie Radhauser, the horse whisperer, took a carrot out of her back pocket.
Ameer moved closer to her. While he nibbled, she removed the bit and bridle, replaced it with a halter and led him around the pen.
When she passed Lizzie, still sitting on the fence, she squeezed the little girl’s leg. “Maybe Daddy needs a little more training.”
Lizzie giggled again—a sound Radhauser loved more than any other.
Even Jonathan got in on the fun. He scrambled to his feet, stood in his playpen, and clapped his hands. “Daddy go boom.”
As if on cue, Radhauser’s cell phone rang. He answered, relieved to discover it was his new partner, Maxine McBride.
“I know you’re on vacation. But any possibility you can help me out? Officer Corbin just called. He’s at a house over on Sand Creek Road. The husband suspects his wife committed suicide because of the recent death of their ten-year-old son, Tommy. But Corbin isn’t so sure and wants us to check things out. He thinks we may have a murder case. And from what I understand, it isn’t pretty. The victim is Blair Bradshaw. Apparently, she’s an actress with the Shakespeare Festival.”
“Nothing I’d rather do.” Radhauser wrote down the address and gate code. “Meet you there in ten minutes. And call Heron. You know how he likes to investigate the scene himself.”
Gracie continued to work Ameer, but glanced up at Radhauser and smiled. “Looks like you’ve been saved by the bell.”
He lifted his hands, palm side up. “What can I say? Murder calls. So, I’m off to do something I’m actually good at. But you be careful. That’s a stubborn one.”
She gave him a gratuitous smile. “Don’t worry. Ameer has met his match in me.”
And Radhauser knew she was right. Gracie was a far more skilled horse trainer than he’d ever be.
His daughter, always the diplomat, grinned. “You’re good at being my daddy.”
He ruffled her dark hair, releasing the smell of apple shampoo and sunshine. “Thanks, Lizzie girl. That makes me feel a lot better.”