2,672 words. Part One. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
“So it was murder,” Cary Grant said with a regretful sigh. As a member of Hollywood Park’s board of directors, he’d personally hired the young private detective to look into the bizarre death of Eddie Lomitas, who despite dying of suffocation in mid-race had remained in the saddle of a 20-to-1 long shot that had won in a photo finish. “Any idea how it was done?”
“Not yet,” McNulty admitted. “But the former L.A. medical examiner, Dr. Thomas Noguchi is working on it. The tox screens have all been clean. No trace of any known poisons.”
McNulty continued the report to his client.
“Lomitas wasn’t very well liked,” the P.I. said bluntly. “Most everyone I talked to thought he was an asshole. Except for you. How come?”
“Twenty years ago, his mother worked for me,” Grant confided. “She was my live-in housekeeper and cook. I agreed to provide financial assistance to the single mother and her son Eddie for as long they needed it. And I believe his mother deserves to know the truth about how her son died.”
McNulty thought so, too. Now he had to question the stewards, several track officials and many of the jockeys because all had known about the last minute rider switch. It was as tedious as it was necessary, but he powered through, eliminating all but two suspects. One of whom was also on Grant’s suspects list.
When McNulty arrived at Hollywood Park’s main entrance, the PETA protesters were in their usual spot. And, of course, they pelted his car with eggs.
“I don’t know if I should get it washed,” McNulty told the track’s Chief of Security, “or turn it into omelet.”
“Sorry about that. Nothing we can do as long as they stay on the sidewalk,” Frank Cotner said when McNulty stopped by his office. “You got a prime suspect yet?”
“Not until we know what killed Eddie and how it was done,” McNulty confessed. “I’ve got one last interview to do then I’ll have to get my eggs somewhere else.”
“So who’s up today?”
“Doc Culver.” It had been difficult pinning down the track veterinarian for an interview. “Mind doing me a favor?”
“I need to see the tape of Eddie’s last race. Since he died mid-ride it might give me a clue.”
“No problem,” Cotner said. “I’ll have our video guys set it up.”
On his way to the animal clinic, McNulty met Maggie Culver, the track vet’s daughter who was busy rubbing liniment into a thoroughbred’s front legs. He’d run into her several times since he’d seen her hot-walking Hals-a-Poppin’, the horse Eddie had been riding when he died. While she wasn’t on anyone’s suspect list, she had been the subject of track gossip and McNulty decided now was as good a time as any to ask her about it.
“Yeah, I dated Eddie,” she admitted. “So what?”
“Most everyone else around here thought he was a pompous little prick,” McNulty said. “No one seemed to like him very much. But you went out with him anyway.”
“Look, it’s true he was arrogant and full of himself. But he loved horses as much as I do. It was something we had in common. He said he hoped to own his own stable someday. Maybe even become a trainer. So I went out with him a few times. Only the last time didn’t end too well. In the middle of dinner at a Japanese restaurant, he had some kind of seizure. I thought it was an epileptic fit, but the paramedics said it was a food allergy reaction.”
“Do you remember what he ate?”
“We both had stir fry,” she recalled.
McNulty mentally kicked himself for not speaking to Maggie sooner. Then he headed for the veterinarian clinic, where Maggie’s father was waiting to be interviewed.
Dr. Jonas Culver was clearly distraught when McNulty found him sitting alone on a short rolling stool with his head in his hands. The carcass of a dead thoroughbred lay atop a large stainless steel table.
“You okay, doc?” McNulty asked gently.
The heavyset white-haired man looked up, his cheeks wet with tears. “It’s my fault. This beautiful animal is dead because of me.”
McNulty crossed to the table and stroked the horse’s coat. The animal was still warm. Culver stood up and angrily kicked the rolling stool across the room.
“If I had done my job properly,” he said, his voice rising, “I wouldn’t have had to put this animal down! Sorry,” Culver wiped his eyes. “Are you McNulty?”
McNulty offered to come back another time, but Culver shook his head. He crossed to the table and looked down at the dead thoroughbred.
“It happened in the third race,” Culver said softly. “They were rounding the clubhouse turn when he broke down. His front right leg shattered.” He pointed to where a large splinter of bone protruded. “Thankfully, the jockey’s okay. He managed to jump clear.”
“It happens,” McNulty said. “Couldn’t be helped.”
“Yes it could!” Culver bellowed. “Eddie Lomitas was right. I’m a disgrace to my profession.”
And there it was. The source of the bad blood between Culver and Lomitas. The animal-loving jockey had hated the way the track vet was treating the horses in his care. It also explained why Culver was at the top of Cary Grant’s suspect list.
According to Grant and other track personnel, the two men had a number of physical altercations over Culver’s willingness to do whatever the owners and trainers demanded: mostly to keep their horses running rather than what was best for the animals. It was the dark unspoken side of the “sport of kings.” The side where horses were injected with painkillers and other medications because their owners and trainers pushed them too hard.
“Is that what happened here?” McNulty asked, gesturing toward the dead thoroughbred.
Culver nodded and crossed to a closed drawer. The vet removed a vial of liquid and a large syringe.
“I suspected a hairline fracture in that leg, and recommended the horse be scratched. But he was the favorite and the owner needed the win to sell the horse at a premium in a claiming race.”
“So you did as he asked.”
“I injected a painkiller into the knee joint,” Culver admitted, filling the syringe with the liquid. “The leg was so numbed that the poor creature never felt the pain as the fracture spider-webbed through the bone until it shattered.”
“Did Eddie threaten to report you?” McNulty said bluntly. “Is that why you killed him?”
“I didn’t kill Eddie,” Culver said, a shocked look on his face. He turned the needle-end of the syringe toward his own heart. “And I’ll never hurt another animal again.”
With that, the vet turned to plunge the needle into his own chest.
“Don’t try to stop me,” Culver ordered. “It’s a sodium pentobarbital-xylazine cocktail. I’ll be dead before I hit the floor.”
McNulty was too far away to stop him. So the P.I. did the only prudent thing he could think of at that moment. He pulled his weapon and fired.
The bullet from McNulty’s automatic punched through the acoustic ceiling tile with an ear-splitting “BANG” reverberating so loudly that Culver was startled into dropping the syringe. Once Culver calmed down, McNulty called the track’s Chief of Security. “I’ll pay for the damage,” he told Frank Cotner. “But your vet is going to need a psych eval.”
“Forget about the damage. You saved his life. Our medical people will get him to the hospital. We’ll make sure he gets whatever help he needs.”
McNulty walked back to Cotner’s security office to watch the video of Eddie Lomitas’ final race. It was cued up to where all the mounts were in the starting gate. After a few seconds, a bell rang and eight thoroughbreds bolted out. Eddie was on the number three horse. As the field thundered toward the first turn, McNulty could see Eddie guiding his horse, Hals-a-Poppin’, closer to the inside rail. They were in fourth place and holding as they entered the first turn.
Suddenly, McNulty’s pager began to hum and vibrate. He recognized the return phone number. It was the Gooch.
“Tell me you found something.”
“Could be,” Dr. Noguchi answered. “I analyzed some equine hairs that were scraped from under Lomitas’ fingernails. I found traces of a substance embedded in the follicles.”
“Not exactly,” Noguchi said. “But for some people it could be fatal.”
McNulty listened without comment as the pathologist explained what he’d found.
McNulty thanked him and hung up. “No question about it,” the P.I. told Cotner. “Eddie was definitely murdered.”
“Run the tape,” McNulty replied. “I have a hunch the answer is there.”
They both squinted hard at the screen as the horses rounded the first turn. They could see Eddie’s horse start to gain on the third place horse, pull even, then edge past. As the field came into the backstretch, Eddie began to rapidly stroke the left side of his mount’s neck and mane. As he did so, the horse responded, gaining speed and moving up on the second place horse.
“There!” McNulty said excitedly. “What’s Eddie doing?”
“It’s called scrubbing,” Cotner said. “It’s a technique some jockeys use instead of a whip. Doesn’t work on every horse, but Eddie flatly refused to use a whip hand on his rides.”
The horses were galloping full out, their hooves pounding hard toward the clubhouse turn. Eddie continued to scrub his mount’s neck as they moved into second place. Then, suddenly, Eddie seemed to stiffen in his saddle.
“Did you see that?” McNulty asked. “His back arched and he reached for his throat.”
“Son of a bitch!” Cotner said. “That must’ve been the moment Eddie seized up. How the fuck did he stay in the saddle?”
“His legs must’ve locked while he struggled to breathe,” McNulty guessed.
The horses were in the clubhouse turn now and Hals-a-Poppin’ pulled even with the first place horse.
“Jesus, look at him run!” Cotner gasped. “He thinks Eddie’s given him his head and he’s running free.”
“Only Eddie was dead by this time.”
Thundering into the home stretch, the two horses were running neck and neck, the cheers and shouts from the crowd rising up in a single continuous roar.
McNulty and Cotner watched the tape several more times before they both agreed that McNulty’s hunch was indeed a fact.
“That’s how it was done,” McNulty stated. “And if I’m right, we know who did it.”
With Cotner by his side, McNulty found himself back where he’d started: The Hollywood Park stable area where trainer Walt Glendon’s thoroughbred, Hals-a-Poppin’, was being boarded.
“Whattaya want now?” Glendon grumbled.
“Just a few questions,” McNulty said. “Who else was here when you agreed to let Eddie replace your original jockey?”
“Why, what difference does it make?”
“Because if someone was here,” Cotner told him, “it might get you off the hook.”
“Off the hook from what?” Glendon growled.
“Murder,” McNulty told him. “So I’d think pretty damn hard if I were you.”
Glendon was clearly stunned, loudly protesting his innocence and threatening to sue them for slander and pouring out expletives. When the tirade finally subsided, McNulty reminded him that there’d been a gap of two hours between Glendon agreeing to let Eddie replace his injured jockey and the start of the race itself.
“So what’d you do during those two hours?” McNulty pressed.
“I went to see the stewards and track officials to report the change.”
“So your horse was left alone while you were gone?” McNulty asked.
“Hell, no!” Glendon objected. He started to explain but stopped short. “Wait a minute. She was here… Maggie Culver, the vet’s daughter.”
“Was she here when you and Eddie talked?” McNulty asked.
Glendon thought for a moment, then nodded. “Yeah, I believe she was.”
It was the answer McNulty needed for all the pieces to fall into place. Maggie Culver was aware of Eddie’s food allergy and must have overheard Glendon agreeing to let Eddie ride Hals-a-Poppin’.
“Are you saying Maggie murdered Eddie?” Glendon asked. “But how? He died in the middle of the race.”
“Eddie had a severe nut allergy,” McNulty said. “So severe that any contact would put him into anaphylactic shock and close his air way. He died of asphyxiation.”
“Jesus!” Glendon said, shaking his head. “How the hell did she pull that off?”
“Peanut oil,” McNulty said. “Japanese chefs use it in their dishes. She coated your horse’s neck and mane with it. Turned the animal into a deadly weapon.”
Glendon asked, “Why would she want to kill him?”
“When we find her,” McNulty said, “we’ll ask her.”
Fifteen minutes later, they were searching the stalls and tack rooms along shedrow when Cotner’s walkie-talkie crackled with news that a security guard had located Maggie in one of the track’s exercise paddocks. As they approached, they saw Maggie astride a thoroughbred, trotting and cantering around the fenced-in corral. She saw them as well, and knew why they had come for her.
“We need to talk to you, Maggie,” McNulty called out. “It’s about Eddie.”
Maggie reined the horse to a halt in the center of the ring.
“We know it was you, Maggie,” McNulty told her. “We know you killed him and we know how you did it.”
“What we don’t know,” Cotner interjected, “is why.”
Maggie gave them a sly smile, casually reached down into a riding boot, and came up with a large hunting knife. She rested it on her right thigh.
“He was a sneaky two-faced little slug, that’s why,” she said, spitting the words out contemptuously. “He was going to ruin my dad! Destroy his career! I couldn’t let him do that! That little shit was secretly taking pictures of my father shooting up the horses with tranqs and painkillers, then passing the film rolls to those PETA assholes. My dad would’ve lost his license if they went public. It would’ve killed him.”
She then raised the knife and held it to her throat. “Now open the gate and let me out.”
“Can’t do that, Maggie. Now drop the knife and come with us,” McNulty ordered.
“I’ll do it!” she shrieked, drawing the blade lightly across her neck. A thin line of blood began to seep down her throat. “Open the gate and stand aside!”
She was clearly on the edge and McNulty once again realized there was only one way to end the standoff. In one swift move, he drew his weapon and fired a single round into the air. The unexpected gunshot startled the thoroughbred and it reared up on its hind legs, tossing Maggie backwards into the dirt. She made a desperate scramble for the knife, but McNulty and Cotner were on it first.
“Where’s my father?” she wailed tearfully. “I want my dad!”
“It’s okay, Maggie,” McNulty said soothingly. “We’ll take you to him.”
Cary Grant said. “I can’t tell you how much solving Eddie’s murder means to me.”
They were seated at a quiet corner table in the Hollywood Park Turf Club. It had been three weeks since the actor had hired McNulty and two weeks since Maggie Culver’s arrest.
“Glad I could help,” The P.I. said, sipping from a tumbler of his favorite Glenlivet scotch. “How are Maggie and Dr. Culver doing?”
“The doc is faring pretty well under psychiatric care. His veterinary license has been suspended, of course, but I’m told there’s a good chance he could get it back at some point. Maggie has been charged with first degree murder. Though her lawyer says he’ll be arguing diminished capacity.”
Grant removed an envelope from inside his blue blazer and slid it across the table toward McNulty.
“I’ve included a very generous bonus on top of your fee,” he said, smiling. “Lenny Hazeltine was right about you. You’re a very good detective, You should stick with it.”
“As long as crime pays,” McNulty said, tapping Grant’s envelope, “I will.”