Launch! Prince Arthur Hotel! Sept.5. Cake, beverages. Launch 7:15 pm. (NOWW AGM 6:30.)

Launch! Prince Arthur Hotel! Sept.5. Cake, beverages. Launch 7:15 pm. (NOWW AGM 6:30.)
Prize Winning Stories from NOWW

Saturday, March 8, 2008

FIRST CHAPTER OF FORECLOSURE by JACQUELINE D'ACRE

FORECLOSURE
Chapter One
May 21, 2005, 8:46 AM

If you want to know anything about horses in the New Orleans area, Lila’s Creole Diner in St. Tremaine Parish is the place to go. I’m Bryn Wiley and I had a writing assignment about a local breeder of Morgan horses. On the way to her place I drove up Highway 38 and stopped at Lila’s.

Inside, I walked past restaurant-style booths, tables and racks of groceries to the rear coolers. It was no surprise that words from horse people seated at the tables floated over boxes of Zatarain’s jambalaya mix to me: “…so that Morgan gal’s having some troubles…” came from a man’s high-pitched voice.

The subject of my article. I paused in the act of grasping a Diet Coke from a cooler. Resisting my usual embarrassment about eavesdropping, I listened closely.

“Yeah,” said another, deeper voice, “got twenty head or thereabouts. How’s she gonna feed ’em all?”

Embarrassment won. I grabbed the Coke and carried it to the counter at the front. As I paid, Lila, owner and Queen of the Horse Information Highway at this diner-convenience store-gas station, said, “Hey, girl, how’re you?”

“Good, Lila. Business looks excellent today.”

The place was noisy, the coffee smell rich and strong. I decided to dangle some bait. “I’m going over to visit Marcie Goodall. I’m doing a story on her breeding program.”

Lila’s thick eyebrows shot upward, creating generous folds in her forehead. She rang up the register, made change, then leaned forward and whispered, “Tommy Grayson was in here earlier. Upset. Marcie Goodall owes a big bill over at his place, Grayson’s Feeds.”

Poor Marcie. Once, long ago I’d faced similar problems. Tight money, many hungry horses, big unpaid feed bill.

Besides having luxuriant eyebrows, Lila was short, stout and dark with a mole near her mouth that could be interpreted as a wart or a beauty mark. She put change in my hand and I shoved it into my faded jeans pocket.

I said, “I’m sorry to hear that, Lila. It’s a tough spot for Tommy.”

Lila looked over my shoulder at the crowd of horsepeople overflowing the tables and booths. Their workday finished at nine a.m., all the hundreds of stalls cleaned, all the dozens of thoroughbreds galloped and hosed down, now they laughed, talked, and ate Lila’s ham, biscuits, eggs and grits. The owners were overweight, the riders under. The fragrance of fresh fried fat was in the air, along with the chicory coffee. Sun poured through the big front windows.

“Grayson’s holdin’ up her next feed delivery,” said Lila.

I frowned. A serious difficulty for Marcie. And I selfishly worried—could this cancel my article? I lived frugally. I needed that check. I said ’bye to Lila, and waved at Arthur Svenquist, a farrier and a friend. He sat squeezed between a huge owner and a diminutive exercise rider. Exercise riders often were jockeys who grew too tall to race, but still were small enough not to burden a fragile racehorse during its early training. I went outside and drove my bottle-green ’92 Tempo to Morgan Oaks Farm, situated on Word of God Church Road within St. Tremaine Parish, where I lived, scant miles from New Orleans.

Now I mounted the steps to the rear verandah of Marcie Goodall’s Gone-With-the-Wind house and saw the kitchen door was wide open. Immediately, I felt nervous.

“Hey, Marcie, you home?” I called in a polite voice while wondering: Why was the door open?
There was no response.

“Hellooo.” Louder. “Anybody? It’s Bryndis—Bryn—Wiley. Remember me?” The house was three stories tall with many rooms. Maybe she needed time to get to the kitchen.

I shifted from foot to foot and wiped sweat from my upper lip. TV weather reports called for more hurricanes and higher temperatures than 2004. That’d had the hottest summer of my two decades in Louisiana, and it was supposed to get warmer. Global warming? Who knew! But in this premature heat, my SPF-45 sunscreen slid around on my redhead’s skin.

I’d grown up in Canada, in a northern town called Thunder Bay, so this climate was a constant test. Here, I wore UV sunglasses over my green eyes, even during winter. And despite my years here, I still spoke Canadian, eh? Often Deep Southerners confused me with Yankees, which got me trouble. Beneath my façade of calm, I was getting impatient on the verandah of this ante-bellum house that belonged to a woman who bred Yankee horses: Morgans from Vermont.

I tried to hook my hair behind my ears, but the left side was boy-short, so it couldn’t go behind my ear. The right side stayed put because it was jaw-length. Sometimes I thought my off-kilter hairstyle reflected my personality.

Perhaps Marcie had dashed out to her stable? I was here only because an editor of the Morgan Horse of America magazine had phoned earlier. The editor had interrupted my mug of French Market coffee and my enlightenment-seeking from the Tao Te Ching. She needed me to fact-check an article I’d written last February about Marcie’s breeding program. Now I stood outside Marcie’s open kitchen door listening to a refrigerator hum. My curiosity grew, overtaking some of my earlier nervousness. I leaned in to look. I saw part of a kitchen table. Two cups and saucers, pink rosebuds on white china. Burnt coffee smell. And something rotten. I stepped in. Flies buzzed over a cantaloupe on a chopping block, halves fallen apart, chef’s knife beside it. The seeds, left in the fruit, sagged wetly sideways.

Legal-sized documents, dense with words, were fanned over the table. I walked closer, twisted my head and saw a Xerox copy of a check for thirty-five thousand dollars, made out to Marcie Goodall. My heart thumped. She hadn’t sold her stallion, had she? Other documents looked like they might have come from the St. Tremaine Clerk of Court’s office and others carried the logo of an Anton Delon, Mortgage Broker.

The burgeoning detective in me wanted to read them, but a building disquiet made me check out the kitchen. It was stark—old white metal cabinets like a World War II British hospital. But something in this room was off. A trembling in the air, like the fading echo of an old…scream?

“Hey!” I yelled. “Marcie! Where are you?” I considered going deeper into the house, but my natural timidity and Canadian good manners, stopped me. I was a reporter and an amateur detective who hated to pry.

The air conditioning wasn’t on. But the coffeemaker’s red light was, and the coffee a brown crust in the pot’s bottom. Without thinking, I flicked it off. Then I wondered: should I treat this as a crime scene? I unzipped the fanny pack I wore low, and I thought, rather sexily, on my hip: this being about the sexist thing I could allow on my person. I removed latex gloves and snapped them on. Was I overreacting? Since I’d stumbled into the solving of three murders over the past two years, I’d gotten in the habit of carrying the gloves.

Everyone forgets to turn off coffeemakers. People rush out leaving doors open. Most likely this is not a crime scene.

My God! I bolted from the kitchen, across the verandah and outside, down the broad steps. I skirted a pool. Spanish moss, drooping from an oak limb, slapped my face. I brushed it aside and kept on. Pea gravel crunched under my sneakers. At the barn entrance I stopped. Where’s the dog? There’d been a dog before. A Dalmatian.

My white cotton top stuck to my sweating front in a V-shape. My arms dripped perspiration. I stepped into the stable. Whinnies erupted like car alarms. I yelled, “Hush!” The cries ceased. I walked down the shavings-covered aisle between stalls. Overhead fans cooled me. A reek of ammonia shouted that stall mucking had been overlooked. Why? Help didn’t show?

I saw the mare and foal Marcie was so proud of in February. I’d paid Marcie my first visit then, to gather information for the story. The bay mare put her head over the stall door and nickered at me. An appeal for food. A smaller head stuck up and gazed at me with huge brown eyes. I looked into their stall—filthy. Feed, water buckets, empty. I wanted to water and feed every horse right now.

“One minute, gang, “I called out. “First I have to find your mistress.” If she wasn’t in here, I’d start trekking the pastures. I heard a doleful whinny, a snort, and rustling from the far end. My chest tightened.

My sneakers shushed through pine-scented shavings. A prickle ran over my damp skin when I stopped at the last stall. A brass plaque read: “Lightning Strikes Once.” Marcie’s stallion. I peered through the bars on the door. It was so dark inside, I couldn’t make out what, or who, was behind them. More shuffling. Had I seen a flash of white?

“Marcie?” My throat was dry.

My anxious breathing picked up another smell, different from decaying fruit or urine-soaked bedding. Like rotten eggs, but sweeter, with an undertone of blood. My abdomen lurched unpleasantly.

“Marcie?” Dread beat up from my belly.

“Marcie!”

A husky ‘her, herr,’ came from the stall. Horse, not human.

“Marcie, you in there?”

All the horses listened with me. Well. I slid open the door, moved forward. Then halted, foot raised. If I set it down, I’d step on a body.



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