Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Final Story - "Winner's Circle"

Hey all- I apologize for not posting the rough outline when I was supposed to... blame it on the hair, but I totally forgot! haha. Anyway, here's the finished product. Good luck studying everyone, and I'll see you tomorrow! :)


The first encounter I had with the horse world was when my kid brother had a pony party for his third birthday. I was six at the time, and the only thing I vividly remember is the pungent smell of crap and a snappy little beast named Sunshine that bit my hand when I tried to feed it a carrot. My brother eventually took up horseback riding as a hobby, and although I learned a thing or two through osmosis I never really took interest myself. I'm not really a horse person, let alone an animal person. I'm not even a people person, really, but when you're a journalist you kind of have to deal with people. Pungent crap and all.
So when I got the call that there was a murder at Fair Oaks Stables, a hoity-toity equestrian facility off the five freeway, I involuntarily grumbled in disgust. It wasn't so much the horses I was worried about, because at least they don't talk. It was the people. Rich horse people are worse than country club people, because not only do they flaunt their money in the form of nice cars and fancy houses, but they pour it on their animals as well. Think of the heiress-types with their dressed-up Chihuahuas under their arms and then multiple the Chihuahuas by about a thousand pounds. That's a show horse. Big and expensive and dressed to the nines in braids and polish and expensive leather. They eat better than we do and they only work for about three hours a day - then they get a massage, a sponge bath, and then they go back to eating. Dear God what I'd give to be one of those animals.
You might think it's strange that there'd be a murder at an equestrian show stable, a cesspool of money and wealth and filth and prestige. But rich people are really no different than the rest of us. They kill people too, probably just as much as regular people. The only difference is that they tend to be less clever. They think their money will save them - and most of the time it does. But this time, the police were involved. Even worse than that, the press were involved. And that meant me. Ben Sanders, age thirty-two, principle columnist for The PILE - that is, The Police Investigator's Literary Journal.
The PILE is really no different than the headlines on a newspaper - we report the facts on crimes, print pictures, profile suspects, list victims, that sort of thing. The only difference is that we don't have all the nice stories - you know, the smut that the papers print when it's a slow news day. "Timmy saves baby kitten from tree!," "Felons give back to the community!," "Politicians tell the truth!" - that kind of sloppy garbage that's supposed to make people feel better about all the bad shit that happens in the world. We don't sugarcoat anything. People die, and we make a semi-glossy pamphlet about murder facts. I like my job.
Except for the day I drove to Fair Oaks Stables for the first time. The air conditioning was shot in my '91 Honda Civic and the only radio station I could get on my busted console was garbling out something peppy and hyper and in a different language. I wasn't happy about this job to begin with, already there were rings of sweat around my shirt collar, and on top of that I couldn't even listen to Ryan Seacrest on his morning talk show. Damn, what a day. When I pulled onto the stable grounds it was clear that a competition was in progress. A "show," as they call them. A show of what? Of how much money daddy was able to pour into Seabiscuit #12? Of your talent with hippity-hoppying over a pattern of Technicolor-painted poles? I didn't get it, but hey this wasn't my world.
I pulled into the dusty parking lot and found the police set-up: LAPD squad cars, big white vans that housed complicated technological equipment, and a bunch of unmarked vehicles about whose functions I never dared ask. It was none of my business, anyway. My business was the fact of the murder. I parked my Civic next to a cop car and got out, ignoring the sour glare I received from the officer leaning against the driver's side door when I flashed my press badge at him. The editor at PILE had some friends in the force - we never had a problem obtaining the proper press passes. Nevertheless, the officer was peeved enough to pull off his aviators and amble towards me as I mopped the sweat from my neck and day-old-stubbled cheek. Damn was it hot, and damn did it smell out here. The cop spat in the dirt by his feet before looking up at me, squinting against the harsh August sun. His upper lip curled with the effort and nearly buried his bushy moustache inside his nostrils as he did so. Cops are my favorite.
"What the hell do you want, Sanders?" the cop growled, not even looking at me as he spoke. I mean, I know I'm good-looking, but he didn't have to be so bashful. We were old friends, after all.
"What I always come for, Innis," I replied. Innis was my favorite cop. "Just the facts. Victim, cause of death, day, time, possible suspects... you know, the works." Innis spat again, as if doing so would properly state how much he disliked speaking to people in general. Innis didn't necessarily dislike me, but more like he tolerated me like a pig tolerated blow flies.
"Victim is James Jericho. Twenty-eight year old male, Caucasian, approximately six foot, blonde hair, brown eyes, no prior incidents of violence or conflict. No enemies, either, as far as we can tell. He was a regular Michael Jordan in the horse world, too. Champion rider, trainer, rode in the Olympics, all that. Started judging these junior horse shows about two years ago. Then last night some stable hand finds him an empty horse stall - standing up, dead as Cher's singing career, with a pitchfork through his chest. That shit went straight through him and pinned him to the wall."
"A pitchfork?" I tried to picture the scenario in my mind. I couldn't decide if it was outright horrifying or downright creative. In the end, I decided on both.
"Yeah, a pitchfork, that big sharp pronged thing that they use to clean up horse dookies. Classy way to end it, huh?"
"Very," I grunted as I pulled out the yellow notepad and pen that I had in the back pocket of my worn Levis. This was going to be a fun one, I could already tell. I scribbled out my notes and glanced up at Innis. "So, any suspects?"
"Nope, none. No leads. This person was neat about it. That, or it's so goddamn dirty around here that none of forensics team can get a damn thing. No fingerprints, no footprints. If there were any traces last night when the stiff got pronged, then they were covered by an inch of dust and dirt this morning when we were called. The only thing they found was an full syringe in the guy's pocket. Had some stuff called Clenbuterol in it, supposed to be some kind of asthma medicine for horses. Can you believe that? Horses with asthma?" Innis snorted, then continued, "And the only DNA the team got was a couple samples of horse hair. Something tells me that Flicka and Black Beauty aren't behind the murder."
I begged to differ. I was fairly certain that if the horses here were anything like that Sunshine creature in my childhood, they were capable of anything. But the odds were against it. I scowled and scratched the back of my head, and I could feel sweat collecting underneath my wiry brown curls.
"So why not seal the scene? Clean everything? Why let these yuppies to have their money show when there's a murder investigation going on."
"Have you met this people yet, Sanders? They're crazy. They spent their money on this show, and they won't stop it for anything. Some year end championship, some shit like that," he waved his hand indifferently and looked away. He sighed then said, "Plus, the chief's niece is riding today. She begged and pleaded for hours. The chief's a softy."
I tried really hard not to laugh at the irony. Persuadable policeman? Nooo, never heard of them! But policeman are like blondes: it's okay to make fun of them so long as you are one of them. Otherwise, you're an outsider, and laughing at them makes you judgmental. It seemed like Innis didn't notice, because after a moment he shrugged and turned his broad shoulders away from me, as if to leave. "Well, it's been great chattin' with you friend, but I have a murder investigation to oversee..."
"Wait, that's it?" I snapped, a little annoyed that he thought that was good enough.
"Yeah, that's it pal," Innis replied, his wily moustache twitching impatiently. "Can't give you anything else... it ain't there." Well that simply wouldn't do. My editor was picky, and half-formed murder speculations wouldn't make anyone pick up a PILE. If I couldn't get anything else on this Jacob Jericho and the mystery Poopfork, I was screwed. And I couldn't afford a screwing.
"Look, Innis, I need - "
"I know, I know, friend... you need the details. I don't know what to tell you. If the facts ain't there, then go find them." He was half-kidding, and I knew it, but I decided to take him up on it anyway. I stuffed the yellow notepad in my back pocket, tipped my head to Innis, and strode out of the parking lot in the direction of five rows of crisp, freshly painted rectangular barn isles. I sort of heard Innis yelping after me to make sure I stayed out of the investigators' hair, not cause any trouble, yadda yadda. I heard him, but the fact was I had a deadline to make and no story to write about. This was about a paycheck. And sometimes money is a powerful motivator - even for me.
I'd never really done this before, taken an investigation into my own hands for the sake of a story, but I didn't really have a choice. Besides, how hard could it be? I liked reading crime novels; I was a big Raymond Chandler fan, and he made it look like a cinch. Unfortunately, I didn't really know exactly what I was doing. While contemplating my next move, I ambled up to the crisp white railing of one of the sand arenas and hooked my sneaker on the bottom rung, watching the antics inside. They were awarding prizes to a line-up of horses and riders - colorful fake-satin ribbons that probably put the show manager back twenty cents a pop. All of this, the stress, the money, the time, the commitment, for a damn ribbon? These people must have been crazy - crazy and stupid - maybe even crazy and stupid enough to kill a man with a pitchfork.
"Is your kid riding in there?" The voice was bright and bubbly, way too bright and bubbly for such a hot day... way too bright and bubbly for any day, actually. I turned slowly and narrowed my eyes, taking in the effervescent, doll-like creature that had snuck up on my right side. She was shorter than me, probably about eighteen but she looked much younger, with ash-blonde hair and round, pink cheeks that must have been flushed from riding. Her black velvet helmet was propped between the crook of her elbow and one curved hip, and she wore the same ridiculous coat and breeches as the rest of the yuppies in the ring. She was smiling at me, an openly friendly smile that probably made her instantly likable to most people. It scared the crap out of me, though.
"I don't have any kids," I growled, looking back at the ring. "And if I did, I'd make them take up karate or bowling or something more practical." I figured if I ignored her she would go away. She didn't.
"Then if you don't mind my asking," she pursued, "... why exactly are you here? Not to be rude, but you don't exactly look like.. a horse person." I wasn't offended. She was right.
I wasn't going to tell her at first. Besides, aren't murder investigations supposed to be kept confidential? But I didn't have any idea where to start or what to look for, and it probably wouldn't hurt to have someone like this Barbie-kid around, someone who knew the place and probably knew a lot of people. I sighed gruffly and turned to her, sticking my hand out in greeting.
"The name's Ben Sanders, I'm a journalist," I said, somewhat reluctantly. She shook my hand - hard. She was tiny, but she had one hell of a grip and plenty of strength behind it.
"Hi there, I'm Lacey Simpson. You here to write about the Junior Championship? I'm in it, you know. I've got a scholarship to USC in the fall and a spot on the equestrian team, but it all kinda depends on today. I've got to place in the top three for them to take me, and I want to win, you know? I'd do anything for it --"
"-- that's.. nice, Lacey," I interrupted, trying to sound as if I actually cared. Truth was, I had no idea what she was talking about, and really it had nothing to do with me anyway. "I'm actually here to investigate a murder." Her eyes got so big and round that I thought they might swallow the rest of her face. She made a quiet little gasp, then nodded confidentially, as if I were to understand that my secret was safe with her.
"Oooh," she said in a whisper, "James Jericho's murder, right? I heard about it this morning. Crazy, isn't it? Everybody loved him, too..." She trailed off, then looked away, as if the heaviness of the subject were too much for her to bear at the moment. I was about to just give up and walk away when she finally mustered the courage to say, "Well, is there anything I can help you with? I'd met James a couple times, he judged some of the shows around here. I know this place like the back of my hand, and I've been riding horses since I could walk." She was smiling again, bright and bubbly.
"Sure..." I muttered, digging out my notebook again and trying to think of what sort of questions I should ask. I flipped over the top page, glancing over my chicken-scratch notes, and noticed one bullet point I'd made. Clenbuterol. I looked up at Lacey. She was still smiling. "Say, Lacey, have you ever heard of a horse drug called Clenbuterol? They found a syringe of it in Jericho's pocket, it's supposed to clear up horsey asthma or something --"
"Oooh," the girl-doll interjected, that same hushed tone she'd used when talking about the murder itself. "Clen? That's illegal on the show circuit, sort of acts like a steroid in most horses. We aren't allowed to give it to them but--" She stopped short, as if she felt like she shouldn't be saying what was poised on her flushed, sun-pinkened lips. "Well, this is supposed to be a secret around here but..." She glanced over her shoulder, then continued. "Some girls use it to lose weight. Boosts their metabolism, like a diet pill. I'd heard a nasty rumor that James was supplying this one girl with Clen, and she was supplying him with... well, you know, use your imagination." Lacey raised her blonde eyebrows and pursed her lips, as if to utter the word sex would somehow defame her character. I nodded politely.
"I see. Well, as long as we're on a role here, what's this gal's name?"
Vienna Sheraton was in no mood to talk. All she'd had to eat that day was a stalk of celery and an Evian, and she needed all of her strength for the Championship in a few hours. She was puffing anxiously on a cigarette, nibbling at the filter like it would provide her waif-like frame with much-needed sustenance, but the resulting effect made her look somewhat like a hungry gerbil. A handsome gerbil, though: she was much too skinny, definitely, but she was tall, with long dark hair and bright blue eyes that were probably quite nice if they weren't obscured by her half-mast eyelids. I wanted to tell the girl to go eat a damn sandwich, but that wasn't the point. This girl was a suspect in Jericho's murder.
"Vienna Sheraton, my name's Ben Sanders," I barked, sounding more confident by the minute. Lacey, who stood behind my left shoulder, had already told me what I needed to know. "Were you with James Jericho last night around nine o'clock?" I tried to sound tough, like Mick Stranahan did in Carl Hiaason's book, and I thought I was doing a pretty good job.
"Nope, I was with my spiritual counselor," Vienna replied, not even raising her heavy lashes to look at me directly. She had a thick, husky voice, one that didn't quite suit her frail physique. She took one last drag on the cigarette, as if saying goodbye, then stubbed it out with one expensively booted foot. Vienna was a hotel heiress, with money coming out of her emaciated ass, and she clearly didn't appreciate the fact that her good name was on the line.
"The truth would be nice, Miss Sheraton," I replied gruffly, already annoyed by this skeletal ditz. She tilted her head and looked at me sideways, then half-smiled.
"I'm sick and tired of this bullshit from you people. I told the same stuff to that cop with the bad moustache. James and I were bed buddies. So what? I didn't do anything wrong. I didn't kill the guy." Her voice never left the bored, steady pitch of a girl who really couldn't be bothered to care. "So what if he gave me a few breaks in the show ring? I work hard at my riding and my love making. I deserved every single ribbon I got." Her sleepy eyes drifted over my shoulder, to Lacey. Suddenly, the demure little sprite behind me seemed to spark to life. She started speaking so rapidly that I could feel a fine mist of spit coating the back of my neck.
"Fair? You call that fair? You had James all wrapped up, Vienna - he would have pinned you first even if you friggin' fell off!" Lacey was seething. "He was a crooked judge and you made him that way! I would have won those classes if it hadn't been for him!" I turned around and told her to shut-up: her face was ruddy with anger, but she begrudgingly complied.
"Did he supply you with Clenbuterol from his personal veterinarian?" I asked, trying to retain the composure of the moment. Lacey had tipped me off to that piece of information, too. Vienna laughed shortly, running a lethargic hand through her bone-straight mahogany hair.
"He did, up until last week. Said it was getting too risky, that his vet was on to him. I was paying him well enough, damn it," she snuck another glance at Lacey, "not just the body bonus, but with money, too. James was a bit short on cash; most judges are. But he bailed on me, that asshole, and I know for a fact he still had some Clen on him." Her voice dipped to a growl, and she dug in the pocket of her dark blue show coat for another cigarette. She held it between her twig-like fingers, not lighting it quite yet.
"Did that make you angry?" Lacey prompted from behind me, her nymph-like face puckering in a sour sneer.
This kid was really getting on my nerves. "Hey, I said I got this, okay?" I snapped, then turned back to Vienna. I waited a minute, trying to think of something more clever to ask, then I gave up. "Well, did it make you angry?"
The heiress laughed caustically. "Of course it did. That jerk was my lover, my dealer, and my ticket to winning the Championship. I'm pissed that someone killed him."
I was convinced that that someone was Vienna. Who else had the motivation? Who else could have known that Jericho had those pony drugs on him when he was killed? I pictured the scenario in my head: scarecrow woman - the lover scorned, the junkie needing her diet pill fix - flew into a hunger-induced rage and poked the crap out of the poor guy. But then why wouldn't she have taken the syringe of Clen for herself? And that girl looked like she could barely lift her cigarette, let alone impale a six-foot-tall man with a pitchfork. I had my doubts, but so far Vienna Sheraton was the only hope I had for a real story - and a real paycheck.
Lacey had to run off and get ready for the Championships - "I'll just die if I don't win!" - and promised to help as soon as the medal was awarded. I watched her scurry down the barn aisle and start pampering a big gray girl-horse - a mare, or so I'm told - a creature that was so fancy looking that it reminded me of a moving silver stature. I privately wondered how much that thing did cost as I turned sharply away from Vienna, whose own efforts to ready her show mount were excruciatingly slow and un-anxious. I promised her I'd be back, she promised me she wouldn't kill anyone while I was gone, and I made my way back to the dusty parking lot where the investigation team was still camped out.
I found Innis scarfing down a chili cheese dog and slurping on a root beer. He gestured his free hand over to a lunch truck parked next to one of the unmarked police vans. "Got this from the Roach Coach. Pretty damn good if you ask me."
I didn't have the heart to tell him that half of the chili had worked itself into the bushy tundra of his moustache. I didn't have the stomach to look at it for very long, either. I cleared my throat and turned away, pretending to be engrossed in my notebook. "Well Innis, I think I have a suspect."
"Ah! Really? Do tell!" the sarcasm in his chili-encrusted voice made my jaw get a bit more tense. I had opened my mouth to growl out Vienna's name when Innis interrupted, "If it's that Sheraton girl, forget it."
I tapped my pen petulantly. "Why?"
"Because her alibi checked out," he replied between mouthfuls of processed meat and gulps of root beer. "She was with her spiritual counselor from 6:30 to 10:30. By the time she got out, the murder had already been committed."
"Spiritual counselor?" I snorted. Was he kidding? "You're buying that garbage, Innis?"
"Have to. Her spiritual counselor is some upstanding citizen. Those fortune-teller people don't lie. She has her own hotline and everything. Plus, the secretaries at the front desks confirmed it too." He finished off his soda and belched happily. "Airtight, friend, airtight."
Well this was getting a little ridiculous. No wonder cops were always in such a lousy moods all the time - their jobs sucked. Dead ends, everywhere. "Any other leads at all?"
Innis thought about it for a second, his chili-soaked moustache twitching ponderously, then replied, "Oh, yeah, DNA got info back on those horsehairs they found in the stall with Jericho. Turns out only half of them actually belonged to a horse. The other half belonged to a hooker in South Florida who goes by the name Flipper Blue."
"Well she didn't kill him, obviously. She's a ward of state and can't leave Miami. They caught her selling her wares on a street corner and sentenced her to a year of probation. Made her donate her luxurious mane of raven locks as part of the terms of her probation. The hair was supposed to go to a charity wig factory, but somehow it ended up here."
"Apparently they make wigs for horse's tails. Did you know that? I didn't. Like them hair extensions those rich gals get on TV and stuff. Anyway, Flipper's hair ended up in a factory that makes wigs for horse's tails. They mix human hair and horse hair to make the pieces look more soft and luxurious. Crazy shit, huh?"
I couldn't decide which piece of information was more difficult to believe: the fact that people actually made a career of putting together wigs for a horses' asses, or that a hooker would actually name herself Flipper. Either way, it changed the situation entirely. "So what about the hair, you guys gonna follow up on it?"
I wasn't surprised in the least to hear Innis reply, "Yeah, tomorrow. The rest of the day is almost shot. When the Roach Coach leaves, our guys are packing up for the night. They got families too, ya know." The problem was, I needed my information today. Now, preferably.
After buying a burrito grande from the Roach Coach I made my way back to the show grounds, watching distractedly as a horse and rider pair hippity-hopped over a pattern of decorative jumps. Lacey would be in there soon, and so would Vienna. Maybe even the killer, too.
I didn't really know what to do with myself. I didn't have any other leads, and Lacey was busy - she couldn't help me with any more insider knowledge. Then again, her tip-off to Vienna was no good, so maybe I didn't need her after all. I wandered around the backsides of the crisply painted barns, watching silent stable hands scurry back and forth, supplying King Black Beauty and Queen Flicka their mid-afternoon food and beverage. I figured I may as well scope out the scene of the crime: Barn #6, stall #11. There was practically nobody around - apparently this Junior Championship thing was a big deal - so I ambled over to the caution-taped stall without being spotted. I shook my head and muttered (the stall wasn't even being guarded to preserve the crime scene, for God's sakes), then ducked under the poorly designed partition and into the stall. I stood up and nearly crapped my pants - in front of me was a giant mass of thick, black hair, held upright only by a pair of gnarled old hands. I shouted something obscene before the person behind the hair jumped and poked her head out, scowling at me angrily. It was then that I realized the hair didn't belong to this person staring at me: it was, in fact, a wig of some kind, which the old woman was clutching as if it were made of gold. I was at a loss for words (you'd be, too, if there was a giant hunk of hair in front of your face for no apparent reason) until I realized what that hunk was. It was a tail wig, or extensions, or whatever the hell Innis had called them.
"Who the hell are you?" the old woman demanded before I could get a word in edgewise. She was about four and a half feet tall and about seventy-five, her hair was pure white and her eyes were rheumy and clouded. She had a strong nose and leathery skin, as if she had swathed herself in Crisco and laid out in the sun for most of her life. I had a sneaking suspicion that she'd done just that. The old woman eyed me then slowly, carefully, then brought the extensions down to her side. "I asked you a question, sonnny."
I blinked, waited a beat, then answered, "My name's Ben Sanders. Are you aware that you're trespassing on a crime scene?" I wasn't sure if that was the right terminology or not, but I figured the Wicked Witch of the West wouldn't know the difference.
"I could say the same for you, skippy," she snarled, sizing me up. "My name's Rhonda. I just came back to collect what was mine, that's all." And with that she turned back around, stooped down, and began sifting through the sawdust on the stall floor like a hound looking for a squirrel. I stared at her in disbelief. She held the tail extension in her right arm, cradled to her flannel bosom like a baby, and poked around for something I certainly couldn't see. I thought I'd humor her, the poor dear.
"What exactly are you looking for, Rhonda?" Never mind that she was disturbing a crime scene.
"Hair," was her curt reply, as if I was so stupid she couldn't even stand it. Her voice sounded like dry needles cracking under work boots. "For the rest of these extensions. These things ain't cheap, ya know, and that bastard never paid me for this." She continued to shuffle around as if I wasn't even there.
"Are you talking about James Jericho, Rhonda?"
"Of course I am. Cheapest bastard on the southern California circuit. Bought three sets of tail extensions from me for his prized show horses and only paid me for two of them."
I wasn't sure if I was getting anywhere or not. I just went with it. "And the third?"
Rhonda stood up, so slowly that I probably could have heard her vertebrae crack one by one if I'd been paying attention, and sneered. "Are you stupid? I'm holding it right here, Sherlock." She stooped back down and kept looking. "Snatched it back from the cheapskate last night, as a matter of fact. No money, no hair. He's a strong man, but I'm pretty scrappy myself. Managed to get most of it, but he held on to a few hairs. I figured I'd come back later and collect them, sew it back into the piece." The sinister laugh that wheedled out of her senile lips made me cringe.
"You're not going to find anything," I stated simply.
"Why not?" she didn't bother to stand up this time.
"Because a murder investigation team already swept this stall for clues. They have the hair."
"What?" she croaked.
"Rhonda, are you aware that there was a murder here last night?" My gaze was steady. I wasn't sure I trusted this woman. "James Jericho is dead."
Her leathery skin lightened a few shades, and for a moment I thought she was going to faint. But the moment passed, and when it did her ancient expression was fiercer than ever. "Nope, didn't know that, have to be going, bye now!" She tried to hustle past me, but I stopped her. Rhonda stomped on my toe, but she only weighed about 85 pounds so I didn't even feel it.
"Get out of my way!" she snapped.
"I can't," I replied firmly. "You could be a suspect in a murder investigation." A dispute over money, scrappy little Rhonda, and a pitchfork? It could work.
"I didn't do shit, skippy, now let me be! All I want is my money and that's it. I didn't kill no James Jericho," her face was puckered and bright red, like Lacey's had gotten when she had been yelling at Vienna earlier. Puckered, and flushed. Angrier than hell. I wavered. I saw something I hadn’t seen before, and it didn’t have to do with Rhonda. Then I changed the subject.
"Rhonda, can I ask you a personal question?" I was looking at that big bushy tail, the ass ornament, and I couldn't possibly imagine why it was so expensive.
"I didn't kill nobody. But if I answer you, will you let me go?" Her eyes were black and gleaming, like marbles on a white plate.
"What's the purpose of these things?" I ran a hand down the tail extension. "Isn't it just silly?"
That same high, wheedling laugh came from her papery lips, and I realized that it sounded more sardonic than sinister. "Because this place is just like the rest of L.A. It's all about appearances, the way you look - not what it took to get here. Only the pretty ones win, and people will do anything to win. So they do anything it takes to make sure they win. Whether it's buying a tail wig or paying off a judge -- "
"-- or killing one," I murmured. I felt like someone had shoved a pitchfork through my chest. Her cheery voice echoed through my head. "... I want to win, you know? I'd do anything for it... I would have won those classes if it hadn't been for him... I'll just die if I don't win..."
Lacey. She would have done anything to win that medal, even if it meant murdering a judge who would have placed her anorexic rival over her in the final standing. She would have done anything to win the Championship - she would have died for it, and she would have killed for it.
She did kill for it.
I thought about everything, about Lacey's eagerness to help me, her false accusations of Vienna, her strangely powerful grip when we shook hands. She was small, but she could have easily javelined that pitchfork into James Jericho's chest, especially if she were angry enough.
I left Rhonda bewildered and confused as I sprinted towards the show arena. If I hurried, there would still be time. There would still be time to deny the murderer of what she wanted most - to win.
But it was too late. As I neared the fresh, white fence rail, I saw Lacey and her silver mare parading around the ring, a blue ribbon fastened around the horse's neck, a gold medallion around Lacey's. She played the part of a gracious winner quite well - smiling and waving, humble and gracious - too bad nobody knew she'd killed a judge for it. As she rode past she fasted her bright, bubbly smile on me, and I could tell by the stony look in her eyes that she knew I'd figured it out.
But I could tell from that psychotic smile on her face that it didn't matter. She'd gotten what she wanted. She'd won the Junior Championship. It didn't matter that she would be taken into custody that night (Innis made a special trip back to Fair Oaks for the occasion), posted at high bail, and would face the possibility of life in prison for premeditated homicide. She had that twenty cent blue ribbon, that twenty cent medal, and that's all that mattered. Lacey had won. Lacey Simpson and her blue-ribbon smile, pasted for eternity on a murderer's face