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Tink Elledge is back in the saddle―and in more danger than ever. The race is a hundred miles through the Sierra Nevada against a backdrop of Darwin, evolution, and intelligent design. Smart, deftly plotted, and tuned to ongoing debate, this mystery is perfect for fans of Dick Francis.
Tink Elledge is a woman who doesn't take well to sitting still―not when it comes to husbands, not when it comes to looking after her stepson Stephen, and certainly not when it comes to horses. So when she gets the chance to ride in a competition again―even on a trail as grueling as the steep twists and turns of the legendary Tevis endurance trail ride―she jumps at it. In the Sierra mountain wilderness, she and her friend Isabel―an avid horsewoman and Darwin devotee--will race across one hundred miles of spectacular gorges and cross heart-stopping fords.?
Meanwhile, Stephen and Tink's husband, Charlie, are nearby working on a new partnership with the brilliant but secretive scientist James Grant-Worthington. When Grant-Worthington suddenly dies of not-so-natural causes, the entire deal is thrown into question. Eager to help, Tink begins searching for clues, starting with Josh Untemeyer, the PR manager for the institute Grant-Worthington founded to promote the theory of intelligent design, who has also been pursuing Isabel. As Tink and Isabel join the pack of elite riders and their horses scramble up the vertiginous, narrow trail, Josh goes missing. Tink must sort through the secrets and lies in a race against time to cross the finish line and save the two people she cares for most in this lively, page-turning novel from acclaimed author Holly Menino.
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HOLLY MENINO grew up in a small Ohio college town, where her passionate interest in animals showed itself by age three, about ten years before she heard the call to be a writer. A graduate of Smith College, she has worked in both scholarly and popular publishing and is the author of Murder, She Rode.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Stories like this usually start out with a body, the form that holds the person in his or her last earthly state—God knows what comes after that, I don’t. I could show you this body, the arrangement of the head, neck, and the arms and legs, the location of the wounds or the lack of them and the details of blood and semen, the juices that keep our species viable. But if I started with the body, you would miss half the ride.
Ride is what the people who rode the horses called it, but the Tevis Cup was really just a race, a very long race with strict requirements for staying in it. As the miles passed under the horses’ hoofs, a lot of information would come with them, information that should help you understand what happened to her and why he died. So let’s leave the bodies for the time being and start out with the bang at the beginning.
The trailer ramp crashed down, and the sound reverberated from the barn and corrals and the edge of spruce forest that descended into the meadow. After five days on the road, the springs that let the ramp down had gone slack, given up, and it slammed down loud enough to wake the dead. But apparently there was no one here, dead or not, to disturb. I looked around in road stupor. Three thousand miles with only one overnight stop. Isabel and I took turns driving and sleeping until we came to this barn at the end of a driveway high in the Sierra Nevada not far from Truckee, California. I was woozy from the altitude and fatigue.
The scene could have been a photo shot in black and white and then tinted with pewter and green. The sandy soil was gray with outcroppings of lighter rock, and the spruce trees that stood back at a respectful distance were a dense blackish green. The weathered wood of the barn and corrals needed no tint. The little ranch was an establishment called Farrell’s, just up the mountain from the flat rim of land that surrounded Donner Lake. The Donner party, coming from the East through Utah, had met starvation here just a couple of years before the Gold Rush, when the prospectors and miners stampeded in from the West. After the gold petered out, a fat vein of silver was claimed by Henry Comstock, and then fifteen years after the Donner party’s ordeal, two haphazard miners came in from the West in search of silver. They found gold, and the Squaw Valley rush was on.
When I read those facts aloud to Isabel Rakow as we came in view of Donner Lake, she said, without giving thought to what it must have been like to start in chewing on the hide roof over your head in the middle of winter or to strike it rich by accident, “Eighteen sixty-three? Four years after Origin,” referring to Darwin’s book on evolution. Isabel had a trick of the mind that sent many topics boomeranging back to Charles Darwin or to endurance riding. We had spent the last five days confined to the cab of a diesel pickup where the noise of the engine was constant and conversation not. Occasionally Isabel would make a brief comment. It would seem to come out of the blue, but it didn’t. Her mental life was something intense, and her remarks were what boiled up from it. “You know, he,” she might say—was there any doubt about who he was?—“gave a mirror to a female orangutan in the London Zoo?”
Why would I know something like that? I had never really considered Darwin’s importance or the importance of the theory of evolution. Although I had no objection to being edified, as far as I could tell from Isabel’s sporadic commentary, Darwin’s life was pretty dull, and when I said something like this, Isabel said, “Read the Beagle,” as if I would ask her to stop the rig at the very next public library so that I could comply. So far as I had been able to determine, Darwin was the only man she had ever allowed in her life.
If Isabel was as highway-addled as I was, she certainly didn’t show it. The little veterinarian looked as snugly put together as usual. She was tiny and plump, with dark hair and bright blue eyes. Everything about her radiated energy—and control. Her hair was a curly black cap. She never let it grow, and she never let her lipstick wear off. She was inclined to be aloof and keep me at a respectful distance. But over the months I had spent training with her on the trails, she had become what I would consider a friend. With me at least, if not with her pet-owning clients, she was candid about the fact that she ministered to cosseted dogs and cats because that produced enough income to keep her in horses. Although she never actually told me this, I had the impression that she had grown up without much money, and I think she kept up appearances to fit in with her well-heeled clients—also maybe because she wanted to hide the highly intelligent mind behind her carefully maintained face.
What betrayed the quite deliberately composed Isabel was her voice. When she opened her mouth, what came out was startling: a thin, penetrating call ushered by a heavy New Jersey accent. This voice sounded just now as she was looking around.
“Wonder where Farrell is.”
The ranch we had driven into was at seven thousand feet, a bed-and-breakfast that had trail horses to rent out, and we had come out a couple of weeks before the Tevis ride to let the horses adjust to the thinner air. Way back in April we had reserved beds for ourselves and stalls and turnout for the two horses on the trailer. I took a look inside the barn and found two empty stalls freshly bedded with shavings.
“He may not be here,” I reported, “but he is expecting us.”
We turned our attention to the horses, Darwin and Owen. In the trailer Darwin’s round brown rump was aligned side by side with Owen’s remarkably bony gray backside. It was time to unload the horses, and I went forward to the door at their heads.
“Watch him, Tink,” Isabel warned, but I knew exactly what to expect. Owen was a phenomenally competitive trail horse, and competitiveness made him envious, and envy made him tricky. If Darwin was asked to back out of the trailer before Owen was, the gray horse would explode backward, tearing out pieces of the trailer and anything else that came between him and his little margin of victory. Owen had to be first, and he was always invited out of the trailer before Darwin. Even so, he usually made a big, thumping, rattling deal about it.
I snapped a long lead rope to his halter and took a step toward the ramp, where Isabel was standing by. The horse began scrambling and launched himself with a backward leap. This ballet was standard operating procedure, and I gave him enough slack in the rope to let him make his move. Probably too much slack, because he immediately took advantage of it. He stood straight up on his hind legs and, bracing against his backward momentum, threw one gray foreleg over the rope and bolted. The lead rope ripped out of my hand, and the horse galloped free, speeding past the barn to the nearest corral in search of other horses. What Owen was expecting after so many hours on the road was a ride camp inhabited by endurance horses and their riders. He was well accustomed to what ride camps should look like, and this place did not meet his expectations. He sped along the corral fences, and evidently determining he was not in the right place, shot out of sight looking for the kind of camp he had in mind.
“Little cheat,” Isabel commented levelly as I ran past her on my way after the horse. Sometimes aloofness is a form of graciousness.
Owen had got the jump on me, and he blew by the last corral, charging down the lane toward the steep road we had taken to get to the ranch. His bony backside flew down it and out of sight, giving us pitiful humans a farewell salute with a flip of a silver tail. Owen was barefoot like so many of the horses that run endurance these days, and without the definition of a steel shoe, each hoof left only a rindlike impression.
When I got to the paved road, I stopped running because I could see there would be no gain in it. I couldn’t run and follow Owen’s tracks at the same time. In fact, I could barely run at all. The high thin air stole my breath. My legs felt oddly weighed down, and the road and the gray-green mountainside spun unsteadily before my eyes. It was the altitude and our fast trip up to it that day.
The sudden climb up to Donner Lake on Interstate 80 began a few miles east of Reno, where the Sierra Nevada stood up abruptly from the desert. The mountain range was a daunting prospect, offering nothing to an approaching traveler but challenge and hardship. From a distance it was hard to imagine a way over or through the steep, dry mountains, which held out no promise of sustenance for humans or wildlife. As the truck and trailer turned up the interstate, making easy work of our passage, I thought of the Donner party laboring to get their wagons up into occasional high meadows. It must have taken real fortitude to even contemplate, let alone undertake, a crossing. Every face of every mountain was steep, sometimes sheer, and when we left the interstate and the roads were narrow with no shoulder, I couldn’t figure out whether it was more scary to look down into a breathtaking drop-off or up at the heights still ahead of us.
“This country,” Isabel commented, “is enough to make you believe in God.”
“Or at least pray,” I suggested even though I knew she didn’t do either, believe or pray. “I can’t figure out how people got here in the first place or why they stayed.”
“I think once we are on the horses and moving over the ground stride by stride, the mountains won’t look so tough.”
To Owen the terrain hadn’t looked tough at all.
A half mile downhill, at a break in the enormous spruce trees, Owen’s tracks stopped. He seemed to have lifted off the road into the bright sky above the trees. I stood at the edge of the road and looked down. The sunny mountainside was steep and covered with stone rubble until it met the same road I stood on as it switched back across the grade. Straight down would be the shortest way, but the footing in the loose rock would be terrible. So I discounted this possible path and tried to clear away fatigue and think.
Owen wasn’t my horse. He belonged to Isabel, like this whole endurance enterprise. I was a newcomer, introduced to Isabel and her sport by my friend Frankie Golden. People who knew Isabel and Frankie said things to me like “You’re riding the Tevis? Wow, that’s a tough ride. How many rides have you finished?” Only a few, just enough to amount to the three hundred miles necessary to qualify for the Tevis. I was a green, green gringo, but this ride, the Tevis Cup, was important. More specifically, finishing this ride was important. The motto of endurance riding is To Finish Is To Win, and the finish line a hundred miles west of where I was now was something I had fixed on like a man overboard fixes on the ring buoy at the end of a line. So, okay, now I had managed to lose the horse that could carry me to the finish. I thought of Charlie and Stephen, my husband and stepson, back on the farm south of Philadelphia. Right now they were probably situated comfortably in Charlie’s study, which over the past couple of months had become a cheerfully messy war room. Charlie’s reading matter had been cleared from the sofa to make a place for Stephen and the rubble on the coffee table relocated to the rug nearby to allow space for a laptop. On weekends, I would find them there, Charlie hunkered down in his armchair and Stephen hunched over, poking at his laptop, deep in contemplation.
Charlie’s venture company, Halefellow, was involved in what he called a protective buyout of a small company that somehow turned protein into medicine, and he wanted to put Stephen in the middle of the deal. Which I thought was very sweet and also smart. It was a friendly kind of merger, and we had begun a friendship with the aging scientist who owned the company. He had turned to Halefellow for help. He knew exactly what kind of help he needed, and he had turned to the right investors. While Charlie understood the money and the statistics of research and development, he had no experience with the computing part of the biology. Stephen did.
James Grant-Worthington was a molecular biologist who was on the faculty at Stanford University and, working in a lab there, had developed an innovative method for rapidly and accurately producing artificial proteins. Why was this important? he asked rhetorically when he made his presentation to the Halefellow board of directors. Because some of the proteins that had resulted from this laboratory breeding—recombinant proteins—had powerful therapeutic capacities and they were of intense interest to the pharmaceutical industry. Grant-Worthington had started a small business to exploit his process, AccuGen. Then two of the proteins Grant-Worthington had developed had proved themselves effective weapons in the fights against AIDS and hepatitis, and this had led to the little company’s rather explosive success. It was clear to Grant-Worthington that he could not manage the company’s future on his own, and this is what he told the Halefellow board of directors. He was—as everyone in the boardroom could see—getting up in years, and he wanted, first of all, help in restructuring the company as a publicly held corporation with a plan for stable succession of management. Next, there were some aspects of the company’s production process that were beginning to limit its growth. These were primarily computational—Charlie had pounced on this like his cat Greenspan on a mouse—Stephen! Here was a role tailor-made for Stephen.
What followed was the happiest time of my life. Stephen or Stephen and his girlfriend Alex were at the house constantly. Charlie went into Philly and New York only when absolutely necessary. And I was starting to get back on the horse. Not young stock, nothing spooky, no fences. It was just Owen and just enough to keep me looking ahead to competition.
Stephen dug into research on generating recombinant proteins and the computational requirements for sorting through the myriad proteins that resulted. He glowed from the effort, and Charlie, designing the Halefellow reorganization of AccuGen, basked in his new role as mentor. He had lost his own father at the age of fourteen and had never had children of his own. Stephen kept the surname of his father and my former husband, Frank Elledge, and although Charlie had always had a warm relationship with Stephen, working together had cemented something almost biological between them. In his own way Charlie too needed this deal to come along.
About a month into their evaluation of the company and its prospects, Charlie invited Grant-Worthington for his first visit to the farm. When he mentioned the scientist would stay for dinner, I panicked. My cooking skills and repertoire were decidedly limited. But Charlie said, “Don’t worry about what you fix. If I read this guy right, he’ll be happy with scrambled eggs.”
In a way, Charlie was right about the scrambled eggs, but what actually happened is that Dr. Grant-Worthington sensed my apprehension and joined me in the kitchen to take over operations there. “No need to be proud, my dear”—in British-inflected English and as if I were in junior high—“this is my idea of a vacation. You know, not answering questions about the balance sheet.” All of us—Alex, Stephen, Charlie, and I—benefited at the table, and somehow Grant-Worthington managed to shift the credit to my side of the ledger. It was the first of quite a number of visits. Sometimes we went out to dinner. Sometimes James cooked.
It wouldn’t be long before James would be doing the cooking again. My friend Frankie Golden, who had suffered a number of defeats ...
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