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Dark Horse
by Tami Hoag
Bantam, 2002

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Flat, open fields of scrub stretching to the west. A dirt road running north onto equestrian center property and south toward small horse farms some distance away. No one around.The fields are empty. No people, no horses. Sunday night: everyone has gone home.

ERIN stands at the back gate. She’s waiting for someone. She’s nervous. She thinks she’s here for a secret purpose. She thinks her life will change tonight.

It will.

She looks at her watch. Impatient. Afraid he won’t show. She’s not aware of the camera filming her. She thinks she’s alone.

She’s thinking: maybe he won’t come, maybe she’s wrong about him.

A rusted white van approaches from the south. She watches it come toward her. She looks annoyed. No one uses this back road this time of day.The gate to the show grounds has already been chained shut for the night.

The van stops.The side door opens. A masked ASSAILANT leapsout.


She starts to run toward the gate.He catches her arm from behind and spins her around. She kicks him. He backhands her across the face, knocking her sideways. She wrenches free of his grasp as she stumbles, and she tries to run again but can’t get her feet under her.The assailant knocks her down from behind, coming down on top of her, his knee in her back.

Stupid cunt!

He pulls a hypodermic needle from the pocket of his jacket and rams the needle into her arm. She makes a sound of pain and starts to cry.

He pulls her to her feet and shoves her into the van.The door slams shut.The van turns around and drives away.

Life changes in a heartbeat.

Chapter 1


Life can change in a heartbeat. I’ve always known that. I’ve lived the truth of that statement literally from the day I was born. I sometimes see those moments coming, sense them, anticipate them. I see one coming now. Adrenaline runs through my bloodstream like rocket fuel. My heart pounds like a piston. I’m ready to launch.

I’ve been told to stay put, to wait, but I know that’s not the right decision. If I go in first, if I go in now, I’ve got the Golam brothers dead-bang.They think they know me.Their guard will be down. I’ve worked this case three months. I know what I’m doing. I know that I’m right. I know the Golam brothers are already twitching. I know I want this bust and deserve it. I know Sikes is here for the show, to put a feather in his cap when the news vans arrive and make the public think they should vote for him in the next election for sheriff.

He stuck me on the side of the trailer and told me to wait. He doesn’t know his ass. He doesn’t even know the side door is the door the brothers use most. While Sikes and Ramirez are watching the front, the brothers are dumping their money into duffel bags and getting ready to bolt out the side. Billy Golam’s 4 X 4 is parked ten feet away, covered in mud. If they run, they’ll take the truck, not the Corvette parked in front.The truck can go off-road.

Sikes is wasting precious time.The Golam brothers have two girls in the trailer with them.This could easily turn into a hostage situation. But if I go in now, while their guard is down . . .

Screw Sikes. I’m going in before these twitches freak. It’s my case. I know what I’m doing. I hit the button on my radio. “This is stupid. They’re going to break for the truck. I’m going in.”

“Goddamnit, Estes--” Sikes.

I click the radio off and drop it into the weeds growing beside the trailer. It’s my case. It’s my bust. I know what I’m doing.

I go to the side door and knock the way all the Golam brothers’ customers knock: two knocks, one knock, two knocks.“Hey, Billy, it’s El. I need some.”

Billy Golam jerks open the door, wild-eyed, high on his own home cooking--crystal meth. He’s breathing hard. He’s got a gun in his hand.


The front door explodes inward. One of the girls screams.

Buddy Golam shouts:“Cops!”

Billy Golam swings the .357 up in my face. I suck in my last breath.

He turns abruptly and fires. The sound is deafening and yet I hear someone shout:“Officer down!”

Billy Golam knocks me aside, bolts down the stairs and runs forthe truck.

I scramble to get my feet under me. I pull my weapon. I try to run before I’m upright, stumble and hit the ground with one knee. Gunfire pops at the front of the trailer.The truck engine roars to life.

“Billy!” I scream, running for the truck, my only thought that I can’t let him get away.

The truck lurches forward. I leap at it, grabbing the side mirror with my free hand. One foot hits the running board and skids out from under me. Golam hits the gas hard. He’s shooting out the passenger window, screaming:“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”

I try to bring my gun up as the truck hits the pavement and makes a hard left. I’m like a rag doll clinging to the door.

Billy Golam screams like a madman. He looks right at me, mouth wide open, eyes bugging from his head. He cranks the wheel hard left again and kicks the door open as the truck squeals into a U-turn. Horns are honking, tires screeching. I’m hanging in space. I can’t hold on. I hit the pavement and darkness sweeps over me in the form of a three-quarter-ton truck.

Life can change in a heartbeat. In a heartbeat I’m dead.

And then I opened my eyes and felt sick at the knowledge that I was still alive. This was the way I had greeted every day for the past two years. I had relived that memory so many times, it was like replaying a movie over and over and over. No part of it changed, not a word, not an image. I wouldn’t allow it.

I lay in the bed and thought about slitting my wrists. Not in an abstract way. Specifically. I looked at my wrists in the soft lamplight--delicate, as fine-boned as the wing of a bird, skin as thin as tissue, blue-lined with veins--and thought about how I would do it. I looked at those thin blue lines and thought of them as lines of demarcation. Guidelines. Cut here. I pictured the needle-nose point of a boning knife. The lamplight would catch on the blade. Blood would rise to the surface in its wake as the blade skated along the vein. Red. My favorite color.

The image didn’t frighten me. That truth frightened me most of all.

I looked at the clock. 4:38 A.M. Rise and whine. I’d had my usual fitful four and a half hours of sleep. Trying for more was an exercise in futility.

Trembling, I forced my legs over the edge of the bed and got up, pulling a deep blue chenille throw around my shoulders. The fabric was soft, luxurious, warm. I made special note of the sensations. You’re always more intensely alive the closer you come to looking death in the face.

I wondered if Hector Ramirez had realized that the split second before I got him killed.
I wondered that every day.
I dropped the throw and went into the bathroom.

“Good morning, Elena. You look like shit.”

Too thin. Hair a wild black tangle. Eyes too large, too dark, as if there was nothing within to shine outward. The crux of my problem: lack of substance. There was---is--a vague asymmetry to my face, like a porcelain vase that has been broken, then painstakingly restored. The same vase it was before, and yet not the same. The same face I was born with, yet not the same. Slightly skewed and strangely expressionless. I was beautiful once.

I reached for a comb on the counter, knocked it to the floor, grabbed a brush instead. Start at the bottom, work upward. Like combing a horse’s tail. Work the knots out gently. But I had already tired of looking at myself. Anger and resentment bubbled up through me, and I tore the brush through the hair, shoving the snarls together and tangling the brush in the midst of the mess. I tried maybe forty-five seconds to extricate the thing, yanking at the brush, tearing at the hair above the snarl, not caring that I was pulling hairs out of my head by the roots. I swore aloud, swatted at my image in the mirror, swept the tumbler and soap dish off the counter in a tantrum, and they smashed on the tile floor. Then I jerked open a drawer in the vanity and pulled out a scissors.

Furious, shaking, breathing hard, I cut the brush free. It dropped to the floor with a mass of black hair wrapped around it. The pressure in my chest eased. Numbness trickled down through me like rain. Calm.

Without emotion, I proceeded to hack away at the rest of my mane, cutting it boy-short in ten minutes. The end result was ragged, with a finger-in-the-light-socket quality. Still, I’d seen worse in Vogue.

I swept up the mess---the discarded hair, the broken glass--tossed it in the trash and walked out of the room.

I’d worn my hair long as long as I could remember.

Excerpted from Dark Horse by Tami Hoag. Copyright © 2002 by Tami Hoag. All rights reserved. Excerpted by permission of Random House. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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