Death on the Diagonal



Although his name might suggest otherwise, Moon-dog was a proven champion. He was an eight-year-old gelding, a commanding seventeen-hand Dutch Warmblood and a world-class jumper, with enough blue ribbons to fashion a debutante’s satin ball gown. He had been foaled and trained at Glen-Rosalynne Farms in Louisville, Kentucky, then sold to an Oscar-winning film director with a three-hundred-acre ranch overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Santa Barbara, California. The film director had jumped Moon-dog—shooting schedules permitting—in every major competition from coast to coast for a solid year before he’d suddenly grown tired of the entire equestrian thing and decided to scrap one toy for another and try his hand at offshore sailing instead. He sold Moon-dog for $100,000—about a quarter of the price of the boat—to an investment banker in Newcastle, Massachusetts, a medium-sized city just to the west of Cape Cod across Buzzards Bay.

The banker bought the animal for his sixteen-year-old daughter because her primary equitation horse, a gray Thoroughbred mare by the unlikely name of Willow-whisp, had yet to finish above second—meaning the beast had yet to win the banker’s daughter a single blue ribbon. Not one! And this despite Daddy paying a trainer one hundred bucks a day, rain or shine, show or no show. Naturally the situation was both galling to the banker and a source of extreme exasperation to his daughter, Tiffany.

Both mounts, Moon-dog and Willow-whisp, were now boarded at King Wenstarin Farms, a show and breeding stable fifteen miles outside of Newcastle. It was a top-drawer place, as befitted the pricey animals residing there, but the lower stable in which the gelding and mare were housed had one disturbing complication on this particular early October evening, and that was the unmistakable presence of smoke.

Moon-dog was the first to smell it. In fact, he’d heard the unusual noises that had initially triggered the problematic situation, watched the culprit flee the scene, and so knew precisely how the predicament had begun. The only thing the animal didn’t know was how to unlatch the gate to his stall—or how the story would end.

Horses do not react well to smoke. As with most mammals, humans being one notable exception, their internal mechanisms take them rapidly to the logical conclusion: Fire! Danger! Death! This intelligent insight creates in them a burning desire to put large distances between themselves and the smoke as quickly as possible. Moon-dog first snorted and then began anxiously pawing at the straw that covered the dirt floor of his roomy box stall. The acrid smoke tickled at his flaring nostrils. He whinnied and backed solidly into the wooden gate that barred his exit. The iron hinges creaked, and the steel latch jumped, but both held the gate in place. It would be only two minutes before Moon-dog would begin to do some serious damage to the stall and to himself.

The large round clock positioned in the center of the immaculate wall that rose above the stable’s entry read 7:06 P.M., when Moon-dog began his nervous pacing and the building’s equally gleaming windows revealed a deep-blue sky and a bright full moon hanging low and orange as it turned the autumnal leaves a molten silvery red. The color eerily replicated the light from the fire that was now brewing in the tack room located at the west end of the stable. Known as the “small” stable, the space had room for only sixteen stalls, eight of which were presently occupied.

Moon-dog’s antics swiftly attracted the attention of the other seven equine residents. Willow-whisp, three other mares, and three additional geldings trusted the chestnut-colored Warmblood, like baby ducks trust their