Diss and Ace
“What does diss mean?” Ben asked Joanne.
“Disrespect, or a put down. Kids say it a lot.”
“That clears things up,” Ben said.
He had just got off the phone with Fred Carter, a bird dog trainer-handler worried about getting sued. He’d said an owner had dissed his scout, and that was maybe the cause of the incident that could get him sued by the owner. Later that day, Ben drove to Fred’s little farm to get more facts. He was greeted by ten kennel runs of barking bird dogs. Fred and his scout, Benny Blevins, were cleaning runs and preparing the evening’s feed for the dogs.
Ben inspected the dogs while Fred and Benny finished their chores. Then Fred invited him in the kitchen and after washing his hands put a pitcher of sweet tea and glasses filled with ice cubes on the table. They sat at the table, Fred poured their tea, and began to tell Ben of his troubles.
“I’ve had an owner named John Aiken from Columbus, Ohio. Fancies himself quite a horseman, shows Walkers. Has a wintering place near Monticello all set up for the horses. Got interested in trials a couple years ago. Likes to bring fancy mounts to ride in the gallery to show them off. Brought a rank one to the Southeastern the morning I was running his dog. Asked Benny to tack him up which Benny did. Then as usual John took a vial of Ace out of his saddle bag and gave the horse an injection in the neck. He always Aces his mounts (Ace is slang for Acepromazine, a sedative widely used to calm nervous horses so they can be ridden safely).
“In twenty minutes John and I rode to the breakaway. Benny had John’s dog in a roading harness and followed us. The judges signaled “Let ‘um go” and we were off. John’s horse was prancing around pretty rank but I was watching his dog. Benny sensed the horse might bolt and rode over to John and said, “Can I help you Mr. John?” John said “If I want your help I’ll ask you.” Two minutes later my brace mate called point way off on the limb and his judge and a marshal loped to the find. The sight of that upset John’s mount and before we knew it John was clinging to the saddle of a sure enough runaway. Benny rode after trying to stave off disaster but John’s horse was determined to get him off and ran under a live oak with a big limb just above his withers and off came John. He was hurt pretty bad, broken arm at the shoulder and broke collar bone, a concussion that had him out cold on the ground for a couple of minutes. Took the rescue squad a half hour to get to Chickasaw, meanwhile Benny and some other boys were doing their best to keep John still. When they got to him the rescue boys got John tied down on a board and to the hospital in Albany. He spent a couple nights there but he was really pretty lucky — no permanent injuries. Benny and I went to the hospital to see him that evening but they wouldn’t let us in his room. Next night we went back and John was a mass of bruises and casts, his broken arm held up by a cable. He was pretty drugged for the pain but he told me to send his dogs home — he had three with me, two derbies and an all-age. I figured he was through with trials.”
“I hadn’t heard any more from him until he called me yesterday. Said the vial of Ace he’d used on his mount wasn’t Ace but water. He’d had it analyzed by a lab which told him they thought the Ace had been sucked out with a syringe and the vial refilled with distilled water the same way. John said Benny or I were the only ones could have done it. I hung up on him.
I talked to Benny. He is scared to death. I’ve known Benny since he was a baby — his daddy worked for me — and I know he would never have been involved with something like John claims. He’s scared to death of needles, won’t touch them.”
Ben though a minute. “John got any enemies you know of?”
Fred was silent a few minutes, then said, “He’s not real popular in the trial world, sort of a braggy show off, especially about his horses, but the only person in trialing I know has a grudge against him is Wally Keen who had his dogs before he brought them to me.” Ben knew Wally and didn’t figure him for enough of a villain or schemer to have done this to John Aiken.
“How about in the Walking horse world?” Ben asked.
“Don’t know,” Fred said.
Ben thanked Fred for the tea and said he’d be back to him soon. He found Benny in the tack room and told him good by after asking about his parents.
On the drive home Ben called his best source of information in the show horse world, the farrier Bobby Culp. Bobby worked the Yankee plantations and the show horse barns in a wide area of South Georgia. He was a font of information, a fellow everybody liked to talk with because he knew all the news and gossip and he was funny, a natural entertainer.
“Tell me what you know about John Aiken, Bobby.”
“You want the polite version or the truth, Mr. Ben”
“The truth will do, Bobby.”
“Real asshole, but don’t quote me on that, Mr. Ben.”
“How so, Bobby?”
“Can’t say a sentence without bragging, you know the sort.”
“Reckon there is anybody around that would want to do him physical harm?”
“Never thought about that.”
“What beside being a braggart has he done to make someone seriously dislike him?”
Bobby was silent a minute, then said, “He claimed last year Johnny Krebs (a show horse pinhooker from Alabama) sold him an unsound horse and asked for his money back. The horse had been vetted sound by Fred’s vet, Alvin Collins. Fred also claimed his vet had missed the defect and wrote Johnny and the vet Collins jointly, demanding the money.The horse by then was dead, his carcass buried far away and not available for autopsy. Those two fellows might like to see him hurt.”
“Thanks, Bobby,” Ben closed the conversation. At breakfast next morning Ben told Sam the John Aiken saga.
“Where was John Aiken buying his Ace,” Sam asked. “Don’t know, but expect we can find out,” Ben said.
“It would take some expertise to withdraw Ace and replace it with distilled water using a syringe. Not just anyone could do it,” Sam said.
Ben called Fred Carter and asked if he knew where John Aiken got his horse medicines. “From Alvin Collins until he accused Alvin of malpractice in missing the defect in the horse John bought from Johnny Krebs. Alvin then told him never to come round his place again. Don’t know what vet he uses now.”
Ben called Alvin whom he had once represented in a contract dispute on a farm purchase and asked if he might come see him. “Sure, Mr. Ben, be glad to see you. I should be finished up about 4:30 today.”
Alvin’s equine facility was located on the outskirts of Albany towards Sasser. Ben arrived at 4:20, parked and walked to the barn-like building where horses were treated. It was clean as an operating room, Ben noticed, and filled with exotic equipment for handling the patients, most of which was strange to Ben. Alvin was changing out of coveralls into khakis.
“Hello, Mr. Ben,” Alvin greeted him. Alvin was a tall muscular fellow, about forty five Ben guessed, with a blond crew cut and a perpetual smile signaling he liked his work.
Ben quickly told Alvin about John Aiken’s accusation against Fred Carter and Benny Blevins concerning the Ace and Aiken’s horse wreck. Then he asked Alvin,”Would you check your records to see when Aiken last bought Ace from you?”
“Sure, Mr. Ben. Come with me to the office and I’ll look it up on the computer.”
In the entry room the receptionist sat behind a desk top computer, busy producing invoices for the day’s work. In addition to Alvin two other vets worked at, and out of, the facility. Much of their work occurred on the Yankee plantations where horses, mules and ponies were still kept–few were kept these days by dirt farmers.
Alvin went to another terminal in his small private office and booted up. In an instant he had on the screen the record of John Aiken’s patronage. There were many entries, the last in the preceding December. “That’s when I fired him,” John said. Then he told Ben about John Aiken’s accusation of malpractice in vetting the horse bought from Johnny Krebs.
“That horse was sound as a dollar. My guess is Aiken worked him too hard before he was in shape –he had been loose on pasture several months when Aiken bought him.”
“Looks like he bought six vials of Ace on December 15, just before I fired him. Mary delivered it at his barn when she was there on a regular checkup scheduled for all his stock, fifteen head.”
Mary was Mary Comstock, DVM, one of two contract vets working for Alvin Collins.
“Is Mary around?” Ben asked.
Alvin pulled his smart phone off his belt and punched. Mary answered. She was five minutes away, driving in from a call at Nonamy Plantation, recently acquired by Ted Turner from his friend Tom Cousins of Atlanta, allegedly the model for Tom Wolfe’s “A Man in Full.”
Mary was a striking young woman, her blond hair pulled tight in a bun at the back of her head, her perfect athletic figure poured into tight fitting riding pants and a tee shirt. She smiled at Ben with kind eyes and he wished he were fifty years younger. When Ben asked her about her last visit to John Aiken’s barn, her face clouded and her smile evaporated.
“I cannot stand that man,” she said without a moment’s hesitation.
“Why is that, Dr. Comstock.”
“Call me Mary, Mr Ben. Because he abuses his animals. I’m so glad we fired him as a patron.”
Ben told Mary about Aiken’s horse wreck and his accusations against Fred Carter and Benny Blevins. She said nothing in response, then said she needed to finish the day’s paperwork and departed from the two men’s presence in the parking lot.
Ben asked for and Alvin printed a copy of the record of John Aiken’s account. Then Ben thanked Alvin for his time and departed.
That evening after supper Ben got a call at home from Mary Comstock. She sounded worried. “Mr. Ben, I need to talk with you, tonight if you can.”
“Sure, Mary, you know where I live?” “Yes. I will be there in fifteen minutes.”
Mary had showered and changed into black slacks and a white blouse and her hair was down on her shoulders. Ben thought her about the loveliest thing he ever remembered seeing. He ushered her to an arm chair in the living room. She began to speak.
“Mr. Ben, I took the Ace out of one of those vials and replaced it with distilled water. I know it was wrong but I was fed up with the way John Aiken abused his horses. And I have proof. I took pictures, stills and videos, that show the abuse. I did it secretly over months, got obsessed with it.”
Ben thought for several minutes, then said,”Will you bring me the photographic evidence. I have someone who is an expert with that sort of thing. He may be able to help us handle John Aiken.”
She had the digitized evidence in her vet truck. She hugged Ben and thanked him and departed quickly in tears. Ben’s old heart was racing.
At Millie’s in the morning, Ben greeted Sam. “Have I got a job for you.” Then he explained.
“We will need to select parts of the visual evidence that will not reveal who gathered it,” Sam said. Ben nodded.
For the next week Sam in the evenings patiently edited Mary’s digital photographic evidence into a ten minute video that was devastating but gave no hint of Mary’s involvement in gathering it.
Ben called John Aiken, identified himself and asked if he might come talk to John on behalf of Fred Carter and Benny Blevins. John was obviously pleased he had them scared enough to hire a lawyer, Ben detected from the haughtiness in his voice. Ben and Sam arrived at John’s horse farm outside Monticello at six in the evening and went to the indoor riding rink where John was putting a green walker through his paces. Seeing the curmudgeons, he dismounted and handed the reins to a groom.
“What can I do for you, gentlemen,” John said after Ben had introduced Sam as his consultant on evidentiary matters.
“Do you have a room handy where we can shut out sunlight. We have something to show you, preferably on a screen or a light wall will do,” Sam said.
“Let’s go in the tack room. I’ve got a screen there where I watch horse show footage.”
Sam had a small DVD projector in his briefcase. In minutes he was showing the selected photographic evidence of equine abuse for John, Ben and himself to see. In fifteen minutes the show was over and Sam flipped a switch, returning the room to bright light. John Aiken was seething.
“What are you two after,” John said, trying to project menace but fear apparent in his voice.
“Not a thing from you but an understanding. You are not going to sue Fred Carter or Benny Blevins or Johnny Krebs or Alvin Collins about anything, understood?” Ben said.
John Aiken nodded. Ben reached in his briefcase and removed a one page document headed release and confidentiality agreement. In it John Aiken would release the four men Ben had named “and their agents and employees” from all claims “known or unknown,” he might have “arising from the beginning of time to the signing of this document.” Ben put it in front of Aiken and handed him a pin. He signed. Then Ben signed on behalf of the released parties agreeing to confidentiality on all equine related matters except under lawful subpoena. Ben gave Aiken a copy and put a copy back in his briefcase.
On the drive back to Albany, Sam asked, “Was that blackmail?”
Ben grinned. “Don’t ask, I won’t tell.”
As he drove, Ben rehearsed how he was going to tell Mary Comstock, DVM, his latest crush.