Flamingo Road by Sasscer Hill is the 1st book in the Fia McKee Mystery series (available April 18, 2017).
Sasscer Hill likes horses, and not in a “My Little Pony” kind of way. A horsewoman and horse breeder, it’s in her blood. As she explains on her blog:
I started galloping about the family farm on a stick horse when I was four years old. By the time, I was seven or eight, I was sneaking rides on the Belgian plow horses. I did this because my father didn't like horses and considered ponies dangerous. So instead, I drummed my heels on the sides of a 2,000-pound draft mare, while grasping whatever string or rope I managed to tie to her halter.
Her debut mystery series featured a young female jockey named Nikki Latrelle, and the books were atmospheric tales that brought the racing world to life more authentically than anyone had since Dick Francis died. (On her blog, Sasscer pays tribute to Dick Francis as her favorite author.)
The protagonist in Flamingo Road, the 1st in the Fia McKee series, is a cop whose solitary beat in the crime-ridden streets of Baltimore could not be further from the sunlit racetrack at Florida’s Gulf Stream Park if it was located on the moon. And yet, by saving the life of a terrified woman named Shyra Darnell, who works at Pimlico Race Track as a “hot walker,” Fia is thrown into a mystery that connects her past to her present in a most unexpected way.
Despite being under investigation by Internal Affairs, Fia can’t help but pick at the mystery surrounding Shyra and wonder what (or who) she is so afraid of.
Then, a call from her estranged brother summons her to Florida, bringing her into contact with horse-butchering lunatics, cutting-edge performance-enhancing drugs, handsome animal activists, and Cuban gangs. Suddenly, things get very personal when her already troubled niece loses her beloved gelding Cody.
What was this? Kids on a joyride? Stealing tack or Patrick’s tools and equipment? Whatever it was, it wasn’t right.
I sped down the drive, my rubber shoes silent. The cart had headed to the right on the far side of the stable, and it looked like the fastest way to catch up would be to run straight down the center aisle and out the other side. Plunging into the murk of the barn, I smelled a horrible, familiar odor before skidding in what had to be blood. I wound up on my hands and knees, staring at a dark lump on the floor.
God, no. “You sons of bitches!” I yelled. I staggered up, skirted the slick, sticky pool and ran out the back. In the distance, I heard a couple of thumps. A truck engine started, but no lights came on. The sound of a motor rapidly faded into the distance.
Feeling helpless and sickened, I searched for a light switch and found it. Okay, Fia, get a grip. I flipped the switch.
Blood was everywhere. Cody’s black tail like a paintbrush dipped in blood looked. I fought a wave of nausea. They had butchered him in his own barn, removing the large cuts of meat. I wanted to kill them. I grabbed my phone and called 911.
Fia, whose horse-trainer father was murdered in a case as cold as Maryland in winter, knows this horsey world very well. And thanks to Hill, who teaches classes on how to craft settings that “saturate a story with mood, meaning, and thematic connotations,” we are immersed in that world as well. (Maybe a little too well as we learn the particulars of the trade in horse meat.)
“Your horse,” Zanin said, “was butchered by Cuban Americans who live in the C-Nine Basin. By now, they’ve delivered his meat to a specialty butcher shop in Miami.”
Patrick shook his head as if denying the whole thing. “That’s disgusting. It doesn’t make sense. There can’t be enough money to outweigh the risk.”
“I’m betting the horse was young,” Zanin said. “Maybe a little fat?”
Recalling Jilly’s conversation at dinner, I said, “Cody was only three.” An image struck me. Cody plump and happy in the paddock with Jilly that afternoon. “Oh, God. He was fat. Is that why they killed him?”
“Yeah,” Zanin said. “They like ’em young and well-marbled. Brings the highest price, like beef.”
I dropped my head into my hands. It was impossible to shut out the images. Glancing at him, I said, “Who are these people? And what’s the C-Nine Basin?”
“It’s the Wild West of Florida. Straddles the western edge of Broward and Miami-Dade counties, along one side of the Everglades. Mostly men live there, Cubans and Haitians and almost everything they do is outside the law—cockfights, horse slaughter, dogfights.”
“But Patrick’s right,” I said. “It doesn’t make sense. Horse slaughter is legal in so many places now.”
Zanin gazed at me intently. “Think about it.”
I cringed as it hit me. “It doesn’t matter if it’s legal because if those animals are old and tough…”
Zanin nodded. “They bring less money. The men in the C-Nine, they’re renegades, squatters, really rough people. These guys build shacks and pilfer from electric lines. They don’t care about right and wrong, especially when money in the form of prime meat is available just down the road. Believe me, the police are afraid to go in there.”
Turns out, there’s a really good reason the cops are scared to go into the C-Nine, and before the story gallops to a conclusion (sorry), readers will be scared too. And they’ll know a lot more about the racing world than they did before they opened the book.
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Katherine Tomlinson is a former reporter who prefers making things up. She was editor of Astonishing Adventures Magazine and the publisher of Dark Valentine Magazine. She edited the charity anthology Nightfalls. Her dark fiction has appeared in Shotgun Honey, A Twist of Noir, Luna Station Quarterly, and Eaten Alive, as well as anthologies, including Weird Noir, Pulp Ink 2, Alt-Dead, Alt-Zombie, and the upcoming Grimm Futures, which she also edited. Her most recent collection of short stories is Suicide Blonde. She sees way too many movies.