Baltimore police officer Fia McKee is put on leave for excessive use of force after interfering in a crime that turns deadly. Given a second chance, she is sent to work undercover for the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau (TRPB) at the Gulfstream Park in Florida, where she works as an exercise rider. Her assignment is to watch and report back on two racetrack workers who have been suspected of illegal activities and whose horses continue to outperform all expectations, winning their owners unseemly amounts of money in the races.
To complete her cover story, Fia moves in with her semi-estranged brother, Patrick, who lives near the racetrack. Her investigations are complicated when her niece, Jilly, disappears after a shadow gang takes Jilly’s beloved horse. Now Fia must work two anglesfirst to find out what’s really going on with the men who might or might not be gaming the system, and second to bring the men who prey on horses to justice. Along the way, Fia encounters Cuban gangs living off the grid, a (very handsome) do-gooder who’s close on their trail, and a cabal of super wealthy gamblers who will stop at nothing to ensure they always win.
About the Author
SASSCER HILL was an amateur steeplechase jockey, as well as a horse owner who bred, raised, and rode race horses for thirty years in Maryland. Her first published novel, Full Mortality, was nominated for both the Agatha and Macavity Best First Mystery Awards. Born in Washington, D.C., Hill earned a BA in English Literature from Franklin and Marshall College. She now lives with her husband, dog, and cat, in Aiken, SC., where she still enjoys horseback riding.
Read an Excerpt
A Fia McKee Mystery
By Sasscer Hill
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2017 Sasscer Hill
All rights reserved.
My name is Fia McKee, and I was a Baltimore City cop until that November night when I drove through West Baltimore alone. Alone, because the department requires their cops to patrol in single-man units. It's their way of stretching the law farther into the crime-ridden city.
I eased my blue and white cruiser along the streets surrounding Lafayette Park Square, passing by St. James Episcopal Church and a stark ten-story apartment building, where a faint scent of mold soiled the night air. An odd mixture of nineteenth-century brick row houses lined the square. Disintegrating buildings with decayed walls and boarded-up windows crowded against happier homes that had been carefully restored to their former beauty.
Rolling to the corner, I hooked a right onto West Lanvale, the square's southern perimeter. Scanning the deserted park on my right and buildings on my left, I let the Ford's big police engine purr me toward the Methodist church at the end of the block.
Someone had shot out the sodium-vapor lamp over the alley that ran between the stone parish house and the church on the corner. I let the cruiser idle a moment. Above the slate roofs, brick chimneys, and church spires, a small slice of November moon did little to illuminate the dim alley.
A flash of white movement caught my eye.
Two people — dark faces, dark clothes — struggled in the alley against the church wall. A white scarf wrapped around the neck of ... a woman? I hit my searchlight and pinned them. Yes, a woman, her fingers tearing at the fabric stretched around her throat by the hands of a large man.
The guy seemed oblivious to the sharp beam of my lamp. He must have been high on something. I radioed in my location and the assault to dispatch, then I was out of the car, running through the cold and into the alley.
I pulled my service Glock. "Police! Let her go. Now."
The man seemed unable to see or hear anything beyond his need to destroy the woman he'd slammed against the stone wall. His lips curled in an ugly grimace. He twisted the scarf with such force the woman's shoes lifted away from the pavement.
I shouted another warning and ran toward them. He didn't see me, didn't stop. The fight drained from the woman. She was going to die.
I closed in. The man saw me. His head snapped back. Just enough. I aimed for his ear and squeezed off the shot. He went down. The woman, choking, fell to her knees, then gulped air off the pavement like it was an oxygen mask.
The man lay motionless near my feet, blood pouring from the entrance hole. The woman darted a glance at me, her almond-shaped eyes devoid of emotion. Her gasping filled my ears. Then I heard a rapid, shallow panting. I recognized it as my own.
I checked the man for a pulse, not really expecting one. I felt no beat, and though he wouldn't officially be declared deceased until he arrived at the hospital, there was no question in my mind he was already a corpse.
A shuffling movement caught my attention. The woman was trying to crawl away.
"Oh no, you don't," I said, grabbing her arm near her shoulder, moving around to see her face. "You have to wait for a medic. You may need to go to the hospital."
Her hands began to shake. The fear I hadn't seen before widened her eyes. "No! I have to leave. I can't be involved in this."
"Ma'am, can I see some ID please?" What was it with vics? Half the time they clung to me and the other half they tried to rabbit. If the woman had carried a purse, it was long gone, but her peacoat looked bulky enough. "Do you have a wallet? Maybe in your coat? I need to see some ID."
She rubbed at her throat, sucked in some air, and slid a hand into her coat pocket. I leaned forward, clasped her wrist, and said, "Take it out easy, okay?" She withdrew a wallet and when she handed it to me, her eyes had gone dead again. "I got nothing to say to you, lady cop. Nothing at all."
With a mental sigh, I took her wallet and flipped it open. A Maryland driver's license said she was Shyra Darnell. I was more interested in another piece of ID behind the plastic window next to the license. A permit from the Maryland Racing Commission. A hot walker's license from Pimlico racetrack, a world from my past. A world I knew well.
Shrill sirens sounded in the distance. I stood up, looking away from the coffee-skinned woman and the dead man on the pavement. Above me, the moon floated over the church spire, as if wanting to drift to the rural land north of Baltimore, where I'd grown up. A place where the vastness of the sky and light of the stars weren't hidden by brick, mortar, and stone. Or by the anxious, closed-in feel of this city.
The sirens drew close. The twirling flash of blue and red lights exploded into the square. I heard another squad car and saw lights where the ground swept down behind the church to the next street.
Glancing back, I stared at the man I'd shot. This probably wouldn't go well for me.CHAPTER 2
My supervisor, Ladner, sat behind his scarred desk staring over his drugstore cheaters at Detective Gravelin of Internal Affairs. Ladner, as usual, chewed on an unlit cigar.
My foot started jiggling, something I do when I'm nervous. I pushed my five-foot-six frame more firmly into the metal chair, suppressing the motion.
Gravelin occupied the room's guest chair, his posture stiff, his eyes cold as he said, "You have the right to remain silent."
I'd never imagined being on the wrong end of a Miranda warning. I felt a rushing in my ears and focused on the mole just to the side of Gravelin's nose. A single black hair sprouted from its little dome.
As he droned on, his words left me cold and isolated. Sitting in the wobbly, side chair backed against the dirty beige wall of Ladner's office, I worked on my best poker face, keeping my legs uncrossed, feet square on the floor's ratty green carpet.
"Do you understand these rights as I have read them to you?" Gravelin asked me.
Fortunately, Gravelin had agreed to meet us in Ladner's office, instead of making me come to his lair over at the IAD building. Ladner and I had decided against calling in a legal representative from the Fraternal Order of Police, agreeing on a wait-and-see posture. At least for now.
"Maybe," Gravelin was saying, "if your witness, Ms. Darnell, would talk, I could confirm your story. But so far, Officer McKee, you're the only one saying this guy was trying to strangle her."
"It's possible, sir, that Darnell won't talk because she's afraid of something," I said patiently. "Something that relates to the man who tried to kill her. You saw the marks on her neck."
Gravelin shrugged. "If he's the one that put them there."
This IAD guy was unbelievable. Did he think I had strangled the woman? It wasn't helping that the department had been unable to identify the man I'd shot. And no one they'd canvassed in the neighborhood had seen or heard anything.
"My problem, McKee, is you have this history of striking first and following procedure later. It's called 'excessive use of force.' Are you sure you didn't have a prior relationship with the man you shot?"
"Sure. He's an old enemy of mine. And I grabbed a woman off the street and strangled her to make my story."
"Don't fuck with me, McKee."
Ladner rolled his chair back a couple of inches and a strong scent of cigar wafted in my direction. "Take it easy, Gravelin. Fia only has one prior incident on her record."
"That we know about," Gravelin said.
"The man in that case," Ladner continued, "was beating a child."
Gravelin punctuated his next words by jabbing his finger at the folder he'd spread open on the edge of Ladner's desk. "She didn't have to knock the man senseless with her baton."
I stared at the folder. That report was like a bloodhound. Damn thing followed me everywhere I went.
"And last night's incidence makes two, Sergeant Ladner, not one." Gravelin glared at the report, and gave me a hard stare. "You sent this first guy to the hospital with a severe concussion."
I should have smacked him harder.
"I felt it was necessary, sir. He was about to kick his son in the head." Again.
Gravelin sighed as if the weight of the world was on his shoulders. "Baltimore PD doesn't need officers like you, McKee, and —"
"Hold on," Ladner said. "She does damn good police work. Lowered the crime rate in her patrol area. She —"
Gravelin stood abruptly. "Yes, I understand she's like an avenging angel. As I said, we don't need officers like that. Suppose this guy's family comes forward and sues the city?"
What could Ladner say? I didn't want to put him or anyone else in a bad situation with the brass. But damn these people that crawled the streets like poisonous spiders. Somebody had to stop them.
Gravelin curled his lip at me. It made his mole wiggle. He turned back to Ladner. "I recommend you put Officer McKee on administrative leave at least until we finish the investigation." He didn't wait for an answer, just stalked out of Ladner's office, closing the door hard behind him.
Ladner sank a bit in his chair. "Fia, you know I have to follow his recommendation."
"Sure. Of course you do."
Ladner smiled. "Thank you for not giving me a fake smile and saying you could 'use the time.'"
"We both know better than that." I'd had no life since my dad had been murdered five years earlier. They'd never found the killer and the case had gone cold. Turning to law enforcement had filled in a void. And provided an outlet for the anger that flickered like a pilot flame inside me.
Ladner put his palms on his desk. "You finish your paperwork on this yet?" "I'll have it on your desk before I leave."
He nodded, and as I walked from the room, he came through the door of his office and followed me out. He headed to the street so he could light up that cigar and leave me to deal with the questioning looks and curiosity of my fellow officers. I was saved by the chime of my cell phone. I tucked my head down, hunched my shoulders, and answered.
"Fia," the caller said. "It's Patrick."
The brother I rarely spoke to. "Is something wrong?" I asked, walking toward my metal desk.
"I can't call to say hello?" he asked.
He paused a beat. "I could always count on you to cut to the chase, Fia."
"Patrick, what's wrong? I can hear it in your voice and we both know you never call me to say hello."
"Whose fault is that?"
Oh, boy. Here we go. I pulled out my desk chair, sank into it, took a breath, and leveled my voice. "It doesn't matter whose fault it is. Are you okay? Is your family all right?"
He was silent a moment. I pictured his pretty, but distant wife Rebecca, and his little girl Jilly. Wait, she wasn't a little girl anymore, she was ... fifteen. Was that possible? Yeah, if I was thirty-two.
"If you must know," he said, "Rebecca and I are ... having problems right now. She's got this — she's staying in Sarasota."
I suspected another man. "I'm sorry, Patrick. Did she take Jilly with her?" "No."
I waited for more but he was quiet. Rebecca hadn't taken Jilly with her? But then the woman had always been about clothes, cocktails, and let's-have-a-good-time. I felt bad for my niece. I hadn't seen her since she was ten and she'd come up to Maryland with Patrick and Rebecca for our dad's memorial service.
The heater vent near my desk clicked on, blasting hot air laden with tiny carpet and paper particles, filling the air with the smell of dust. I could almost taste it. What did Patrick want?
He took a breath. "Jilly's got school. All her friends are here and, oh, Christ, Fia, she's wild! I have no control over her."
I didn't like the way this was going. "How long has her mother been gone?"
"About a month. Rebecca's just a bitch. She has no interest in Jilly and the school's been calling me. Jilly's skipping classes and if it wasn't for the horse I got her, I think she would have run away."
"You got her a horse? You hate horses."
"She's just like you were, Fia, wild and horse crazy."
So he'd bribed his daughter. I almost expected him to say this was my fault. What a mess.
"Fia, Jilly could really use some support. And ... she's your niece."
Now I knew what he wanted. I leaned forward and pulled my case file from the shooting closer. "Isn't there someone else down there that can help you?"
"Fia, she's your family. She needs you. Don't you have any leave coming to you?"
Out of the corner of my eye I saw the door to the squad room open. Ladner came in with the stump of his cigar crammed in the corner of his mouth. He headed toward me, rolling a wave of cigar smell my way.
"Hold on a minute," I said to Patrick.
Ladner looked down at me, his mouth tight. I knew that expression. He was angry. I followed his irritated glance to the glass pane set in the door to the squad room. Gravelin stood on the other side in the hall staring at me, one hand gripping my "incident" folder.
The two cops that sat opposite each other at the desks closest to mine flicked nervous glances between Gravelin and me, then they both got busy with their phones and paperwork.
"Fia," Ladner said. "I need you to finish up that report and clear out." As he spoke, he stabbed a finger at me. I was pretty sure the angry gesture was for Gravelin's benefit. At least I hoped it was.
"Fia? Are you still there?" Patrick, on my cell, waiting for an answer.
I nodded hurriedly at Ladner. He pivoted and walked back into his office.
"Hold on another sec, Patrick." I'd never gotten along with him, but he was right. Jilly was my niece, and I remembered how hard it had been when my mother ran out on Patrick, my dad, and me. "Okay, I guess I could take some leave."
"Really? Fia, that's great."
I hadn't heard his voice sound like that since he was a little boy — all small, grateful, and relieved.
"Jilly will be so glad to hear you're coming."
"She will?" I asked. The kid didn't even know me.
"Well, this is part of the reason I called you. She's really scared. We've had some trouble down here. There's some lunatic running around killing horses in the area. In our neighborhood."
"What do you mean, 'killing' horses?" I asked.
"They're being butchered. It's awful, and Jilly's afraid for her gelding. She said she wished you were here. Since you're a cop."
I didn't tell him I might not be a cop much longer. "Okay, okay. I'll get a flight. Or maybe drive," I said. "I've got some things to clear up before I leave." My fingers traced the smooth manila of the Shyra Darnell and John Doe folder as I ended the call with Patrick.
I knew nothing about teenagers. The prospect of facing my niece seemed more frightening than facing a man with a gun. Especially if she was like me. What was that old saying, "payback is hell"?
There was something else I had to do first — speak to Shyra Darnell. I knew the trouble it could get me into, but I wanted to know what she was afraid of.
And I wanted to know whom I had killed.CHAPTER 3
According to the statement she'd made, Shyra Darnell lived in the on-site housing that Pimlico provided for its backstretch workers, the people who cleaned stalls, fed, and groomed the horses.
To reach the racetrack, I drove north through Baltimore on 83. A sharp, cold wind scuttled trash on the edges of the freeway beneath a gray lid of dense clouds that covered the city. After exiting onto Northern Parkway, I passed by some of the priciest real estate in Baltimore, until the neighborhood disintegrated abruptly as I neared the track.
I hadn't wanted to ruffle anyone's feathers by arriving in a police car. Of course my Mini Cooper wasn't exactly stealthy.
I'd seen it at a used car dealership, and immediately had fallen in love. Starlight blue with a black roof, checkered flag mirror caps and black bonnet stripes. I told myself it got great mileage and had aftermarket built-in OnStar, but who was I kidding — I'd thought the car was totally cool. Tricked out with after-factory dark-tinted windows and silver rims, the car was a wicked match for my radically short, electric blond hair and double sets of gold-and-silver earrings.
But my present circumstances killed the happy-new-car buzz as dead as a swatted fly. Now I just wanted to keep my job. Yet here I was planning to question a hostile witness from an investigation I'd been ruled out of.
When I turned onto Pimlico Road to reach the backstretch, I passed a huge parking lot on my left still there from the days when crowds had flocked to the Maryland races. The curve of the dirt track's far turn rolled past me on my right and catty-corner across the track I could see the decrepit old grandstand so sadly in need of renovation.
I ran my window down and the smell of horses drifted in, the memories galloping in hard behind. The last time I'd been here my dad was alive. We'd brought his best horse down from the farm, and I'd ridden her, busting that filly out of the gate for a speed work that had taken my breath away. I remember the grin on my dad's face as he held up his stopwatch and gave me a thumbs-up. God, I missed him.
Excerpted from Flamingo Road by Sasscer Hill. Copyright © 2017 Sasscer Hill. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Sasscer Hill knows horse racing, from the backside to the frontside. This launch of the Fia McKee series is powerful. Fia's late father had race horses and she used to exercise them in the morning, so when she is put on leave from her job as a Baltimore cop for excessive force, her second chance is a job with the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau. She is sent to Gulfstream as an exercise rider, undercover, to discover who is drugging horses, and how. She also gets involved investigating the illicit horse slaughter business. While this is ambitious, it satisfies. It was realistic, suspenseful, and kept me awake reading it. I can hardly wait for the next book in the series.
Title: Flamingo Road - Fia McKee Mystery Author: Sasscer Hill Publisher: St Martin's Press Published: 4-18-2017 Pages: 318 Genre: Mystery, Thrillers & Suspense Sub-Genre: Crime Fiction; Animals; Racing; Murder; Horses; Cozy Mystery ISBN: 9781250096913 ASIN: B01M09EOD0 Reviewed For NetGalley and St. Martin's Press Reviewer: DelAnne Rating: 5 Stars Hill keeps the suspense level high. The action continues and keeps readers on the alert for what will happen next. Flamingo Road is a fast paced race to the reveal. that you will hope to never end. Pick up a copy of "Flamingo Road" and enjoy an afternoon of intrigue. Baltimore police officer Fia McKee is put on leave for excessive use of force after interfering in a crime that turns deadly. Given a second chance, she is sent to work undercover for the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau (TRPB) at the Gulfstream Park in Florida, where she works as an exercise rider. Her assignment is to watch and report back on two racetrack workers who have been suspected of illegal activities and whose horses continue to outperform all expectations, winning their owners unseemly amounts of money in the races. To complete her cover story, Fia moves in with her semi-estranged brother, Patrick, who lives near the racetrack. Her investigations are complicated when her niece, Jilly, disappears after a shadow gang takes Jilly’s beloved horse. Now Fia must work two angles—first to find out what’s really going on with the men who might or might not be gaming the system, and second to bring the men who prey on horses to justice. Along the way, Fia encounters Cuban gangs living off the grid, a (very handsome) do-gooder who’s close on their trail, and a cabal of super wealthy gamblers who will stop at nothing to ensure they always win My rating of "Flamingo Road" is 5 out of 5 stars.