"This is just unspeakable," Juliet said, crouching down beside the victim's body. "Who would do such a thing to such a beautiful creature?"
"It's the money," Carlton said tiredly. "And if it's really just that, then God help us all."
The victim was a gloriously beautiful chestnut two-year old filly. Her coat, even in the dimness of the large loose box stall, was the color of a brand new penny, and she had a wide, comically crooked white blaze down her face, which only added to her appeal. Her beauty was marred by a line of blood trickling from her left nostril—she had been electrocuted to death, and her final moments must have been agonizing. That was evidenced by the way her long, slender legs were angled, her hooves having dug desperately into the loose sand and straw of her stall as the currents had jolted through her body. She had flailed against the wall before in her desperate scrambling for her life before falling down on her right side in almost the center of the stall.
"The owner called it murder," Juliet said softly, touching the filly's neck and withdrawing quickly, startled at how cold and damp the skin felt. "I can almost agree." Juliet had a hard time thinking of horses having fur, as it was so very fine and short, but she looked at her hands and saw short hairs on her fingertips. She brushed them away, feeling queasy.
"It's murder when you kill a human being. It's heinous when you deliberately kill a healthy Thoroughbred filly." Carlton looked around the large stall for a moment, making sure not to disturb anything as he searched the ground for clues. The filly's struggles had shifted the hay around a lot, and obviously no human footprints would have been left behind anyway.
Juliet stood up, feeling weary. It was bad enough seeing what humans could do to humans, but to a horse? A beautiful animal that only lived to outrun other beautiful animals and only asked for hay and carrots in return? For God's sake, she thought miserably, was the world really this rotten? She wasn't really even into horses, but she definitely understood the concept of 'fire bad, horse pretty', and this filly had been drop-dead gorgeous. Now… she was just… meat.
She wanted to throw up. What a desecration! A majestic animal, reduced to dog food. She couldn't stand it anymore, and had to turn away, looking out toward the training track beyond. She could see horses galloping by, the group running abreast and well restrained by their riders, who were singing and laughing.
"The obvious first suspect is the owner," Carlton pointed out in his usual succinct manner. "But she's practically hysterical with grief—the filly had won all three of her starts at Hollywood Park and was heading into a stakes race next week. This wasn't some two-bit plater from Suffolk Downs, O'Hara. This was a future stakes-winner and half-sister to two other stakes-winners, including a grade-one winner. For God's sake, her sire was Golden Snake and her dam was by Tiznow."
"Who and the what and by the huh?" she looked at him, brow furrowed. She knew Carlton knew a lot about horses, and that he actually read the Daily Racing Form sometimes, but the lore and language of equines—particularly the racing variety—eluded her.
"Never mind. Either way, this is… disgusting. This kind of thing happens, sadly enough, though usually it's in show-jumping circles and not as often in racing. It happens, though. And I'll be damned if we don't catch the bastard who did this."
"Right." She brushed some straw off her jacket. The scent of horses and saddles and hay was both bitter and wonderful, and she paused once she was outside the stall, which was at the end of the long shedrow of the well-maintained training barn. Mrs Antonia Cromwell, a prominent breeder of racehorses in California, kept her racing and breeding stock on her huge ranch in Santa Barbara County, and both detectives were impressed by how well the horses were cared for, and by how clean and orderly everything was. It was clear that Mrs Cromwell loved horses, and spared no expense on their care and upkeep. Juliet had been amused by Carlton's comment, when he got out of the car, about how the best way to make a million dollars with horses was to start with two million dollars-and Mrs Cromwell clearly had several million dollars.
The two detectives had been called to her training farm early that morning, and the owner was adamant that the killer of her horse be found and 'if possible, fried like a cheap steak'. A brief flicker of cold blue lit Carlton's eyes as he had stared down at the body of the dead filly, indicated he was hoping for the same type of punishment for the vicious SOB.
"So if she didn't have anything to do with it," Juliet asked, daintily stepping over a steaming pile of… something as she followed Carlton out of the stall and out under the shedrow eaves, "Who would profit besides her?"
"There's potential heirs, for one thing, and then there's enemies… " Carlton said, looking up the length of the long row of stables. The heads of six horses-two bays, three chestnuts and a grey—all were looking out of their stalls at him, ears pricked forward, eyes softly curious. Juliet couldn't keep from smiling as her partner finally touched the nose of the grey, who was nearest, and the plate on its halter read 'Flighty Coed'. "Pretty little mare," he said as the mare started trying to chew the cufflink off his duster coat.
"How can you tell it's a mare without looking under her skirt?" Juliet asked, gesturing toward the mare's back end.
"Finer bone structure of the head. Very feminine—see the jaw, and the line of the throatlatch and… " he stopped then, realizing she still didn't speak the language, and he noted that she made no move to try and pet the mare. "Don't tell me you're afraid of horses, O'Hara. You'll have to rescind your Man Card if you are."
"I should love them," she laughed "Being a girl and all, but… I fell off a Shetland pony when I was little."
He looked at her, brow furrowed. "A Shetland pony? So what did you break, a fingernail?"
"I was three! It was very painful and frightening."
Carlton snickered. "I've never fallen off a horse. I was thrown once, when I was twenty and broke three ribs and a kneecap. I was back on three weeks later, against doctor's orders"
"Oh, shut up," Juliet groused, but she was smiling just the same.
"Oh, ew… cow patties and… and oh my God, what's that smell?"
The two detectives turned to see Shawn Spencer and Burton Guster making their way up the shedrow. One of the horses—the tallest bay—snaked his head out and tried to get a mouthful of Shawn's arm, but the faux psychic moved away just quickly enough. Guster, on Shawn's outside, was avoiding the horses well enough on his own and looked uninterested in becoming acquainted with any of them.
"What in the name of God are you doing here?" Carlton snapped at Shawn.
"Solving the crime for you, of course, then I thought we'd go for pony rides. I'll buy you some cotton candy, Lassie, and you can ride the biggest pony. His name is Dobbin. Do you like cotton candy?"
Juliet stepped between her partner and her boyfriend. "Shawn, you were not called to this crime scene, I told you not to follow me at breakfast this morning, and I'm sure that if I call your father about it, he will be surprised to learn that you're here, right?"
Shawn ignored her and stepped around her so that he was almost facing Carlton again. The grey mare's ears went back at the sound of Shawn's voice.
"The spirits told me the victim was blonde with blue eyes, about six feet, of Scandinavian extraction, and speaks with a lisp. Or spoke with a lisp… seeing as how she's dead, I doubt she's got much to say now. Where's the body?"
Carlton's expression didn't change. He gestured toward the open stall door and stepped aside. "Take a gander, Spencer, and tell us what the spirits say."
Shawn stepped inside, yelped, and scrabbled back out again seconds later. "That's a dead horse!" he gasped. Guster showed no interest at all in going into the stall. In fact, he had chosen an unfortunate spot in which to stand, as it was not far from the grey mare. She didn't seem offended by his presence, however, and was currently licking his face. The young pharmaceuticals rep was grimacing in horror but was too terrified to move away.
"Tell this horse to stop trying to eat me!" Guster whined.
"Yep. I think Spencer's seen all he wants to see." Carlton gently shooed the grey mare away, and she pulled her head into her stall, sulking.
"Where's the deceased lisping Swede?" Shawn asked hopefully, having recovered some of his dignity and keeping a wide berth from the grey mare. She had put her head back out and was letting Carlton scratch her ears.
"That," Carlton said, turning from the mare and pointing into the stall at the dead filly, "Is the victim. Golden Crown, by Golden Snake out of Tizacrown, by Tiznow. Winner of three allowance races at Hollywood Park. Killed by electrocution sometime last night, ETOD roughly midnight. And since you now are in charge of solving this crime, O'Hara and I will leave and get some damned coffee."
He turned away and stalked toward the car. Juliet followed him, avoiding suspicious-looking piles of things she'd rather not discuss, and didn't even glance back when she heard Shawn shriek. "Gus! Gus! This gray horse bit me! Oh my God! He won't let go of my arm! Owww! Guuuus!"
She hated it when Carlton fumed.
He had an interesting way of fuming. Most men growled and snarled, and sometimes they threw things, or at least threw full-blown tantrums. Carlton Lassiter, however, would read the newspaper.
She could tell he was fuming, because he was gripping the edge of the paper rather tightly. He jaw kept clenching and unclenching, and his mouth had formed a hard, almost invisible, line. He had herded Juliet into the Vic and had driven away from the Cromwell Stud and Training Center at a rather quick speed, hands gripping the steering wheel so tightly he had had to pry them off when he'd finally stopped at the diner.
A call to Henry had revealed that Shawn had indeed not been cleared to consult on the case, and later Henry had called her to tell that Shawn and Gus had been ordered to leave the scene immediately or risk arrest for trespassing. Vick had been taking a harder line with Shawn lately, and Juliet was actually grateful for it. It meant working crime scenes more calmly, efficiently and productively, and they didn't have to worry about spending extra time to make sure the case could be presented to the DA without any question marks. It was becoming increasingly annoying, to Vick, that all of Shawn's cases required a lot of extra work to make them stick.
It also meant that she could work on repairing the damage she had done to her partnership with Carlton, after having kept her relationship with Shawn from him.
In the meantime, she had become reacquainted with the reason why her partner was head detective of the SBPD: he was just damned good at his job. In the past week, she knew that Carlton had personally solved three murder cases, four B&A's, two bank robberies, a gas station holdup, a dognapping, and an assault case involving a lobster and a pair of hot tongs, all without Shawn's help. Juliet supposed she ought to feel guilty that it made her laugh, to see Shawn pouting about his lack of involvement, but... she didn't. She wasn't willing, yet, to fully explore why she didn't feel guilty about that, but she didn't.
"This could be a pretty big story, for the press, couldn't it?" she asked at last.
The top of the paper dropped down and Carlton's blue gaze settled on her. Some of the anger was gone, but he was still tense.
"I mean, a valuable racehorse gets killed by electrocution. Maybe there's… I dunno… a serial horse-killer wandering around Santa Barbara. Maybe horse owners around here should be warned?"
"Sounds like a good idea either way, but I don't think it's a serial killer so much as a hired killer."
"Really? People… do that? Hire someone to kill their horses?"
"If the horse is more valuable dead than alive, yes."
"Good God… that's awful!"
"Ever heard of Alydar?"
"Guess not. Great racehorse. Finished second to Affirmed in all three legs of the nineteen-seventy-eight Triple Crown, mainly because Affirmed was running scared. Became an ever greater sire, while Affirmed was only a limited success despite a much longer career at stud. Alydar sired two Derby winners, a Preakness winner and a Belmont winner, and scads of other good horses. Fabulous broodmare sire, too, and his sons are, too. Anyway, he stood at Calumet Farm, in Kentucky, which was having a lot of financial problems because the manager was an out-and-out crook who had married into the owner's family. One November night in nineteen-ninety-one, Alydar's leg is 'accidentally' broken and he was euthanized the next day. All indications were that he was killed for the insurance money-he was priceless. Worth his weight in gold, literally."
Carlton leaned forward, putting the paper down. "We need to do a clean investigation. There's not much we can do about someone having killed the horse, except possibly animal cruelty charges, but that's only if they can be proven. We need the smoking gun, basically. What we also need to do is prove insurance fraud. We'll need to get the information on how much that filly was insured for, first and foremost."
She was intrigued. "Are all horses insured?"
"Racehorses, yes." He nodded and flagged the waitress for a refill of his coffee. She smiled at him as she filled the cup, and Juliet eyed the woman rather coolly. Carlton didn't even realize he was being flirted with, and when the waitress finally gave up and left, he put his forearms on the table and leaned in, hands clasped. "On average, a well-bred Thoroughbred yearling is insured for between seventy-five and two hundred thousand dollars, after a veterinary exam. It's standard. Considering Golden Crown's breeding and race record, I'd think by now she was worth between three hundred and five-hundred grand."
"Wow. And what happens if they're really successful?" Juliet asked, genuinely intrigued. "I mean, at racing… among most horses?"
"The insurance company comes in again, usually at the end of their two-year old racing season, and decides on the horse's value, after another vet check, and there's re-evaluations as the horse keeps racing, and another once they retire for breeding-stallions are generally more valuable than mares, though there are notable exceptions: anybody would kill for a Rough Shod, a La Troienne, a My Charmer or a Weekend Surprise, but they don't come along very often. There's two or three equine insurance companies in California that I know of, offhand, but we'll ask Mrs. Cromwell who she generally deals with."
"That's a good start," she nodded, taking a final slug of her coffee, her mind reeling at the battle-cry names of broodmares she had never heard of and now wanted to know about.
"Think that gray mare is still tossing Spencer around?" he asked her with just the smallest trace of a smile.
"I can't really say as I'd blame her. She liked you, though."
Carlton shrugged, straightening the paper carefully. "One thing I learned, when I was a kid, working with cattle and horses… " He rubbed the back of his neck. "Cows don't give a damn if you know what you're doing or not—they'll kick you across the byre and think nothing of it, because they just feel like it. Horses… they know. They always know. If they pick up that you don't what you're doing, you'll be lying in the dust, with the wind knocked out of you and a pair of hoofprints on your chest."
"So you think that the mare knew Shawn isn't the horsey-type?"
"I doubt Spencer's been around horses since he got on that one at Santa Barbara Downs… remember that? It's a wonder he wasn't riding it backwards."
She laughed. "Yeah, I remember. He definitely didn't have a clue."
"He doesn't seem to have a clue about much of anything," Carlton muttered, getting up. She glanced up at her partner, seeing the weary lines around his eyes, the extra grey in his hair, and how his eyes seemed less vividly blue than usual.
"Are you okay?" she asked as she got up. The urge to straighten his tie and soothe away that scowl made her hands twitch, and she forced herself to keep still… again. She never touched Carlton—he didn't like being touched, and became embarrassed if she even so much as brushed a piece of lint off his lapel. He had that wall up, always, and it was even more heavily guarded lately.
"Are you sleeping well?" she asked, wondering if she could risk persisting.
"Enough." He dropped dollars on the table, for the tip, and brushed past her. She felt the heat from him, and the scent of coffee and a fainter scent of timothy hay and horses, but also sensed that something wasn't quite… right. He had been subdued lately-quieter, more remote… cold. She knew that a lot of people, including her amazingly clueless boyfriend, thought Carlton had no emotions, but that was simply untrue. Carlton Lassiter, she knew for certain, was the most emotional man she had ever known, and his recent withdrawal from her had nothing to do with a murdered filly.
She rushed to catch up with him, glancing at the waitress, who caught up with her before she could get to the diner door.
"Uh… are you two a couple?" the waitress—her nametag said 'Megan'—asked her.
"No," Juliet answered, wondering why her cheeks suddenly felt so warm.
"Oh. Right. He has gorgeous eyes," the waitress said, peering around Juliet and through the window at Carlton, who was leaning against the Vic, talking on his cell phone.
Juliet didn't know how to answer that. She managed a vague smile and headed out into the hazy late morning, ready to get started on what looked like a challenging-and frankly fascinating-investigation.