City of the Lost Page 38

“Yep.” That’s all he says. Then he drinks more coffee.

“Have there been problems with the, uh, hostiles lately? Could this be a response to a provocation?”

I’m expecting him to snap back that no provocation would justify cutting a man off at the knees—literally. But he says, “No,” and continues drinking.

“Is it possible the death was staged?” I ask. “That someone in town did it and is trying to blame these hostiles?”

“Yes.” The answer comes without hesitation.

“You’ve already considered this,” I say. “Were you going to discuss your thoughts with your new detective?”

“Sure. If you didn’t bring it up. Gonna give you a chance to prove you aren’t an idiot first.”

“Thanks.”

He nods, accepting the gratitude without seeming to catch the sarcasm. He’s draining his coffee, and I’m struggling to pick through my thoughts and choose the best question before my window evaporates, but before I can, he says, “The thing you need to understand about the hostiles is that they’re animalistic.”

“Brutally violent, you mean.”

He swings his gaze my way; a laser beam that slices through me like I’ve misstepped in a high-tech heist.

“Do you know anything about animals, detective? Predators?”

I think fast. “Yes, they … Oh, okay. When you said animalistic, I took that colloquially. You mean literally. That they’re like predators. They kill for survival. For food, trespass, threat, and such.”

A grudging nod, and I feel as if the laser has stopped just short of cutting a major artery, but it hasn’t backed up yet.

I continue. “You mean that the hostiles are predatory. Which is what you implied in your notes on the possible cannibalism. To them, it would be about survival. Taboos don’t count. While they’d certainly kill Hastings if he posed a threat—and might even kill him if they were experiencing a severe food shortage—the actual level of violence inflicted was unnecessary. It’s sadistic. Which is human. Primate, at least. Some apes have been shown to demonstrate … Well, that’s not important.”

He hesitates, as if he’s about to say, No, explain. New data for that curious mind. But then he nods abruptly, acknowledging this isn’t the time for digressions, and I put the subject in my back pocket, as something I might be able to pull out later, to engage him in conversation.

“That’s what you meant, right?” I say.

“Yes.”

“Okay.” I sip my coffee, which is cooling quickly in the brisk morning air. “Can I ask you about—”

“Coffee’s done.” He gets to his feet. “Time to head out.”

“Okay, but can we talk about the hostiles as we walk? It’ll help if I better understand—”

“I’m getting Will. Meet me at the stables.”

“Stables?” I say as we walk through the station.

“Your background check said you can ride.”

“From summer camp, when I was twelve.” How thorough was my background check?

“Stables. Twenty minutes. Saddle up.” He opens the front door. “Don’t take my horse.”

The door is closing. I catch it and call after him. “Which one’s yours?”

“You’re a detective,” he calls back. “Figure it out.”

I grab the coffee thermos, lock up the files, and set out. The stables are on the south edge of town. The pasture is encircled by a solid eight-foot barrier to keep predators from thinking the horses look yummy. Dalton mentioned there’s a permanent stable hand living over the barn, but she’s nowhere to be seen. The horses are up and in the pasture, though, and the stalls are mucked out.

I’d hoped Dalton was being sarcastic about figuring out which horse was his—that I’d find his name over its stall. No such luck.

The obvious choice is the black stallion. The biggest, baddest horse for the local hard-ass. But stallions are notoriously temperamental, and Dalton wouldn’t have the patience for that. Nor would he give a damn about riding the most impressive steed.

I assess the options: five horses to choose from. I saddle up three. I’m leading out a big grey gelding when Dalton and Anders come ambling along.

“That’s not my horse,” Dalton says.

“I should hope not,” I say. “Because I’ve put Will’s saddle on her.” I pass the big reins over. “Correct?”

Anders smiles. “Correct, detective. And good morning to you, Casey.”

“Good morning. The coffee thermos is inside the barn. I figured the boss might not give you time to make any.”

His smile grows to a grin. “Excellent deduction. I owe you.”

Dalton follows me inside. His saddle is on a roan gelding, a hand or so smaller than Anders’s horse. Nothing fancy, but a good sound steed. He grunts and looks over at my choice—a young black mare. He shakes his head. “Take the grey mare. That one’s not fully broke.”

“The grey mare’s too old. I’m better with spirited than plodding.”

He mutters something that sounds like “Suit yourself,” and continues out.

Two

I do fine with the horse, whose name is Cricket. I hadn’t been trying to show off. I recalled from my riding days that one of the reasons I quit was that my trainer kept putting me on the most docile steeds they had. I was too restless, she said. Too high-strung myself. I needed a patient horse.

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