vertical divider

Sing A Song Of Salamanders

Part One

Questions And Questions

     End Chapter 1     Next  »


The shout shocked Shandy from her doze. If it hadn't, the clamour of the fire alarm would have. She charged out of her room, almost knocking someone over in her haste. Smoke billowed out from the east end of the building and she could see other people on the ground, racing toward it. Someone tugged on her arm.

"C'mon, Shandy! We've got to get out of here!" It was a wide-eyed Mark.

"We've got to get the horses out," Shandy corrected, and pulling Mark along with her, she ran for the stairs.

Dave, the trainer, and Bill, the head groom, were already inside. Bill was leading a horse out and Dave was heading down the shed-row with a fire extinguisher.

"Get Fatso out, Shandy," Bill shouted over the racket of horses and alarm. "Here! Mark! Take Red out to the exercise ring," Bill continued. "We'll get the horses. You keep them from buggering off. Grab whoever you need to help you."

Friar Llewellyn, otherwise known as Fatso, was in a complete panic. His stall was the across the aisle from the fire. He reared as Shandy slipped into the stall, her voice as low and as calm as she could make it. "Easy old son, easy," she crooned as she moved closer to the chestnut gelding. "C'mon, sugar. You don't want to be a crispy critter, do you, old boy. C'mon son."

It took a bit of dodging, cajoling and a lucky break for her to get a hold of Fatso's halter. He reared again and she almost lost her hold. "Listen, stupid, I'm trying to help you!" she said. As he reared again, Shandy gave up being nice. When his front hooves touched the ground, Shandy grabbed his ear and pulled his head down to her with it. The pain got his attention. Talking to him, alternating cajoling with curses, Shandy got the big animal out the stall door and down the shed-row. With the open door in front of him and thick, yellow smoke behind, she didn't have any problem convincing Fatso to leave the barn.

Mark ran up with a lead shank as they appeared in the doorway. He clipped it to the halter. "I've got him. Get the next one." Shandy nodded and went back into the smoke.

Fifteen minutes later, all the horses had been led from the barn. Someone took the horse from Shandy, and she leaned against the railing of the exercise ring, gulping fresh air. The fire trucks, she noticed, had arrived.

"One has to wonder," a voice said in her ear, "why the sprinklers didn't go off."

Shandy looked up. It was Mark. "What? They didn't?"

He tugged on the shoulder of her T-shirt. "You're dry, aren't you?"

Shandy looked down in surprise. She was dry! Her eyes widened and she stared into Mark's dark eyes. "Arson? But why?"

Mark shrugged. "Someone with a sick sense of humour. Someone with a grudge against Dave." He stared at the barn. "Insurance?"

Shandy snorted. "Dave? Fire his own horses? I don't think so." This was Shandy's second year working for Dave and, above all things, she knew the man cared for both his staff and his horses far more than he cared for a few measly dollars.

Mark shrugged again. "Anything's possible," he said blandly.

Shandy turned away. "Anything, maybe. But not that," she said firmly, ending the conversation. But the doubt had been planted.

Hours later, Shandy sat on the patio outside the barn with the rest of the crew. The horses, all but two, had been returned to the barn and settled down. Red and Fatso had been taken to the Vets Barn. They're stalls had been closest to the fire and they'd be under observation until the stalls were repaired and to make sure that they'd suffered no serious damage from the smoke.

Dave, Shandy saw, was talking with a racing steward and one of the firefighters. They weren't close enough for her to hear the conversation, but Dave shook his head violently. "No way!" he bellowed suddenly. "Not one of mine!" He turned on his heel and stalked toward the gathering on the patio.

He stopped in front of them, arms folded and a scowl on his face. "All right. Which one of you two-bit, nickelbred, crowbait jugheads turned off the sprinkler system?"

Shandy's jaw, like several others, dropped. Dave didn't normally use racetrack insults. His usual chewing-out consisted of standard gutter language. Then his words sunk in.

"Turned off?" someone repeated. "How?"

Dave silenced the babble of questions with a bellow. "Someone," he spat, "shut the water off to the system. Now, which one of you boneheads did that?"

There was a heavy silence as everyone stared at everyone else. Shandy's eyes flicked from person to person - dumpy Jake and tall, slender Bill, two of the other grooms, Ian and John, the exercise riders, and the four hotwalkers, Mark, Fanny, Trevor and Isobel. Only the fourth groom, Denise, wasn't there. She'd left for Montreal well before the fire started.

Feeling eyes glaring at her, Shandy looked around. Dave was glaring at her. "Me?" she squeaked. "Oh, come on, Dave. Get real. If I knew how to shut off the water, I wouldn't have flooded the shed-row last week, would I? Besides, most sprinkler systems run on some sort of computer system, don't they? Beats me how to programme one of those!"

"But you're the one who got my car going," blonde Isobel reminded Shandy in a sly voice.

Shandy gave her a disgusted look. "Right. Cars and computers are the same thing." She looked back at Dave. "Why would I risk my job, Dave? Or my horses? So you can collect the insurance money and I can get jailed for arson?" She snorted. "I don't think so."

It was Dave's turn to look astonished. "Insurance money?"

"Look," Mark interrupted before Dave could say anything further. "Before this turns into a mudslinging contest or something, they're sure the water was turned off to just the sprinklers or was the water off all over?"

Bill reached back and twisted the handle of the nearest water tap. Water gushed out without so much as a burp. He closed the tap and shook his head. "Nope. Water's stayed on out here."

"What about fingerprints or something?" Jake asked. He blushed when everyone stared at him. "Well, it was just a thought."

Dave shook his head. "Basil Rathbone, you ain't. Okay, the Racing Club investigator will be around shortly. Shandy, Red and Fatso are your horses. You can baby-sit the guy while he's in the barn. Just don't let him touch anything he isn't supposed to. Who's feeding tonight?"

Bill waggled a finger. "I am."

Dave nodded. "Keep an eye on Shandy. If he gives her any grief, turf him." Bill nodded as Dave continued. "Mark, Trevor, you two will have to bed down in the Vets Barn. The fire chief said that most of the damage was to the hay room, but with your rooms being right above it, I'd rather you didn't go back until I've had someone check the floors."

The two nodded. "Can we go up to get our stuff?" Trevor asked.

Dave shook his head. "Maybe you'd better wait until after the investigator gets done. Just in case he wants to check up there."

"Uh, boss?" Shandy asked, suddenly realizing something. "If the investigator asks, where's the water shut off?"

Dave stared at her.

Shandy glared at him. "Well, it's not like I've needed to know before, Dave."

Dave sighed. "Figures," he muttered. Louder, "Try in the tackroom next to the water heater." He looked around. "I've got to go see the stewards about this. Try not to burn the entire barn down while I'm gone?"

One by one, everyone left until only Mark, Shandy and Bill remained.

"You going for supper, Shandy?"

She shook her head. "I'll go after the investigator gets done."

He chuckled. "From what I've heard, you could be here a while. I'll bring you something back when I come get my stuff."

Bill stood when Mark did. "I'd better get the feed ready." He shrugged. "If I can get into the feed room." A few minutes later, he was back, pulling on a windbreaker. "Everything's soaked. I'm going to see if I can scrounge up something."

Shandy nodded.

The inspector, Ken, turned out to be a short, squat man that Shandy didn't trust on sight. It may have been because she didn't have much use for people who wore dark grey slacks and vivid green polo shirts. Or it may have been his attitude.

Ken stared at her dubiously. "Are you sure you're up to this?" he asked. "Why don't you just wait here until I'm done and I'll bring my questions out to you?"

Shandy got to her feet. "Boss's orders," she said, leading the way into the barn. "You want to start with the hay room?"

"You win a lot of races?" he asked as they walked down the shed-row.

Shandy gave him a sharp glance. "Enough to put hay in the rack and oats in the bin," she said mildly.

"And that works out to?" he prodded.

"Works out to a question you'll have to ask the accountant. I just work here."

"Everyone gets paid on time?" he persisted.

"You'll have to ask everyone." She waved a hand. "The hay room."

He didn't enter. "You don't like me." It wasn't a question.

Shandy folded her arms and leaned against the door jamb. "Am I supposed to?" she asked mildly, eyebrows raised in mock surprise.

He stared at her for a long moment, nodded thoughtfully, and walked into the remains of the hay room.

The room was a corner one, two walls being cinder blocks and two, thick wood. The wooden wall that divided the hay room from Red's stall was badly charred in the middle, and the floor was ankle deep in ash in some places. She stuck her head around the door. The support post behind the door seemed to be okay, just a bit smoke-blackened.

Ken poked around in the ashes for a bit. "The room was full?"

"Maybe half," Shandy said. "Two full rows and maybe half a third when I last saw it."

He pulled a small notebook out of his pocket. "How many bales?"

"About fifty. No. Less than that. Forty, maybe."

"Hay or straw?"

Shandy blinked. How much straw had there been? "Mostly straw, I think," she said slowly.

"You don't know for sure?"

Shandy shook her head. "Today was my day off, and I don't remember what was here yesterday. I know we store some of the hay in the feed room, so most of what was here had to be straw."

He glared at her. "So you wouldn't know if a new shipment of hay or straw had come in today?"

"Oh, I'd have known that. Everyone helps unload, day off or not."

Ken grunted.

"Does it make a difference?"

"It might," he said noncommittally. He walked to the door and, noticing something, reached up to finger a dangling chain. "This room is kept locked?"

"Not exactly. Just pinned shut." At his questioning glance, she pointed to the hasp on the door. "We close the door, drop the hasp down and pin it shut with a stove bolt. It should be on the end of the chain."

But it wasn't.

Shandy looked down, scuffing some of the dirt and ash out of the way. No bolt. She turned and checked the floor of the hallway. Nothing. She pushed past Ken to search the hay room floor. She found it about a meter from the door. "One of the firefighters must have knocked it off as they came in," she said. "It's happened before."

Ken grunted again and wrote something down in his notebook. "So where's the sprinkler controls?" he asked, closing the book.

"In the tackroom by the water heater, Dave says."

"Dave says? Don't you know?"

Shandy shrugged. "I'm usually looking to keep the water on, not turn it off."

The tackroom was originally the same size as the hay room, but it had been partitioned off to provide a space for the huge water tank that provided hot water to the rooms above. The shut-off valve wasn't hard to find. It had a bright red handle with a small metal plaque that read "Sprinklers". Ken looked at Shandy. "Didn't know where it was?"

Shandy shrugged. "I don't lie and I don't like people who do. If I say I didn't know, I didn't."

"Who has the keys to the barn?"

"Dave has a set, of course. And Bill."

Ken nodded and led the way outside. He sat down in a lawn chair, motioning Shandy to do the same. "So tell me, how does a typical day run in your barn?" His notebook was open again, balanced on one knee.

"The groom who had the day before off gets the morning feed. Around 5 o'clock," Shandy began.

"And that would have been?"

"Jake was off yesterday, so he would have fed this morning."

"Where's he now?"

"Supper, probably. He should be back soon, though." She went on to explain the normal routine of the day and, at his prodding, told him where the others had said they were going. "All except Denise, of course. She left for Montreal this morning."

"Before the fire started?"

"Around nine, I think. I didn't see her leave, but I know she was planning on leaving right after she'd finished her work. Tomorrow's her day off."

"When will she be back?"

"Late tomorrow night, I guess. Or early the next day."

Jake and Mark showed up just then, Mark with a couple of huge sandwiches and a milkshake for Shandy. She ate as Ken questioned the two men.

By the time Shandy had finished the last bite of sandwich, Ken had questioned everyone but Bill. Trevor, like Mark, had only returned to see if he could get some of his things before heading off to the Vets Barn. Ken gave them his permission and they left.

Ian and John, as they wandered back, announced that, as exercise riders, they had no need to go into a hay room. They made it sound like Ken had just asked if they took strolls in the sewer. Shandy choked back a laugh at this. She was glad that she wasn't the only one who didn't like Ken's attitude. Neither rider was above helping out if necessary, but the look on Ken's face...

Fanny and Isobel, arm in arm, arrived in time to hear Ian's remark, and they didn't bother to hide their amusement. As hotwalkers, the people who walked the horses to cool them down or to give them some light exercise, Fanny and Isobel rarely had cause to go into the hay room. "The closest we've come to it today was the door," Fanny grinned.

Ken looked up.

"Yeah," Isobel added. "When we were raking the shed-row."

The two gave Bill an airy wave as they passed him on their way upstairs. Shandy breathed a sigh of relief. Once Ken had talked to Bill, he'd leave. Good.

Bill annoyed Ken no end by insisting that Ken wait outside the barn while he, Bill, fed the horses before he answered any questions. Shandy stretched out in the chair and, closing her eyes, feigned sleep while Ken spent twenty minutes pacing back and forth. She sat up when Bill dropped into the chair next to her.

Her mouth twitched as she listened to Bill's laconic replies to Ken's increasingly sharp questions. After several minutes of this, Bill leaned back in the chair and pulled a pipe and tobacco pouch from his jacket pocket.

Ken's jaw dropped as Bill calmly filled the bowl. "How many people smoke in the barn?" the investigator spluttered.

"None," Bill said between puffs. When the pipe was going to his satisfaction, he put his lighter back in his pocket and waved the pipe at Ken. "No one in their right mind smokes in a barn, and they don't get a second chance around here if they get caught the first time. Now, if the inquisition is over, I'd like to smoke my pipe in peace. It's been a long day."

Ken snapped his notebook shut and stood up. "I'll be back," he threatened.

"You do that," Bill said mildly.

There were several minutes of silence as Bill puffed contentedly. "Well," he finally remarked, "this has been an interesting day." There was an odd note to his voice.

"That's one way of putting it." Shandy grimaced.

Bill looked at her through the curling smoke. "Did he ask you if any one smoked?"

Shandy stared. "Nope."

"Hmmm.... Rather odd, don't you think, that that would be one of the last questions he'd ask?"

Shandy shifted in her chair. "It is. I wonder why."

Bill frowned. "Because, odds are, he knows that the fire was deliberately started, but he's going to say that it was a careless smoker."

Shandy stared at Bill, astounded. "How do you know that?"

Bill chuckled. "You mean, aside from the fact that he's done it before?" He shrugged. "I met Dave coming back from the Stewards Office and asked him what the fire chief had said about the fire. According to the chief, the fire started halfway down the wall next to Red's stall. He's ruled out careless smoking and faulty wiring so far."

Shandy remembered the burned wall. "I think you're right. So how did it start? Spontaneous combustion?"

Bill shook his head. "That section was clear. And it hasn't been hot enough for that."

They sat in a comfortable silence for a while. There was no point in speculating on the fire until they had some sort of evidence, was there?

"Well," Bill said, rising, "I'm off for a shower. You coming?"

Shandy chuckled as Bill realized what he'd implied and blushed beet red. "To have a shower with you? As much as I'd like to, I'll stay down here until you get back. Just in case."

He nodded. "Might be a good idea."

Shandy leaned back and closed her eyes. The setting sun was warm on her face and teasing Bill had put her in a good mood. She could here people in the nearby barns, feeding horses, talking. A slight breeze brought the odour of wood smoke to her. Her chin drifted towards her chest. It had been a long day.

     End Chapter 1     Next  »