Questions and Answers
Shandy's eyes were open before her brain woke up. She stared at the flame in front of her for a long moment without really seeing it. Flame? She sat bolt upright.
Her mouth opened, but no sound came out. It wasn't a fire in front of her, just a flame. A bright blue flame. It was about half a meter tall, with bright orange eyes.
"Scusa, signorina. Could-a you help me?" it asked in a soft, crackly voice.
Shandy just stared.
"Signorina?" it repeated. "Scusa, signorina. Scusa. My mistake." He began to move off.
Shandy blinked twice, closed her mouth and found her voice. "Wait! What? Who? What are you?" she managed to get out.
The creature turned, his face lighting up. "You can see me?" he asked.
"Well, either that or I'm in the middle of one helluva nightmare," she muttered.
The creature bowed low. Now that the initial shock had rubbed off, sort of, Shandy could see that he actually was more like a lizard, but put together with flames instead of regular body parts. "You are the first, you know. The first to see me inna long time. Oh, this is just so... so... mucha bella."
He began doing a bit of a jig that reminded strongly of a cartoon she'd once watched. "Yup, one helluva nightmare," Shandy murmured. "I don't mean to be rude, boyo, but you haven't answered my question."
The jig stopped in mid-stride. "Oh, scusa, signorina. Scusa." He bowed again. "I am Tonio, a salamandra fuoco. A... How you say? A fire salamander."
Shandy automatically glanced at the barn.
"No, no! No, signorina. I am no burning you housa. I am no so... so..." He said a few words in another language and then switched back to his accented English. "I am no so ignorante that I burn your housa before I aska you help," he insisted.
For some reason, Shandy believed him. He reminded her of a puppy, wiggling in his desire to please. And then the rest of his words sunk in. "You need my help?"
The salamander nodded violently. "Si, signorina. I wanna you find me a house."
Shandy rubbed her face. She must be dreaming. A fire salamander wanted her to go house-hunting for him. That was beyond her normal imagination. It must be a result of the fire. Or something.
She looked up and he was still there. She sighed. The sooner she got him on his merry way, the sooner she'd wake up, she thought. "Okay. Did you have any particular kind of house in mind? Something in brick, I should think. Or concrete. How many bedrooms?"
Tonio glared at her. "You make-a fun of Tonio," he accused.
Shandy shook her head. "Not of you. Of me. I mean, let's face it, we had a fire in the barn this afternoon and all of a sudden a fire salamander shows up and demands that I help him find a house? I figure that as long as I stay asleep and dreaming, I won't go crazy. Does that make sense to you?"
Tonio cocked his head, thinking. "Si, signorina. It makes the sense. But you are wrong in two things." He raised one fiery finger. "One, you are not asleep right now and..." He held up another finger. "I do not mean a 'housa' house. I only want..." He sighed and sat down on the ground. "Signorina, I have no place to stay. I have no one to work for. I am alone."
Shandy knew that feeling. For all that she shared a room with Denise, the amount of time the other spent in it was negligible. Shandy didn't know any more about Denise - or Denise her - than she did the day she moved in. Come to think of it, today had been the first day she'd ever teased Bill - or anyone in the barn. She did her job as best she could and spent most of her time off either in her room or down at the library. She wished she had someone to talk to about Tonio, but, off the top of her head, she couldn't think of anyone who might believe her. She, at least, had a place to sleep and a job.
"Okay. I'll help. And my name is Shandy, not Signorina."
Tonio did another jig over the green grass and that's when Shandy noticed the oddity.
"Tonio? How come the grass isn't burning?"
He stopped and looked down. A funny look crossed his face, part pride, part indignation, part amusement. "Well, I'd no be a good fire salamander if I could no control my own flame, eh?"
"Oh." When he put it that way, the question had been a rather foolish one, Shandy thought.
"So? Where we go looking?"
"Well, I'm not sure, Tonio."
"I no needa much space. And I --" He stopped, frowning suddenly.
"You what?" Shandy asked, curious.
His frown deepened. "Well, I can no say for certain, Signorina Shandy, but--"
"Signorina," Tonio began slowly. "I am a salamandra fuoco. I know about fire. It is what I do best. But--" He hung his head and mumbled something Shandy couldn't understand.
Tonio turned from bright blue to brilliant red. "I said I do not like fires. I am afraid of them."
Shandy put her elbow on the arm of the chair and rested her cheek in her hand. "You don't like fires," she repeated.
"No. I do not." He lifted his head. "But I am very good at finding them. Sometimes even before they start. And," he added proudly, "I am very, very good at knowing what started a fire. I can smell very well."
Shandy wasn't too sure what smelling had to do with fires, but she took his word that it was a necessary thing. "Well," she said. "Well." After a moment, she added, "Well, lots of people are afraid of fires, you know. That's not a big thing, really. And knowing where a fire will be is a good thing. You can warn someone about the fire, or avoid it yourself." Maybe she could get him a job working with the fire department?
She shook her head. That could wait until tomorrow. "So, you need a place to stay that doesn't catch fire, right?" At Tonio's nod, she continued. "That could be a bit of a problem in the backstretch, you know. The hay and straw and stuff."
Tonio's flame dimmed. "I see."
"I didn't say it was impossible," Shandy said hastily. "Just a bit of a problem. We'll work something out, I'm sure."
The breeze brought the scent of charred wood to them and Tonio's head snapped up. "The fires. How many have there been?" he asked, his head cocked to one side.
Shandy shrugged. "Four since April, I think. Why?"
"Will you take me to these fire places?"
"I suppose I could. Right now? Mind you, all but ours have been repaired," she said. "I don't think there's any smell left."
Tonio grinned and brightened. "I can tell what started a fire even if the wood is no longer there. The ground will tell me."
Shandy was impressed, but still a bit dubious. It was a neat trick. If he could do it.
Tonio must have noticed her doubts, because he leaned confidentially against her chair and said, "Someone caused your fire." He tipped his head back and sniffed. "I smell gas. Like the man who was here earlier and put the fire in his mouth."
Shandy was confused, at first. Tonio was obviously talking about Bill, but gas? Then it struck her. "Not gasoline gas, but gas. Like the butane in Bill's lighter."
"Si," Tonio nodded.
"Nothing, signorina. Just the gas." He paused. "Well, I smell the burned wood, the straw and grass that burned and..." He sniffed again. "Metal got hot, too. Very hot."
Shandy started. "And you can tell all that from this distance?"
"Si, signorina. It is still fresh."
Metal, Shandy mused. So maybe that bolt didn't get knocked down by a firefighter? She shrugged. And then again, maybe someone knocked it down while they were taking bales out of the hay room. Shandy stood up. Walking around someone else's shed-row was going to be hard enough, with a blue flame tagging along behind her, that doing it in full dark was bound to get her into trouble. Best to go now, while some people might still be in the barns. She said as much.
"Oh, signorina Shandy, that's-a no so hard. You are only one to see me. We go for a walk and you show me the fire places and I go check. It's tinder."
Shandy wasn't sure what 'it's tinder' meant, not that it mattered much. He was the expert. She remembered something. "Oh, I told Bill I'd wait 'til he got back before I left."
Tonio grinned. "The man who put fire in his mouth has been and gone. He came while you were sleeping, looked at you and left."
Shandy made sure the office was locked and the barn doors closed. The horses moved restlessly in their stalls, but none seemed overly excited about her presence. And she wouldn't be gone that long. Maybe half an hour or so. The backstretch wasn't that big.
They walked along the roadway in silence, Shandy and Tonio. Or rather, Shandy listened and Tonio chattered on about everything. He'd wrinkled his nose as they passed one barn. "That place has plenty bad metal," he said.
"Bad fire metal," Tonio elaborated.
"Fire metal?" Shandy repeated, not understanding at first. "Oh, you mean wiring?"
"Si. Very bad. Fire will come if not fixed." Tonio gave the same judgement on several other barns, too.
Well, considering that the Racing Club never seemed to have enough money to fix up the backstretch, it wasn't surprising. But there was always enough money for renovations to the Clubhouse, she thought and made a face.
"Shandy!" a voice called out as they neared Pete's barn, the second one to catch fire. It was Donna. Shandy knew her from the cafeteria and knew only that she worked for Pete. Tonio disappeared into the barn.
Shandy pulled her attention to the young girl walking towards her. "Hi, Donna! What's up?"
"I heard about the fire," the blonde girl said as she walked up. "Glad to hear no one was hurt." She shook her head. "That almost makes one a month now, doesn't it?"
"It does, doesn't it? I hadn't thought about it that way."
Donna nodded. "Yeah, Ernie's barn burned down completely in April, we had that fire the end of May and..." She tipped her head in thought. "Donnie's went up in June, didn't it? Or early July?"
"Something like that, yeah" Shandy agreed. Then she remembered. "It was early July because I remember Dave saying that it was a good thing that the fire trucks didn't have to wade through a Canada Day weekend's traffic."
"So the next one won't be for another few weeks, then." She grinned. "Some people are taking bets on who's going to be next and the rest are looking over their shoulders to see who the jinx is."
Shandy looked worried. Backstretch superstitions, however silly they may sound, were real enough that they could cause damage to a trainer's reputation.
Donna patted Shandy's shoulder. "I wouldn't worry too much about it, kiddo. Just don't let that investigator bulldoze Dave into agreeing that your fire was caused by a careless smoker." She grimaced. "Pete did, even though he knows no one in the barn smokes. He's had problems with the insurance company ever since."
Donna had just left when Tonio reappeared.
"Like yours. The gas." was all he said. Donnie's barn was given the same verdict. Only Ernie's got a different reaction.
He waved his hand in front of his face before they'd even got near the remains of the barn. "Phew! That one is full of bad metal. I can smell it from here."
They headed back to the barn in silence. Shandy, without thinking, led the way upstairs to her room
"That mad little man was in those barns, too," Tonio said when the door closed behind them.
"Mad little man?"
"The one who was here earlier. I could smell his fingers in the dirt."
Shandy nodded. "He's the investigator. He would have been there. Tell me more about the gas smell. I'm not sure I understand. Are you saying that someone used a lighter to set fire to the barns?"
Tonio stared at her. "Why else would the smell be there?"
It made sense. A bit far-fetched, maybe, but it made sense. Not even Sherlock Holmes would be able to tell the difference between straw ashes and cigarette ashes in a barn.
Tonio had sat down on one of the two chairs in the room, his legs dangling a good distance from the floor. "So now we go find a house?"
Shandy gave him a small smile. "We'll have to wait until tomorrow." She looked around. Two beds pushed up against opposite walls, two dressers at their feet, a small table with two chairs and Shandy's bookcase were the only furnishings. There were two small closets flanking the door into the bathroom. "Denise won't be home tonight, so you're welcome to stay here, I suppose."
The salamander hopped off the chair and went into the bathroom. "Signorina," he said happily, coming back out. "You have a place all ready for me to sleep, too. You are most kind."
He nodded and motioned her over. "See?" he pointed.
Shandy chuckled. "Okay, you can sleep in the bathtub. Just let me have a shower, first."
Showered and changed, Shandy lay down on her bed. Tonio was at the window, watching and talking to himself. His voice, she thought as she drifted off, sounds like wind in the trees or a campfire burning down to embers.
Two days later, Shandy was still dividing her time between the Vets Barn and the main one. She had just checked off the day's work-outs on the sheet in the office and confirmed the next day's schedule. She sighed as she saw Red's schedule. Where there had been a blue "R", signifying a race day, there was now a red "S-K". Scratched. Withdrawn from the race. He'd have a work-out instead.
"So much for my racing bonus," she thought. That made four bonuses she'd lost this... She froze. Bonuses. Purse money. Was there a connection? She reached into the filing cabinet for the previous months' sheets.
The first fire had been just before Easter, well before racing season opened. The second had been in May. She checked the sheets for that month. She'd ran two horses that month, a third place finish, or 'show', the first week of May and fourth place two weeks later. They'd missed a show by a head that day, Shandy remembered. June had been better for her. Two wins, a 'place', or second, and, at the very end of the month, another fourth. July had seen two shows, a place and, just last week, a scratch.
She leaned against the filing cabinet, thinking. Dave paid his crew well for races. Grooms got one percent of the purse for a win, half a percent for a place and a quarter percent for a show. That could add up if most of your races were for purses of $100,000 or more. But the others weren't forgotten. Hotwalkers and exercise riders were paid half what the groom got. Even one-eighth of a percent of a large purse was equal to half a week's pay for a hotwalker, and Dave rotated the hotwalkers so that everyone would have a chance at a bonus. Do that a few times a month and you could have a fair bit of money in thirty days, even with Dave racing a horse only every other day at the most.
She looked up. Bill stood in the doorway. Bill, the head groom. Bill, who got a bonus, however small, for every horse that ran. Bill, who was the only person in the barn she'd seen have a lighter. She paled.
"Shandy? What's wrong, kid?" He appeared concerned.
"Bill, I think we ought to--" Dave's voice trailed off as he caught sight of Shandy. "What's going on?"
Bill shook his head. "Dunno."
"I think I know who's been setting the fires, Dave," Shandy said in a small voice. Her eyes never left Bill's.
"You think I--?" Bill spluttered.
"It fits. We lose a race and three days later, someone's barn gets torched. Fatso was scratched last week, and we..."
Dave stared at Shandy as if she'd just grown a second head.
"I've checked the sheets. We lost a show to Pete in May. Three days later, on a day when we don't race, Pete's barn catches fire. Donnie's mare beat us the end of June and has a fire the following Friday. Bill's the only one who collects a bonus for every race purse we get and he's the only one of us who smokes."