Gamblers At Heart
Dave pushed past Bill and sat down in his chair. "Bill, close the door," he said with a sigh. "I think she's found part of our connection and we'll have to tell her the rest of the story so she doesn't go to the stewards." At Shandy's shocked expression, he continued hurriedly. "It's not what you think, Shandy. Bill's not setting the fires."
"How do you know that?"
The two men exchanged looks and Bill reached into his back pocket for his wallet. Flipping it open, he handed it to her.
Shandy stared at the identification. "You're a cop?"
Bill nodded. "RCMP. Mounted division. They needed someone who knew a bit more than one end bites, the other kicks."
"Shandy, remember last year when it seemed like everyone and his dog was getting hurt?"
"Well, all those accidents were caused by personal carelessness."
Shandy stared. "All of them? Even when Danny fell through the balcony railing? I don't believe it!"
"Neither did I," Dave said. "But the report said that he'd fallen over the balcony. Not through. I had a chat with a friend of mine and he suggested that start keeping a record of things."
"And you're the friend?" Shandy asked Bill.
Bill shook his head. "Nope. We were asked to supply a 'reliable witness'," he made quote marks in the air around the words, "to prove to the insurance companies that things were not as they seemed. But you said you know the fires were set? How?"
Shandy looked from Bill to Dave and back, weighing them. "I know they were set but I can't prove it. The last three, anyway. Ernie's barn went up because of bad wiring." She handed the work-out sheets to Dave. "Check the sheets for yourself. Check the dates."
Dave looked up from the sheets. "But Shandy, we've had more than three races this year. Why didn't any of the others run into that problem? I know Denise and Jake have had both losses and scratches."
"You realize that that makes you the logical suspect, Shandy," Bill said.
She nodded. "Or one of the hotwalkers or one of the riders."
Dave shook his head. "No. That's insane. I can't believe that one of my own people would torch our barn. No one could be that greedy." A pause. "Could they?"
Shandy sighed. "I don't like to believe it either, Dave, but there's a way we could find out."
"We could set a trap in the Vets Barn."
"Why there?" Bill asked.
"Because that's where Red is. If the pattern holds, whoever's been setting the fires will strike in four days. Three days after the race should have been run. Same as last time."
"They wouldn't be that stupid as to fire the same barn twice, would they?"
Shandy grinned mirthlessly. "And they're overly smart as to be setting fires in the first place?"
Bill sat back in his chair. "If we caught the arsonist, it might go a ways towards proving other things, Dave," he mused. "How much do you want to bet that I'm going to be blamed for your fire?"
Shandy nodded her agreement. "Tonio says--" She clamped her mouth shut.
The two men exchanged looks. "Tonio?" Bill prompted.
Shandy shrugged. "Just someone I know. That's all."
"An expert in fires, is he?"
"You might say so, yeah."
"How do you know he isn't the one setting the fires, Shandy?" Dave asked. "I can't say as I recall the name. Who does he work for?"
Shandy shook her head. "He doesn't work. He's... He's new in town and still looking for a place to stay."
"You think he'd talk to us?" Bill asked.
Shandy paused. Oh, he'd talk to you, she thought. You just wouldn't be able to hear him.
"Immigration doesn't need to know he's here, you know," Bill suggested, thinking that was the problem.
"It's not that. It's just that... that... well, he's sorta shy," Shandy temporized. This was getting complicated.
Bill got to his feet. "Well, ask him, will you? In the meantime, I'll see what I can find out from the office."
Dave nodded his agreement. He turned to Shandy after Bill had left. "I wish you'd trust us, Shandy. You're a damn poor liar."
She walked to the door. "Dave, I'm either a liar or nuts. Does it really matter which? Either way, I've lost your trust. "
Shandy kicked off her boots and flopped down on her bed with a sigh. As usual, she was the only one in the room. By the signs, though, Denise had already been and gone. A wet towel lay draped across the bed and Shandy could see the trail of work clothes that ended at the bathroom door.
"She moves like a waterspout," a voice from the window observed. Tonio was lounging in his windowbox. Keeping a fire salamander in the bathtub would have been awkward, so Shandy had gone out and bought a large windowbox and filled it with dirt. The window faced south, so trying to grow some flowers wasn't that far-fetched an idea. Denise hadn't argued with it.
"Just don't expect me to water them," she said as she left the previous morning.
"More like a tornado," Shandy said dryly, coming back to Tonio's observation.
The salamander chuckled. "So why you no look so good today?"
Shandy rolled over and put her hands behind her head. She told Tonio what she had learned that morning. "And now I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do," she finished.
Tonio frowned. "What we do, signorina," he said firmly. "What we do. And the first thing you do is go get this Bill and your Don Dave." He made a shooing motion with his hands as Shandy sat up in surprise. "You go and I will worry about the rest. They will hear me. I will make them."
After a moment's hesitation, Shandy went to get Bill and Dave. She found them on the patio. "Tonio's in my room and wants to talk to you."
Bill's eyebrows raised. He'd been sitting facing the stairs and hadn't seen anyone go up them and said so.
Shandy lifted one shoulder in a half-shrug. "You wanted to see him."
Tonio was standing by Shandy's bed when the three walked in. "I need the board under your bed." She looked at her companions. They obviously hadn't seen or heard anything.
She nodded and pulled the mattress off the sheet of plywood that lay between the mattress and the springs. She tipped the plywood over so that it leaned against the springs like a blackboard.
Words began to burn themselves into the wood. "I am Tonio, a fire salamander and I will help you find the fire starter."
Dave gaped. "How--?"
Shandy raised her hands. "You wanted to talk to Tonio, boss."
"A fire salamander?" Bill asked with remarkable calm.
"It's a lizard-like creature that lives inside fires," Shandy explained. Her explanation hadn't helped much, she could see. "Just think of him as sort of a knee-high, walking pilot light. That's sort of what he looks like. Only with more of a lizard's shape."
Dave gave her a dubious glance. "And you can see him?"
"Told you you'd think I was nuts."
"So why tell us now?" That was Bill.
Shandy waved a hand at Tonio. "It was his idea, not mine."
"Right," Dave drawled.
"Hey, I didn't write that," Shandy snapped, pointing to the plywood. "You asked me to trust you, that Bill isn't the one who's been setting the fires and he's part of some sort of elaborate stake-out. Turnabout's fair play."
"So how can this Tonio help?" Bill interrupted.
"You believe me?" Shandy turned to him in surprise.
Bill huffed his amusement. "Right now, I don't have a choice. How can he help?"
"Signorina Shandy," Tonio began, "to burn this barn again would be too obvious. But not all your horses are here."
Shandy started. "You're right. They're not. The Vets Barn is next?"
At Bill's prompting, Shandy relayed Tonio's words and there began the strangest conversation any one of them had ever had. Between Shandy and the plywood board, the beginnings of a plan were worked out. Dave would arrange that the horses would stay in the Vets Barn for another two days, bringing them back after their exercises on the barn's race day. Bill would see what kind of gear he could wangle out of his office, surveillance cameras and maybe some sort of monitor for them. Shandy would do the stable laundry in the Vets Barn on the day before the horses were due back. She'd take a large tub over with her, empty it after she'd done the laundry and Tonio would take up residence there to act as a sentry. The back of the Vets Barn could be seen from both the patio and at least one window of the cafeteria. Dave would be on the patio and Bill and Shandy would be in the cafeteria. They would run to the Vets Barn to put out the fire and, they hoped, pick up a video-tape of the arsonist at work.
The plan had a lot of holes in it. The camera, if they could get one, could end up fried. They might miss the arsonist altogether, assuming he or she showed up at all. They could be wrong, even, about it being an arsonist. Tonio took great exception to that last thought and Bill and Dave retreated while Shandy tried to calm the salamander down.
Shandy was busy washing saddle blankets when Bill arrived. "Neat idea," he remarked, seeing the tub raised off the ground by cinder blocks. "Suits you," he grinned.
Shandy flicked water at him, grinning back.
"Hey! That's hot water!"
Shandy chuckled. "Yeah, I know. Tonio sat underneath the tub while I filled it with water." She pointed to the coiled hose a few feet away. "By the time the tub was full, I had hot water."
Bill stepped back and stared at the arrangement. "You know, that might be a handy thing to have in a barn. A combination water heater, fire inspector and fire alarm," he mused.
Tonio peeked out from under the tub. "A house for Tonio?" he asked. His face fell. "But no one can see me."
Shandy looked from Bill to Tonio. "But I can see you, Tonio," she said softly. "I can."
Bill nodded. "It's an idea."
"All set up?" Shandy asked.
"I got three of them. There's one facing the feed room, one facing the hay room and the other's aimed down the shed-row," Bill said. "They're set to record ten seconds of footage every thirty seconds. I've staggered the times on the cameras so we should be able to see all three camera angles every minute. If our arsonist shows up today, we'll get him."
"Or her," Bill agreed.
Bill helped Shandy empty the tub when she was done. They checked on the horses one last time and left for the cafeteria. Shandy's hands were sweating. What if they didn't catch the fire in time? What if she was wrong about everything? What if Tonio was just something out of her imagination and ...
Bill swore softly. "I've forgotten my pipe. I'll catch up to you," he said when they were about halfway to the cafeteria.
Still lost in her thoughts, she only nodded.
Bill hadn't caught up to her by the time she'd got a coffee and a window table. She sat staring out the window, not wanting to miss Tonio's signal.
"You okay, Shandy?"
Shandy jumped and then gave Mark a wan smile. "Just still a bit rattled by the fire, I guess. I'll get over it." She shrugged. "It's not like anyone was hurt or anything."
Mark patted her shoulder in sympathy. "I know how you feel. By the way, have you seen Dave in the last hour?"
"I've been in the Vets Barn doing laundry," Shandy grimaced. "Dave wanted me out of the way of the workmen." She glanced at her watch. "He said something about an appointment with the stewards, though. Why?"
Mark gave her a rueful smile. "I've been offered a job elsewhere. The pay's the same, but..." He took a deep breath. "What with Dave being short on winners this year and the fires and all... Well, people are starting to say he's jinxed, you know." He shifted uncomfortably at Shandy's glare. "Well, show purses don't go very far, do they? I'd rather leave now to a job than wait to get laid off and not be able to find anything later," he said. "I've got to look after number one."
Rats and ships they thought were sinking, Shandy thought angrily as she watched Mark leave the cafeteria. Superstitious nonsense only an idiot would believe. Jinxed, indeed!
Twenty minutes later, Bill still hadn't arrived. Shandy had taken her eyes from the window every time she heard the cafeteria door open. She wasn't exactly worried about him. But what if Dave was wrong? She turned back to the window in time to see Tonio's signal, a brilliant flare of light from the tub. She left the cafeteria at a dead run.
She could see Dave racing in from the main barn. He'd seen the signal. They almost tripped over two bodies as they stormed into the barn.
"Bill!" Dave recognized him before Shandy did. Bill was wrestling with someone, trying to pin them down.
"I've got him. Fourth stall down. I think Tonio's there. Hurry!" he panted.
Dave was several feet ahead of Shandy and he stopped dead when he got to the stall. His mouth fell open in surprise. Shandy looked in and chuckled. In the centre of the straw-filled stall stood Tonio, looking terrified, and for about a half meter around him, the fire blazed merrily. The rest of the straw was untouched.
"Please, signorina. Put out the fire?" he whimpered.
Shandy nudged the silent Dave. "Go get a fire extinguisher, boss. Tonio hates fire."
When Dave returned, Shandy opened the stall door to let Tonio out and Dave in. It didn't take long to put out the fire.
The three of them hurried back to help Bill, but he didn't need it. He stood beside a handcuffed figure. When Dave and Shandy moved to where they could see his face, they both exclaimed, "Mark!"
Three days later, they all met again in Dave's office - Shandy, Dave and Bill. Tonio had been invited, but he refused to leave his new home.
"You can tell me later, signorina," he had said with a huge grin. "I have work to do."
"Once we showed him the video-tape," Bill was explaining, "he broke down and confessed. You were right. He did set those other fires. We're still not sure if it was as a warning to your competition or as revenge. The psyche people can figure that one out."
"But why did he do it?" Shandy asked.
Dave had the answer to that one. "I've been talking to a few people. Mark's got quite a large gambling debt. The only way he could start to cover it was to bet his bonus on his own horses. It just happened, I guess, that it would have been his turn to walk your horses when they were scratched."
"Not to mention him losing money when they lost," Bill added.
Dave shuddered. "Maybe I should make sure no one I hire gambles," he said.
Shandy laughed. "Dave, if we weren't all gamblers at heart, we wouldn't be working here." Even Bill laughed at the dirty look Dave gave Shandy.
"And there's more. With Mark's confession that the fires were set, the Racing Club has decided to reopen all the accident files for the past year. From what I hear, the Insurance Bureau is also curious," Bill said. "I've heard that the Racing Club has been paying out large sums of money for maintenance that never got done. Like balcony repairs and replacing the wiring in about half the barns."
Shandy's eyes gleamed. "So Ken's going to be answering obnoxious questions instead of asking them?"
Bill nodded. "Looks like."
Dave let out a huge sigh. "I'm not sure I'm glad about all this."
Bill and Shandy both stared at him.
Dave gave them a sad smile. "Well, with Mark caught and Ken under investigation, I'm probably going to end up needing a new head groom."
Bill chuckled. "What about Shandy? She seems to know more than 'one end bites and the other kicks'. And you did say that that was the main requirement for the job."
Tonio settled further down into his nest under the water tub in the tack room and sighed contentedly as he listened to the laughter coming from the office across the aisle. This was a good home.