A Fire in the Darkness
Monday, 2:16 a.m.
The woman woke to the screams of horses. A surge of adrenaline pulsed through her, and before she was even fully awake, Carlin had swung her legs over the edge of the bed, run her fingers through her blonde spikes, and jammed her bare feet into a pair of scuffed leather boots. The first hint of smoke in her nostrils cut through the fog in her mind.
Oh dear God. The horses.
She snatched her cell phone from the bedside table and two long-tailed cotton shirts from the closet. One, she flung around her neck. The other, she shrugged into, buttoning it as she clattered down the hardwood stairs.
From his first-floor bedroom, her husband’s strangled croak froze her for a breath. “Ah-weh! Ah-weh!”
She felt a flash of anger, not at him—well, yes, at him too, unreasonable though that was—but mostly at whatever fate had left him broken and frightened, unable even to say her name. Two strides past his door, guilt tugged her back, and she paused long enough to call, “I don’t know what’s happening yet, Zane. I’ll tell you when I know something!”
She hurried through the living room, heart pounding, her mouth filling with the ozone tang of fear. One toe caught on the edge of the Navajo rug they’d gotten on a rare vacation west. She stumbled, recovered, and burst out into the muggy August heat, Zane’s anxious caw still echoing in her ears.
The air smelled of smoke. Off to her right, flames leaped into a sooty yellow sky. It was horrible and beautiful, and dread settled deep into her stomach before her mind was able to accept what she was seeing.
The barn was ablaze.
She broke into a full-out run, punching in 911 and rattling off her name and address to the cool voice on the other end of the line.
The crackle of flame became a roar.
The barn looked black against the flames. Fifty yards away in the paddock three mares and two geldings snorted and circled, eyes rolled back to the whites. Another scream, and she ran toward the burning barn, eyes watering, a blistering heat on her cheeks.
No, no, no, no.
A shower of embers swirled in the entrance. She pulled her shirt up to cover her nose and mouth and started in, then froze, poised on the balls of her feet, as a figure emerged from the maelstrom.
Gerardo. Groom and handyman, but so much more, he’d been her strength since Zane’s accident. The sight of him calmed her. His chest was bare, his shirt covering the eyes of a pearl-colored mare, sleeves twisted beneath her chin to create a makeshift halter.
Relief washed through her as the mare, the crown of their breeding program and the love of Carlin’s life, danced on the lead.
Gerardo coughed and shoved the mare toward Carlin. “Take her.”
She snatched the extra shirt from around her neck and flung it toward him. He caught it one-handed and bolted back into the flames.
She secured Tesora in the paddock with the other rescued horses, then slipped off the makeshift halter and hurried back to trade it for the next horse. Six became seven. Then eight. Nine, ten. Her shirt was drenched, her body slick with sweat.
Where were the sirens?
In the paddock, the horses bumped against each other, blowing and squealing. Gerardo brought a gray mare out of the flames, and then a palomino. Burns dotted his face and chest. An ember landed on his shoulder, and he slapped it away with a blistered hand. It left a pale pink patch of skin behind.
With an exhausted sigh, he turned back toward the barn, was driven back by heat and flames. A loud crack, and a beam collapsed. The entrance was a wall of flame. He rolled his shoulders, steeling himself, then lowered his head and started inside.
A small cry escaped her as she hooked her fingers into his belt loops and dragged him back. “No more. Enough. You can’t.”
She snaked one arm around his waist and then the other, felt him strain against her, his muscles knotted into iron.
Then, “Madre de Dios,” he whispered. The strength seeped out of him, and he sagged against her. Tears and sweat drew pale tracks down his sooted cheeks.
She wanted to comfort him, but her throat was raw. She choked back her own tears, the pointless “why me.” Her tongue throbbed where she must have bitten it, and her mouth tasted of blood and ashes.
Gently he turned her toward him and cupped his hands over her ears.
A heartbeat. Then she understood. She slipped her arms through his and pressed her palms flat against his ears. They stood like that until the fire trucks came, hands over each other’s ears, while ashes fell like snow around them.
Wednesday, early afternoon
The barn was a blackened skeleton. It had taken the fire department almost forty minutes to arrive, and by then, the building was little more than a smoldering heap of charcoal pickup sticks. The couple who owned it, Carlin and Zane Underwood, were none too happy about that, and less happy that their insurance company refused to pay until the claims adjusters were convinced said couple hadn’t torched the barn themselves.
The Underwoods baked in the heat and watched my progress with hostile eyes, she a slim blonde with spiked hair and her arms crossed tightly across her chest, her husband frowning from a heavy electric wheelchair with a high-tech DynaVox communication device attached. Earlier that morning, I’d seen a two-year-old YouTube video of Zane working a colt in a round pen, wowing the crowd with his Hollywood looks and easy grace. Now, with his atrophied muscles, he looked shrunken, dwarfed by the chair. A thin red line creased his jaw where someone had nicked him shaving.
Their groom of eight years, Gerardo Gonzales, stood behind the wheelchair, hands swathed in gauze bandages, a haunted expression on his face. He’d saved twelve horses, lost two. The two weighed heavier than the twelve.
Behind them in the paddock, the horses they’d saved munched hay from a pair of round bales, one at either end of the oval, and beyond that were an outdoor arena and three open pastures bordered by white vinyl fencing. A line of oak and maple trees marked the edge of the property, leaves whispering in the occasional welcome breeze.
Neither our agreement to conduct business on a first-name basis nor the stultifying heat had thawed the Underwoods.
Ignoring their hostility, I stepped over a twisted metal post that had once been a water pump, then nudged a charred beam with my boot and watched it crumble, wishing I knew more about things like flash patterns and points of origin. I was no arson investigator, and the truth was, I knew nothing more about fires than any other private detective, but the insurance company that had hired me didn’t care about that. For that they had the fire inspector’s report.
I climbed over a mangled metal doorframe to where the tack room should have been. Nothing left but ashes, melted metal latches, a few blackened rhinestones, the shell of a charred refrigerator, and a mishmash of plastic and metal cans melted together and made brittle by the heat. The fire had started here, according to the report. Chemical residue and remnants of the labels identified the contents of the cans as mustard oil, kerosene, lighter fluid, and turpentine, not to mention a few other chemicals used in the unsavory practice of soring horses.
The muscles in my neck tightened as I read the labels. Soring was a way of enhancing a Walking Horse’s gait by painting its legs with caustic chemicals or by cutting, abrading, or bruising its feet.
“You kept mustard oil in here?” I said. “Kerosene?”
His nostrils flared. Her chin came up. They knew what I was asking.
The woman, Carlin, narrowed her eyes and said, “We don’t sore here. We helped found TASA, for God’s sake.”
She pronounced it Tass-ah, but it stood for the Tennessee Anti-Soring Association.
I held up the report. “Then where did this stuff come from?”
“Isn’t that your job?” she said. “To find out where it came from?”
Zane raised an unsteady hand to his DynaVox keyboard. A few moments later, a robotic voice said, “NOT OURS.”
“I’m the trainer,” Carlin said. “Until Zane’s on his feet again.”
From the looks of Zane’s medical reports, it seemed unlikely he would ever be back on his feet again. The horse that had attacked him in its stall had cracked his skull and snapped his spine, leaving him
paralyzed from the nipples down and with a brain injury that further limited his mobility and rendered his speech nearly incomprehensible.
Carlin said, “We don’t sore. And if you don’t believe that, you can go to hell.”
“It’s too soon to believe or disbelieve,” I said. “Can I go to purgatory instead?”
She didn’t answer for a moment, then took a different tack. “Look, you might be a very nice man. In fact, you probably are. But all we want to know is if you’re going to honor our claim.”
“That depends,” I said.
“On where those chemicals came from.”
She blew out an exasperated breath, turned, and straightened Zane’s collar. The set of her jaw said she was busying herself with this maternal fussing to keep from jeopardizing their chances of a settlement.
I folded the report and stuffed it into my back pocket, then picked my way back through the rubble, sickened by the occasional scrap of singed leather or a blackened and misshapen snaffle bit. My boot scuffed something small and white, and I told myself it wasn’t the bit of bone I knew it was.
I used my toe to cover it with ashes, saw another flash of white among the ash. I’d worked homicides for seven years, and my stomach leaped at the familiar shape. This time, I bent to pick it up.
It was a human mandible. I looked around, found a piece of two-by-four that still looked sturdy enough for the job, and used it to sift through the ashes. A twisted snaffle bit with the mouthpiece fused, two teeth, and a human skull.
When I got to the rib cage, I set the two-by-four gently aside and said, “Houston, we have a problem.”