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12

A BEAGLE HAD trotted in and was snuffling around the hay-strewn floor, going after hoof shavings. Molly Brown daintily perched her other hind leg on the hoof stand as if about to be treated to a manicure in a salon.

'Hughey,' I said, 'there are circumstances about this fire that raise many, many questions. There's a body, yet no one was supposed to have been inside Sparkes's house. The woman who died is my responsibility, and I want to do absolutely everything I can to find out why she was there and why she didn't get out when the fire started. You may have been the last person to visit the farm before the fire, and I'm asking you to search your memory and see if there's anything - absolutely anything - that might have struck you as unusual that day.'

'Right,' Marino said. 'For example, did it appear that Sparkes might have been having a private, personal conversation on the phone? You get any idea that he might have been expecting company? You ever heard him mention the name Claire Rawley?'

Dorr got up and patted the mare on her rump again, while my instincts kept me far out of the reach of her powerful hind legs. The beagle bayed at me as if suddenly I were a complete stranger.

'Come here, little fella.'

I bent down and held out my hand.

'Dr Scarpetta, I can tell you trust Molly Brown, and she can tell. As for you' - he nodded at Marino - 'you're scared of 'em, and they can sense that. Just letting you know.'

Dorr walked off, and we followed him. Marino clung to the wall as he walked behind a horse that was at least fourteen hands high. The farrier went around a corner to where his truck was parked. It was a red pickup, customized with a forge in back that burned propane gas. He turned a knob and a blue flame popped up.

'Since her feet aren't so great, I have to draw clips on shoes to make them fit. Kind of like orthotics for humans,' he commented, gripping an aluminum shoe in tongs and holding it in the fire.

'I give it a count of fifty unless the forge's warmed up,' he went on as I smelled heating metal. 'Otherwise I go to thirty. There's no color change in aluminum, so I just warm it a bit to make it malleable.'

He carried the shoe to the anvil and punched holes. He fashioned clips and hammered them flat. To take off sharp edges he used a grinder, which sounded like a loud Stryker saw. Dorr seemed to be using his trade to stall us, to buy himself time to ponder or perhaps work his way around what we wanted to know. I had no doubt that he was fiercely loyal to Kenneth Sparkes.

'At the very least,' I said to him, 'this lady's family has a right to know. I need to notify them about her death, and I can't do that until I am certain who she is. And they're going to ask me what happened to her. I need to know that.'

But he had nothing to say, and we followed him back to Molly Brown. She had defecated and stepped in it, and he irritably swept manure away with a worn-out broom while the beagle wandered around.

'You know, the horse's biggest defense is flight,' Dorr finally spoke again as he secured a front leg between his knees. 'All he wants is to get away, no matter how much you think he loves you.'

He drove nails through the shoe, bending points down as they went through the outside wall of the hoof.

'People aren't all that different, if you corner them,' he added.

'I hope I'm not making you feel cornered,' I said as I kneaded the beagle behind his ears.

Dorr bent the sharp ends of the nails over with a clincher and rasped them smooth, once again taking his time to answer me.

'Whoa,' he said to Molly Brown, and the smell of metal and manure was heavy on the air. 'Point is,' he went on as he tapped the rounding hammer, 'you two walking in here and thinking I'll trust you just like that is no different than your thinking you could shoe this horse.'

'I don't blame you for feeling like that,' I said.

'No way I could shoe that horse,' Marino said. 'No way I'd want to, either.'

'They can pick you up by the teeth and throw you. They paw, cow kick, slap their tail in your eyes. It better'd be plain as day who's in charge, or you're in for a world of trouble.'

Dorr straightened up, rubbing his lower back. He returned to his forge to fire another shoe.

'Look, Hughey,' Marino said as we followed. 'I'm asking you to help because I think you want to. You cared about those horses. You gotta care that someone's dead.'

The farrier dug in a compartment on the side of his truck. He pulled out a new shoe and grabbed it with tongs.

'All I can do is give you my private theory.'

He held the shoe in the forge's flame.

'I'm all ears,' Marino said.

'I think it was a professional hit and that the woman was part of it but for some reason didn't get out.'

'So you're saying she was an arsonist.'

'Maybe one of them. But she got the short end of the stick.'

'What makes you think that?' I asked.

Dorr clamped the warm shoe into a foot vice.

'You know, Mr Sparkes's lifestyle pisses off a lot of people, especially your Nazi types,' he answered.

'I'm still not clear why you think the woman had anything to do with it,' Marino said.

Dorr paused to stretch his back. He rotated his head and his neck cracked.

'Maybe whoever did it didn't know he was leaving town. They needed a girl to get him to open his door - maybe even a girl he had a past with.'

Marino and I let him talk.

'He's not the kind of guy to turn someone he knew away from his door. In fact, in my opinion he's always been too laid back and nice for his own damn good.'

The grinding and hammering punctuated the farrier's anger, and the shoe seemed to hiss a soft warning as Dorr dipped it in a bucket of water. He said nothing to us as he returned to Molly Brown, seating himself on the stool again. He began trying on the new shoe, rasping away an edge and pulling out the hammer. The mare was fidgety, but mostly she seemed bored.

'I may as well tell you another thing that in my mind fits with my theory,' he said as he worked. 'While I was on his farm that Thursday, this same damn helicopter kept flying overhead. It's not like they do crop dusting around there, so Mr Sparkes and I couldn't figure if it was lost or having a problem and looking for a place to land. It buzzed around for maybe fifteen minutes and then took off to the north.'

'What color was it?' I asked as I recalled the one that had circled the fire scene when I was there.

'White. Looked like a white dragonfly.'

'Like a little piston-engine chopper?' Marino asked.

'I don't know much about whirlybirds, but yup, it was small. A two-seater, my guess is, with no number painted on it. Kind of makes you wonder, now, doesn't it? Like maybe somebody doing a little surveillance from the air?'

The beagle's eyes were half shut and his head was on my shoe.

'And you've never seen that helicopter around his farm before?' Marino asked, and I could tell he remembered the white helicopter, too, but didn't want to seem especially interested.

'No sir. Warrenton's not a fan of helicopters. They spook the horses.'

'There's an air park, flying circus, a bunch of private air strips in the area,' Marino added.

Dorr got up again.

'I've put two and two together for you the best I can,' he said.

He grabbed a bandanna out of a back pocket and mopped his face.

'I've told you all I know. Damn. I'm sore all over.'

'One last thing,' Marino said. 'Sparkes is an important, busy man. He must've used helicopters now and then. To get to the airport, for example, since his farm was sort of out in the middle of nowhere.'

'Sure, they've landed on his farm,' Dorr said.

He gave Marino a lingering look that was filled with suspicion.

'Anything like the white one you saw?' Marino then asked.

'I already told you I've never seen it before.'

Dorr stared at us while Molly Brown jerked against her halter and bared long stained teeth.

'And I'll tell you another thing,' Dorr said. 'If you're out to railroad Mr Sparkes, don't bother poking your nose around me again.'

'We're not out to railroad anyone,' Marino said, and he was getting defiant, too. 'Just looking for the truth. Like they say, it speaks for itself.'

'That would be nice for a change,' Dorr said.

I drove home deeply troubled as I tried to sort through what I knew and what had been said. Marino had few comments, and the closer we got to Richmond, the darker his mood. As we pulled into his driveway, his pager beeped.

'The helicopter ain't fitting with nothing,' he said as I parked behind his truck. 'And maybe it has nothing to do with nothing.'

There was always that possibility.

'Now what the hell is this?'

He held up his pager and read the display.

'Shit. Looks like something's up. Maybe you better come in.'

It was not often that I was inside Marino's house, and it seemed that the last time was during the holidays when I had stopped by with home-baked bread and a container of my special stew. Of course, his outlandish decorations had been up then, and even the inside of his house was strung with lights and crowded with an overburdened tree. I remembered an electric train whirring in circles along its tracks, going around and around a Christmas town dusted with snow. Marino had made eggnog with one hundred proof Virginia Lightning moonshine, and quite frankly, I should not have driven home.

Now his home seemed dim and bare, with its shag-carpeted living room centered by his favorite reclining chair. It was true the mantle over his fireplace was lined with various bowling trophies he had won over the years, and yes, the big-screen television was his nicest piece of furniture. I accompanied him to the kitchen and scanned the greasy stovetop and overflowing garbage can and sink. I turned on hot water and ran it through a sponge, then I began wiping up what I could while he dialed the phone.

'You don't need to do that,' he whispered to me.

'Someone has to.'

'Yo,' he said into the receiver. 'Marino here. What's up?'

He listened for a long, tense time, his brow furrowed and his face turning a deeper red. I started on the dishes, and there were plenty of them.

'So how closely do they check?' Marino asked. 'No, I mean, do they make sure someone's in their seat? Oh, they do? And we know they did it this time? Yeah, right. No one remembers. The whole friggin' world's full of people who don't remember shit. That and they didn't see a thing, right?'

I rinsed glasses carefully and set them on a towel to drain.

'I agree the luggage thing raises a question,' he went on.

I used the last of Marino's dishwashing liquid and had to resort to a dried-out bar of soap I found under the sink.

'While you're at it,' he was saying, 'how 'bout seeing what you can find out about a white helicopter that was flying around Sparkes's farm.' He paused, then said, 'Maybe before, and definitely after because I saw it with my own two eyes when we were at the scene.'

Marino listened some more as I started on the silverware, and to my amazement he said, 'Before I hang up, you want to say hi to your aunt?'

My hands went still as I stared at him.

'Here.'

He handed me the phone.

'Aunt Kay?'

Lucy sounded as surprised as I was.

'What are you doing in Marino's house?' she asked.

'Cleaning.'

'What?'

'Is everything all right?' I asked her.

'Marino will fill you in. I'll check out the white bird. It had to get fuel from somewhere. Maybe filed a flight plan with FSS in Leesburg, but somehow I doubt it. Gotta go.'

I hung up and suddenly felt preempted and angry, and I wasn't completely sure why.

'I think Sparkes is in a lot of trouble, Doc,' Marino said.

'What's happened?' I wanted to know.

'Turns out that the day before the fire, Friday, he showed up at Dulles for a nine-thirty P.M. flight. He checked baggage but never picked it up at the other end, in London. Meaning it's possible he could have checked his bags and given the flight attendant the ticket at the gate, then turned right around and left the airport.'

'They do head counts on international flights,' I argued. 'His absence on the plane would have been noticed.'

'Maybe. But he didn't get where he is without being clever.'

'Marino…'

'Hold on. Let me finish giving you the rundown. What Sparkes is saying is that security was waiting for him the minute his plane landed at Heathrow at nine-forty-five the next morning - on Saturday. And we're talking England time, making it four-forty-five A.M. back here. He was told about the fire and turned right around and caught a United flight back to Washington without bothering with his bags.'

'I guess if you were upset enough, you might do that,' I said.

Marino paused, looking hard at me as I set the soap on top of the sink and dried my hands.

'Doc, you got to quit sticking up for him,' he said.

'I'm not. I'm just trying to be more objective than I think some people are being. And certainly security at Heathrow should remember notifying him when he got off that plane?'

'Not so far. And we can't quite figure out how security knew about the fire anyway. Course Sparkes has got an explanation for everything. Says security always makes special provisions when he travels and meets him at the gate. Apparently the fire had already hit the early-morning news in London, and the businessman that Sparkes was supposed to meet with called British Air to alert them to give Sparkes the news the second he was on the ground.'

'And someone's talked to this businessman?'

'Not yet. Remember, this is Sparkes's story. And I hate to tell you this, Doc, but don't think people wouldn't lie for him, either. If he's behind all this, I can guarantee that he planned it right down to the fine print. And let me also add that by the time he'd arrived at Dulles to catch the flight to London, the fire was already going and the woman was dead. Who's to say he didn't kill her and then use some kind of timer to get the fire going after he'd left the farm?'

'There's nothing to say it,' I agreed. 'There's also nothing to prove it. And there doesn't seem to be much chance of our knowing such a thing unless some material turns up in forensic exams that might point to some sort of explosive device used remotely as an igniter.'

'These days half the stuff in your house can be used as a timer. Alarm clocks, VCRs, computers, digital watches.'

'That's true. But something has to initiate low explosives, like blasting caps, sparks, a fuse, fire,' I said. 'Unless you have any other cleaning to do,' I added dryly, 'I'll be heading out.'

'Don't be pissed at me,' Marino said. 'You know, it's not like this whole damn thing is my fault.'

I stopped at his front door and looked at him. Thin gray wisps of hair clung to his sweating pate. He probably had dirty clothes flung all around his bedroom, and no one could clean and tidy up enough for him, not in a million years. I remembered Doris, his wife, and could imagine her docile servitude until the day she suddenly left and fell in love with another man.

It was as if Marino had been transfused with the wrong blood type. No matter how well his meaning or brilliant his work, he was in terrible conflict with his environment. And slowly it was killing him.

'Just do me one favor,' I said with my hand on the door.

He wiped his face on his shirt sleeve and got out his cigarettes.

'Don't encourage Lucy to jump to conclusions,' I said. 'You know as well as I do that the problem is local law enforcement, local politics. Marino, I don't believe we've even come close to what this is all about, so let's not crucify anyone just yet.'

'I'm amazed,' he said. 'After all that son of a bitch did to run you out of office. And now suddenly he's this saint?'

'I didn't say he was a saint. Frankly, I don't know any saints.'

'Sparkes-the-ladies' man,' Marino went on. 'If I didn't know better, I'd wonder if you were getting sweet on him.'

'I won't dignify that with a response.'

I walked out onto the porch, halfway tempted to slam the door in his face.

'Yeah. Same thing everyone says when they're guilty.'

He stepped out after me.

'Don't think I don't know it when you and Wesley aren't getting along…'

I turned to face him and pointed my finger like a gun.

'Not one more word,' I warned him. 'You stay out of my business, and don't you dare question my professionalism, Marino. You know better than that, goddamn it.'

I went down the front steps and got inside my car. I backed out slowly and with deliberate skill. I did not look at him as I drove off.


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