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4

THE NEXT MORNING, I fell asleep in the rented LTD, and woke up to cornfields and silos, and stands of trees as old as the Civil War. Marino was driving, and we passed vast acres of vacant land strung with barbed wire and telephone lines, and front yards dotted with mailboxes painted like flower gardens and Uncle Sam. There were ponds and creeks and sod farms, and cattle fields high with weeds. Mostly I noticed small houses with leaning fences, and clotheslines sagging with scrubbed garments billowing in the breeze.

I covered a yawn with my hand and averted my face, for I had always considered it a sign of weakness to look tired or bored. Within minutes, we turned right on 715, or Beaverdam Road, and we began to see cows. Barns were bleached gray and it seemed people never thought to haul away their broken-down trucks. The owner of Hootowl Farm lived in a large white brick house surrounded by endless vistas of pasture and fence. According to the sign out front, the house had been built in 1730. Now it had a swimming pool and a satellite dish that looked serious enough to intercept signals from other galaxies.

Betty Foster was out to greet us before we had gotten out of the car. She was somewhere in her fifties with sharp regal features and skin deeply creased by the sun. Her long white hair was tucked in a bun. But she walked with the athletic spring of someone half her age, and her hand was hard and strong when she shook mine and looked at me with pained hazel eyes.

'I'm Betty,' she said. 'And you must be Dr Scarpetta. And you must be Captain Marino.'

She shook his hand too, her movements quick and confident. Betty Foster wore jeans and a sleeveless denim shirt, her brown boots scarred and crusted with mud around the heels. Beneath her hospitality other emotions smoldered, and she seemed slightly dazed by us, as if she did not know where to begin.

'Kenneth is in the riding ring,' she told us. 'He's been waiting for you, and I'll go on and tell you now that he's terribly upset. He loved those horses, everyone of them, and of course, he's devastated that someone died inside his house.'

'What exactly is your relationship to him?' Marino asked as we started walking up the dusty road toward the stables.

'I've bred and trained his horses for years,' she said. 'Ever since he left office and moved back to Warrenton. He had the finest Morgans in the Commonwealth. And quarter horses and thoroughbreds.'

'He would bring his horses to you?' I asked.

'Sometimes he did that. Sometimes it was yearlings he would buy from me and just leave them here to be trained for two years. Then he'd add them to his stable. Or he'd breed racehorses and sell them when they were old enough to be trained for the track. And I also went up there to his farm, sometimes two or three times a week. Basically, I supervised.'

'And he has no stable hand?' I asked.

'The last one quit several months ago. Since then Kenny has been doing most of the work himself. It's not like he can hire just anyone. He has to be careful.'

'I'd like to know more about the stable hand,' Marino said, taking notes.

'A lovely old guy with a very bad heart,' she said.

'It may be that one horse survived the fire,' I told her.

She didn't comment at first, and we drew nearer to a big red barn and a Beware of Dog sign on a fence post.

'It's a foal, I guess. Black,' I went on.

'A filly or a colt?' she asked.

'I don't know. I couldn't tell the gender.'

'What about a star-strip-snip?' she asked, referring to the white stripe on the horse's forehead.

'I wasn't that close,' I told her.

'Well, Kenny had a foal named Windsong,' Foster said. 'The mother, Wind, ran the Derby and came in last, but just being in it was enough. Plus the father had won a few big stake races. So Windsong was probably the most valuable horse in Kenny's stables.'

'Well, Windsong may have gotten out somehow,' I said again. 'And was spared.'

'I hope he's not still out there running around.'

'If he is, I doubt he will be for long. The police know about him.'

Marino was not particularly interested in the surviving horse, and as we entered the indoor ring, we were greeted by the sound of hooves and the clucking of bantam roosters and guinea hens that wandered about freely. Marino coughed and squinted because red dust was thick in the air, kicked up by the cantering of a chestnut Morgan mare. Horses in their stalls neighed and whinnied as horse and rider went by, and although I recognized Kenneth Sparkes in his English saddle, I had never seen him in dirty denim and boots. He was an excellent equestrian, and when he met my eyes as he went by,.he showed no sign of recognition or relief. I knew right then he did not want us here.

'Is there someplace we can talk to him?' I asked Foster.

'There are chairs outside.' She pointed. 'Or you can use my office.'

Sparkes picked up speed and thundered toward us, and the guinea hens lifted up their feathery skirts to hurry out of the way.

'Did you know anything about a lady maybe staying with him in Warrenton?' I asked as we headed back outside again. 'Did you ever see anyone when you went to work with his horses?'

'No,' Foster said.

We picked plastic chairs and sat with our backs to the arena, overlooking woods.

'But Lord knows, Kenny's had girlfriends before, and I don't always know about them,' Foster said, turning around in her chair to look back inside the ring. 'Unless you're right about Windsong, the horse Kenny's on now is the only one he has left. Black Opal. We call him Pal for short.'

Marino and I did not respond as we turned around to see Sparkes dismount and hand the reins to one of Foster's stable hands.

'Good job, Pal,' Sparkes said, patting the horse's handsome neck and head.

'Any special reason this horse wasn't with the others on his farm?' I asked Foster.

'Not quite old enough. He's a barely three-year-old gelding who still needs training. That's why he's still here, lucky for him.'

For a flicker, her face was contorted by grief, and she quickly looked away. She cleared her throat and got up from her chair. She walked away as Sparkes came out of the arena adjusting his belt and the fit of his jeans. I got up and Marino and I respectfully shook his hand. He was sweating through a faded red Izod shirt, and he wiped his face with a yellow bandanna he untied from his neck.

'Please sit down,' he said graciously, as if he were granting us an audience with him.

We took our chairs again, and he pulled his out and turned it around to face us, the skin tight around eyes that were resolute but bloodshot.

'Let me begin by telling you what I firmly believe right now as I sit in this chair,' he said. 'The fire was not an accident.'

'That's what we're here to investigate, sir,' Marino said, more politely than usual.

'I believe the motivation was racist in nature.' Sparkes's jaw muscles began to flex and fury filled his voice. 'And they - whoever they are - intentionally murdered my horses, destroying everything I love.'

'If the motive was racism,' Marino said, 'then why wouldn't they have checked to make sure you were home?'

'Some things are worse than death. Perhaps they want me alive to suffer. You put two and two together.'

'We're trying to,' Marino said.

'Don't even consider pinning this on me.'

He pointed a finger at both of us.

'I know exactly how people like you think,' he went on. 'Huh. I torched my own farm and horses for money. Now you listen to me good.'

He leaned closer to us.

'I'm telling you now that I didn't do it. Would never, could never do it, will never do it. I had nothing to do with what happened. I'm the victim here and probably lucky to be alive.'

'Let's talk about the other victim,' I spoke quietly. 'A white female with long blond hair, as it looks now. Is there anyone else who might have been in your house that night?'

'No one should have been in my house!' he exclaimed.

'We are speculating that this person may have died in the master suite,' I went on. 'Possibly the bathroom.'

'Whoever she was, she must have broken in,' he said. 'Or maybe she was the one who set the fire, and couldn't get out.'

'There's no evidence that anyone broke in, sir,' Marino responded. 'And if your burglar alarm was set, it never went off that night. Only the smoke alarm.'

'I don't understand.' Sparkes seemed to be telling the truth. 'Of course, I set the alarm before I left town.'

'And you were headed where?' Marino probed.

'London. I got there and was immediately notified. I never even left Heathrow and instantly caught the next flight back,' he said. 'I got off in D.C. and drove straight here.'

He stared blankly at the ground.

'Drove in what?' Marino asked.

'My Cherokee. I'd left it at Dulles in long-term parking.'

'You've got the receipt?'

'Yes.'

'What about the Mercedes at your house?' Marino went on.

Sparkes frowned. 'What Mercedes? I don't own a Mercedes. I have always bought American cars.'

I remembered that this had been one of his policies that he had been quite vocal about.

'There's a Mercedes behind the house. It burned up, too, so we can't tell much about it yet,' Marino said. 'But it doesn't look like a recent model to me. A sedan, sort of boxy like they were earlier on.'

Sparkes just shook his head.

'Then we might wonder if it was the victim's car,' Marino deduced. 'Maybe someone who had come to see you unexpectedly? Who else had a key to your house, and your burglar alarm code?'

'Good Lord,' Sparkes said as he groped for an answer. 'Josh did. My stable hand, honest as the day is long. He quit for health reasons and I never bothered changing the locks.'

'You need to tell us where to find him,' Marino said.

'He would never…' Sparkes started to say, but he stopped and an incredulous expression came over his face. 'My God,' he muttered with an awful sigh. 'Oh my God.'

He looked at me.

'You said she was blond,' he asked.

'Yes,' I said.

'Can you tell me anything else about the way she looked?' His voice was getting panicky.

'Appears to be slender, possibly white. Wearing jeans, some sort of shirt, and boots. Lace-up boots, versus Western.'

'How tall?' he had to know.

'I can't tell. Not until I've examined her.'

'What about jewelry?'

'Her hands were gone.'

He sighed again, and when he spoke his voice trembled. 'Was her hair very long, like down to the middle of her back, and a very pale gold?'

'That's the way it appears at this time,' I replied.

'There was a young woman,' he began, clearing his throat several times. 'My God… I have a place at Wrightsville Beach and met her there. She was a student at the university, or at least on and off she was. It didn't last long, maybe six months. And she did stay with me on the farm, several times. The last time I saw her was there, and I ended the relationship because it couldn't go on.'

'Did she own an old Mercedes?' Marino asked.

Sparkes shook his head. He covered his face with his hands as he struggled for composure.

'A Volkswagen thing. Light blue,' he managed to say. 'She didn't have any money. I gave her some in the end, before she left. A thousand dollars cash. I told her to go back to school and finish. Her name is Claire Rawley, and I suppose she could have taken one of my extra keys without my knowing while she was staying on the farm. Maybe she saw the alarm code when I punched it in.'

'And you've had no contact with Claire Rawley for more than a year?' I said.

'Not one word,' he replied. 'That seems so far in my past. It was a foolish fling, really. I saw her surfing and started talking to her on the beach, in Wrightsville. I have to say, she was the most splendid-looking woman I have ever seen. For a while, I was out of my mind, then I came to my senses. There were many, many complications and problems. Claire needed a caretaker, and I couldn't be that.'

'I need to know everything about her that you can tell me,' I said to him with feeling. 'Anything about where she was from, her family. Anything that might help me identify the body or rule Claire Rawley out. Of course, I will contact the university, as well.'

'I've got to tell you the sad truth, Dr Scarpetta,' my former boss said to me. 'I never knew anything about her, really. Our relationship was mainly sexual, with me helping her out with money and her problems as best I could. I did care about her.' He paused. 'But it was never serious, at least not on my side. I mean, marriage was never in the offing.'

He did not need to explain further. Sparkes had power. He exuded it and had always enjoyed almost any woman he wanted. But I felt no judgment now.

'I'm sorry,' he said, getting up. 'I can only tell you that she was rather much a failed artist. A want-to-be actor who spent most of her time surfing or wandering the beach: And after I'd been around her for a while, I began to see that something wasn't right about her. The way she seemed so lacking in motivation, and would act so erratic and glazed sometimes.'

'Did she abuse alcohol?' I asked.

'Not chronically. It has too many calories.'

'Drugs?'

'That's what I began to suspect, and it was something I could have no association with. I don't know.'

'I need for you to spell her name for me,' I said.

'Before you go walking off,' Marino jumped in, and I recognized the bad-cop edge to his tone, 'you sure this couldn't be some sort of a murder-suicide? Only she kills everything you own and goes up in flames along with it? You sure there's no reason she might have done that, Mr Sparkes?'

'At this point, I can't be sure of anything,' Sparkes answered him as he paused near the barn's open door.

Marino got up, too.

'Well, this ain't adding up, no disrespect intended,' Marino said. 'And I do need to see any receipts you have for your London trip. And for Dulles airport. And I know ATF's hot to know about your basement full of bourbon and automatic weapons.'

'I collect World War II weapons, and all of them are registered and legal,' he said with restraint. 'I bought the bourbon from a Kentucky distillery that went out of business five years ago. They shouldn't have sold it to me and I shouldn't have bought it. But so be it.'

'I think ATF's got bigger fish to fry than your barrels of bourbon,' Marino said. 'So if you got any of those receipts with you now, I'd appreciate your handing them over to me.'

'Will you strip search me next, Captain?' Sparkes fixed hard eyes on him.

Marino stared back as guinea hens kicked past again like breakdancers.

'You can deal with my lawyer,' Sparkes said. 'And then I'll be happy to cooperate.'

'Marino,' it was my turn to speak, 'if you'd give me just a minute alone with Mr Sparkes.'

Marino was taken aback and very annoyed. Without a word, he stalked off into the barn, several hens trotting after him. Sparkes and I stood, facing each other. He was a strikingly handsome man, tall and lean, with thick gray hair. His eyes were amber, his features aristocratic, with a straight Jeffersonian nose and skin dark and as smooth as a man half his age. The way he tightly gripped his riding crop seemed to fit his mood. Kenneth Sparkes was capable of violence but had never given in to it, as best I knew.

'All right. What's on your mind?' he asked me suspiciously.

'I just wanted to make sure you understand that our differences of the past…'

He shook his head and would not let me finish.

'The past is past,' he said curtly.

'No, Kenneth, it isn't. And it's important for you to know that I don't harbor bad feelings about you,' I replied. 'That what's going on now is not related.'

When he had been more actively involved with the publishing of his newspapers, he had basically accused me of racism when I had released statistics about black on black homicides. I had shown citizens how many deaths were drug-related or involved prostitution or were just plain hate of one black for another.

His own reporters had taken several of my quotes out of context and had distorted the rest, and by the end of the day, Sparkes had summoned me to his posh downtown office. I would never forget being shown into his mahogany space of fresh flowers and colonial furniture and lighting. He had ordered me, as if he could, to demonstrate more sensitivity to African-Americans and publicly retract my bigoted professional assessments. As I looked at him now, with sweat on his face and manure on his boots, it did not seem I was talking to the same arrogant man. His hands were trembling, his strong demeanor about to break.

'Will you let me know what you find out?' he asked as tears filled his eyes, his head held high.

'I'll tell you what I can,' I promised evasively.

'I just want to know if it's her, and that she didn't suffer,' he said.

'Most people in fires don't. The carbon monoxide renders them unconscious long before the flames get close. Usually, death is quiet and painless.'

'Oh, thank God.'

He looked up at the sky.

'Oh, thank you, God,' he muttered.


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