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Authors: Lyndon Stacey

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BOOK: Outside Chance
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‘Well, I hope you're insured against causing heart attacks in the audience,' Ben observed. ‘Mine was going like the clappers, and
I
knew it was all part of the act! You ought to put a health warning on the tickets!'

Nico laughed delightedly. ‘You ain't seen nothing yet!' he declared, the Americanism sounding strange in his slightly stilted English. He was, as were all of the troupe, of Hungarian Gypsy origin – which no doubt accounted for his smouldering good looks – and Ben suspected that his grasp of the English language was attributable to a combination of questionable sources, including contact with European tourists and a few too many of American films.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, I give you . . . The Hungarian Csikós!'

The trio of riders immediately before him in the parade moved forward and, with a wave of his hand, Nico vaulted on to his horse.

‘Later, my friend,' he called and turned towards the arena, his back straightening and his expression settling once more into one of macho hauteur as he faced the bright lights.

Ben stepped back and watched him go. He'd been following the troupe on and off ever since they had docked, en masse, at Dover three days ago. His job, as a freelance journalist specialising in all things equine, had brought him into the sphere of a number of fascinating people, but he couldn't remember any who had so instantly captivated him in the way these Gypsy horsemen had done. He had never been a fan of circuses and had accepted the assignment with a measure of reserve. His prejudice, however, melted away within minutes of seeing their first performance, and he was now happily devoting a large proportion of his time to the in-depth article he'd been commissioned to write.

In his pocket, his mobile began ringing with the particular call-tone reserved for family members. He dug it out. The display told him it was his half-brother, Mikey, and he pressed a button to accept the call.

‘Mikey. How ya doin'? Sorry I couldn't get over to see you this afternoon.' Just seventeen, Mikey was a conditional jockey – jump racing's equivalent of an apprentice – and Ben knew he'd been due to ride in a novice hurdle at Sandown Park.

‘I'm at the hospital.' Never relaxed on the phone, Mikey cut straight to the chase.

The shock jolted Ben.

‘What happened? Did you fall off? Are you all right?'

‘No, I didn't fall off. It was on the way home, but I'm not supposed to talk about it.'

‘What do you mean? Were you in a road accident or what? Why can't you talk about it?'

‘The Guvnor said not to. But I just wanted to let you know I'm all right.'

‘But Mikey . . .' Ben paused in amused frustration. ‘If you hadn't rung, I wouldn't have known anything was wrong anyway.'

‘No . . . I know . . . '

Ben was picking up a strong thread of anxiety in Mikey's voice. Something had clearly upset him. Fifteen years separated them and sometimes he felt more like Mikey's father than his half-brother; the more so because Mikey had grown up with certain learning difficulties, resulting in an overall lack of confidence and a childish need for reassurance. It was nearly always to Ben that
he turned rather than to their mutual father, bloodstock agent John Copperfield, who, although he had many virtues, could not count patience as one of them.

‘Why did Mr Truman tell you not to ring?'

‘He said not to tell anyone, but I shouldn't think he meant you, did he?'

Ben's lips twitched. He most assuredly
did
mean him. If Eddie Truman had something to hide, the very last person he'd want Mikey to tell was his journalist brother.

‘Which hospital are you in? Would you like me to come over?' he asked, avoiding the question.

‘We're going home in a minute. They just checked us over. But we've got to wait for Les. He has asthma and the shock made him bad.'

‘So you
did
have an accident.'

‘No. It was these men . . . Look, I can't tell you. I'll get into trouble.'

Intrigued, Ben made an instant decision. ‘Listen, Mikey; I'll come to the cottage, okay? But I'm in Kent so I'll be a couple of hours at least. And perhaps it would be best if you didn't tell Mr Truman you've spoken to me. Just to be on the safe side. All right?'

‘Yeah. Maybe. See you later, then.'

Ben switched off, feeling thoughtful, and in due course he excused himself from the post-performance get-together and set off for the Castle Ridge Racing Stables on the Wiltshire–Dorset border. The Csikós were touring and due to move on. When he caught up with them again, it would be in Sussex.

Eddie Truman's yard stood in an enviable position on the edge of a stretch of chalk downland, which formed beautiful natural gallops for racehorses. Because of the large number of horses he had in training – ninety-five, the last Ben had heard – Truman had a fair number of staff. These included two PAs, a farrier, an odd-job man, an assistant trainer, two head lads, a travelling head lad, a box driver and a fluctuating total of somewhere between twenty-five and thirty stable-lads and lasses. Some of these had digs in the nearby village of Lower Castleton but a number of the lads occupied two former farm-workers' cottages. Mikey and four others, one of whom was the head lad, shared a cottage just a stone's throw from the yard itself.

It was in front of this that Ben parked his four-wheel-drive Mitsubishi, just before midnight. He had hesitated outside the high wooden gates at the end of the back drive, wondering if perhaps he was too late and Mikey might have given up on him and gone to bed. Something in his voice, though, had suggested a crisis that would not be solved merely by getting a good night's rest, so he'd carried on; now the well-lit cottage windows showed that nobody seemed to have sleep on their minds just at the moment. Across the intervening field, a blaze of light at the main house seemed to tell the same story. Ben began to be very interested indeed.

The Mitsubishi's wheels had barely stopped turning when the door of the lads' cottage opened and he could see Mikey looking out.

‘You were watching for me.' Ben crunched across the frosty gravel to meet him. The
afternoon's clouds had disappeared and it was a clear, starlit night.

‘Actually there's a buzzer that goes off when the gate's opened at night. Ricey says it's better than having it locked because people will always find a way in if they're determined, and this way we know they're coming.'

‘That makes sense,' Ben agreed. ‘Where do you want to talk, in or out?'

‘You can come in. There's only me and Davy here. They kept Les in for the night 'cos he was still wheezing. Ricey and Bess are over at the house and Caterpillar's on holiday.'

‘Caterpillar?' Ben queried, momentarily distracted. He followed Mikey into the kitchen; a blue-and-white-tiled room with pine units, a large pine table, and a state of tolerable tidiness that Ben suspected was entirely due to Bess's presence in the cottage.

‘Yeah, he's new. You haven't met him yet. We call him Caterpillar 'cos he's got this huge moustache. Ricey says it's a relic from the seventies.'

‘Oh, I see. You're not making coffee are you? I could murder a cup. It was a long drive. Talking of which . . .?'

‘Yeah . . . look, I'm really not supposed to say anything.' Mikey busied himself with filling the kettle and finding mugs, his golden blond fringe flopping into his eyes as it habitually did. At five foot seven he was fully six inches shorter than Ben, taking after his mother rather than the Copperfield side of the family. He had inherited his colouring from her, too, and had dark-lashed, brilliant-blue eyes that had the girls in raptures;
the shame of it was that he was far too shy to appreciate his luck. Ben was a true Copperfield, tall and fairly lean, with mid-brown hair – at present short and a little spiky – that curled if it was allowed to grow, and eyes that couldn't make up their mind if they were green or grey.

‘But you already
have
said something. You can't just expect me to forget it,' Ben pointed out reasonably. ‘Come on, you know you can trust me. I won't tell anyone if it would get you into trouble.'

‘I know, but . . . '

‘Mikey. I've just driven over a hundred miles to get here because I was worried about you. I'm not about to turn round and go away without finding out what's going on. Why all the lights everywhere? I could see the main house was all lit up as I came over the hill. And why are Ian and Bess over there now? You can't tell me
that's
normal at midnight.
You've
been to hospital; Les is still there. So who were these men you were talking about? Come on. You're not being very fair. Something happened on the way home, didn't it? Was there an accident? Has one of the horses been hurt? What?'

‘Not
hurt
, exactly,' Mikey responded reluctantly.

‘Then what?' Ben was trying very hard to keep his frustration under control.

Mikey was stirring the coffee, his lower lip caught between his teeth and his brow creased with the agony of his indecision.

Ben tried again. ‘Okay, if not hurt, then . . . did you lose one somehow?' He read Mikey's stricken expression. ‘That's it, isn't it? No! My
God, you've had one stolen! Which one? Not Cajun King?'

Mikey didn't try to deny it. ‘Yes. But you mustn't tell anyone. The Guvnor would kill me.'

‘No, of course I won't.' Ben's mind was buzzing with this new development. Cajun King: strong ante-post favourite for the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Castle Ridge's great hope for National Hunt glory. Stolen. Or kidnapped, perhaps? He instantly thought of Shergar. ‘Where and how did they do it?' he asked.

‘It was a checkpoint. They pretended to be immigration officials.'

‘And then what?'

‘They had guns. They threatened Ricey and the others, then tied them up.' Mikey handed Ben a mug of exceedingly milky coffee and they both sat down at the table.

‘So where were you? In the back?'

‘Yeah, I was in the luton, asleep. Nigel – our other driver – has got a bed up there, over the cab. I went up there after racing and I'd been there ever since. I didn't even wake up when we set off for home.'

That didn't surprise Ben. Mikey had a remarkable propensity for taking catnaps as and when he felt like it, regardless of where he was or what was going on.

‘So where was this?'

‘About twenty minutes after we'd left the racecourse, in a lay-by on the side of a dual carriageway, Ricey says.'

‘But . . . you'd have thought someone would've seen what was going on and called the police.'

‘Ricey says it was all over in a minute or two, and then they drove the box away. They took it to some private land where they could transfer the horse to another lorry.'

‘And you slept through it all.'

‘Yes. I didn't know anything about it until they drove down this bumpy track and I woke up.' Now he'd started, Mikey seemed eager to tell the whole story. ‘We stopped, and then I could hear these men's voices calling to one another, and someone opened the back. I knew it wasn't Ricey 'cos he always thumps on the roof of the cab first, when we stop, to wake me up – and anyway, their voices sounded . . . different. Not from round here.'

‘Well, you weren't “round here” when it happened,' Ben reminded him. ‘But you mean they had some kind of accent?' He knew it wasn't any earthly good asking Mikey what kind of accent it had been. The boy was hopeless in that department. He could recognise an accent again once he'd heard it, but he couldn't tell South African from Geordie, or Indian from Scots, and if he didn't know he had a tendency to guess, to try and please you.

‘Yeah. Could have been Welsh, maybe.'

‘So what happened next?'

‘Well, I could hear these men in with the horses, so I stayed hidden.' Mikey looked down at his coffee, shamefaced.

‘I don't blame you,' Ben said, adding without irony, ‘Best thing to do.'

Mikey looked unhappy. ‘Davy says I should have done something.'

‘Well, Davy's a moron,' Ben observed. ‘What the hell could you have done on your own? Nothing; and there was no point at all in getting yourself hurt, or tied up like the others. You did the right thing.'

‘Is that what you'd have done?'

‘Oh, absolutely.'

‘Yeah, well, I thought it was the best thing,' Mikey stated, growing in confidence now that Ben had approved his actions.

‘So what happened then? Could you hear what they were saying?'

‘Not really. There were two of them in the back of the lorry but they didn't say a lot, really. Just talking to the horses as they got them out. And then the other lorry turned up.'

‘They got
all
the horses out?'

‘Yes. They took them all out of the box and let them go. I heard them chasing the others away.'

‘Playing for time, I suppose,' Ben said. ‘So they transferred Cajun King to the other lorry and drove off. What then? Did you call the police?'

‘Well, I was going to, but as soon as I got down from the luton I found Ricey and the others all tied up, so I got some scissors from the grooming kit and cut them free. Then we found a note stuck to the dashboard. It said that nobody was to call the police or King would be killed.'

‘And what did Ian – er, Ricey do then?'

‘He said he was going to call the Guvnor but we were in a valley and he couldn't get a signal on his mobile, so we decided to try and catch the horses first.'

‘And you found them all right?'

Mikey nodded. ‘One of them was hanging round the lorry and the other two weren't far away.'

‘And then you came home.'

‘Well, we were going to, but on the way Les started to have an asthma attack, so we had to take him to hospital.'

BOOK: Outside Chance
11.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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