Under orders, p.5

Under Orders, page 5

 

Under Orders
 



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  He just looked at me, then nodded slightly. It was enough.

  I slowly lowered the shotgun. There were too many windows overlooking Ebury Street and I feared that net curtains would already be twitching.

  The young man took one look at the lowered gun and decided that retreat was the best plan. He ground his gears and was gone.

  I strode back through the lobby, grinning broadly, with the gun slung over my shoulder. Derek, who had watched the whole episode through the glass, now had an open mouth to match his staring eyes.

  I winked at him as the elevator doors closed.

  So much for my secrets, I thought. Chris Beecher knew exactly where I lived. And he knew exactly who I was “screwing.”

  •

  EVAN WALKER STAYED for another hour before remembering that he had cattle to feed and one hundred and seventy-five miles to drive home first. In the meantime, he managed to consume four more slices of toast with lashings of strawberry jam and two more mugs of tea.

  He talked about Huw and how proud he was of what his son had achieved.

  “Glynis, that’s my wife, and me, we were so pleased when he won the Welsh National at Chepstow. You should have seen us. Dressed to the nines, we were. My Glynis was so proud. Best thing that happened to us for ages. Glynis passed away last October, see. Cancer, it was.” He was again close to tears. “Stomach. Poor lass couldn’t eat. Starved to death, really.”

  “Do you have any other children?” I asked.

  “Did have,” he said. “Another boy, Brynn. Two years older than Huw. Knocked off his bike, he was. On his way to school. On his fifteenth birthday.”

  Life is full of buggers.

  “Glynis never got over it,” he went on. “Visited his grave every week for eighteen years till her illness meant she couldn’t walk down to the churchyard. Buried next to him, she is.”

  There was a long pause as he stared down at the floor.

  “Suppose I should put Huw with them.”

  Another longer pause.

  “Just me left now,” he said. “I was an only child, and Glynis lost touch with her brother when he moved to Australia. Didn’t even come back for her funeral, although he could have afforded to. Successful businessman, apparently.”

  Evan stood up and turned to me. “It says in that damn rag that you’re a private detective,” he said. “I remember you as a jockey, and a bloody good one, too. I often wondered what Huw would do when he gave up riding … doesn’t matter now… Anyway, what I meant to say was, will you find out for me who killed my son?”

  “The police will do that,” I said.

  “The police are fools,” said Evan forcefully. “They never found out who killed our Brynn. Hit-and-run, you see. Never really tried, if you ask me.”

  I noticed that Marina’s eyes had filled with tears. Just how much pain could a single man take?

  “I’ll pay for your time,” he said to me. “Please … find out who killed my Huw.”

  I thought of the desperate messages Huw had left on my answering machine.

  “I’ll do my best,” I said.

  How could I say no?

  5

  * * *

  I lay awake for much of the night, thinking nasty thoughts about what I would like to do to Chris Beecher and his young snapper, and, sure enough, the Monday edition of The Pump had, on its Diary page, a photograph of Marina and me walking hand in hand along Ebury Street, with the headline WHO’S SID HALLEY’S NEW GIRLFRIEND? The picture seemed to accentuate the fact that Marina was some four inches taller than I, and the brief paragraph underneath was hardly flattering, with the words “divorced,” “diminutive” and “crippled” all making an appearance alongside “murder suspect.” At least the photo wasn’t one of me pointing a double-barreled shotgun at the camera, with the caption “Who’s Sid Halley’s new victim?”

  So much for keeping my relationship away from the press and a secret from those persons who might look for “pressure points.”

  I had created a reputation among the racing villainy that Sid Halley would not be put off by a bit of violence to his body. Such a reputation takes a while to establish, and, unfortunately, quite a few had already tried the direct route. One such incident had resulted in the loss of my left hand. It had by then been useless for some time, but I was still attached to it both literally and metaphorically. Its loss to a poker-wielding psychopath had been a really bad day at the office.

  These days, there were those who would stoop to different methods to discourage me from investigating their affairs. Consequently, I had tried to keep Marina’s existence a secret and I was frustrated that I had been so glaringly unsuccessful. Perhaps I was getting paranoid.

  Marina, meanwhile, seemed more concerned that the photographer had captured her with her mouth open and her eyes shut.

  “At least they haven’t got my name,” she said, trying to make me feel better.

  “They’ll get it. And your life story.” There were always those who would ring up a newspaper if they had a snippet of information. Too many people knew Marina at work.

  “Just take care,” I warned, but she didn’t really believe that she would be in any danger.

  “You work for the Civil Service,” she said. “How dangerous can that be?”

  There was nothing “civil” about some of those I had separated from their liberty or from their ill-gotten gains. But that had been before I had encountered my Dutch beauty at a friend’s party and invited her first to share my bed, then my life.

  If I were honest, I would have to admit that nowadays I tended not to take on the sort of work that I had reveled in five years ago. Regular safe jobs provided by Archie Kirk filled most of my time. Boring but profitable. Hardly a threat to be heard, except from the tax man over my expenses—”… a new suit to replace the one ruined due to lying in a wet ditch for two hours waiting for a certain Member of Parliament to complete an amorous assignation with a prostitute in the back of his Jaguar—you must be joking, sir.” I hadn’t shown him the pictures.

  Finding Huw Walker’s killer might prove to be a little more dangerous.

  •

  MARINA AND I slipped out of the building through the garage in case there “were more telephoto lenses awaiting our appearance through the front door. She took the tube to work while I walked along Victoria Street to Archie’s office in Whitehall.

  “The Pump have really got it in for you, haven’t they?” he said by way of a greeting, the newspaper on his desk open at the Diary page.

  “Ignore them,” I replied. “Then they might go away.”

  “Are they still going on about that other time?”

  “The press don’t like being in the wrong,” I said, “and they have very long memories. But that time there was an agenda. This time, I think it is just one particular journalist and his warped sense of humor. He doesn’t like me because I won’t tell him anything for his gossip column. This is his way of getting back at me. Ignore it. I have broad shoulders.” Actually, I didn’t, but so what.

  I stood by the window in Archie’s office, looking out at the traffic. Every second vehicle going down Whitehall seemed to be a bus. Masses of big red buses. Most were double-deckers, but some were long single-deckers with a bendy bit in the middle. Almost all of them were nearly empty and I thought that much of the congestion in London was due to too many buses with too few passengers.

  I turned and sat down on a simple wooden upright chair. Archie clearly did not want his visitors to become too comfortable and outstay their welcome.

  I had found it difficult to determine quite how high up Archie was in the Civil Service hierarchy. To have a third-floor office on the corner of Downing Street with a spectacular view of the London Eye would seem to put the occupant into the “considerably important” bracket. However, the threadbare carpet and the sparse furniture that would not have looked out of place in a shelter for the homeless, tended to say otherwise.

  Although I had been in this off
ice several times, we normally did our business by meeting elsewhere, usually in the open air and well away from listening ears. Archie did not appear to have a secretary or an assistant of any kind. I had once asked him to whom I should speak if I needed something urgently and he was not available.

  “Speak only to me. Use only my cell, and don’t talk about confidential matters on the phone,” he had briskly replied. “And don’t use your cell at all if you don’t want anyone to later find out where you were at the time of the call. And never use the office switchboard.”

  “Surely you trust the Cabinet Office switchboard?” I had said.

  “I trust nothing and nobody,” he had declared. And I had believed him.

  He cleared his throat.

  “Have you heard about the Gambling Bill that’s making its way through Parliament?” he asked, getting to the point.

  “Of course,” I said. “All the talk on the racetrack.”

  The proposals in the bill were, it seemed to me, designed to make it easier to separate a fool from his money, to provide easier access to casinos and to allow more and more Internet gambling sites into every home. Not that I wanted to restrict anyone from having the odd flutter, even many odd flutters. The racing fraternity, however, was deeply concerned about the impact the bill might have on their industry.

  Twenty years ago, racing had had almost a monopoly on gambling. Casinos existed, but they were “members clubs” and beyond the aspiration of the general public. Then came betting on football, and on every other sporting activity. Next, the National Lottery took a slice. Now the supercasinos planned for every town might prove the death knell for some of the smaller racetracks.

  “Well,” he went on, “we—that’s my committee and I—are looking at the influences that organized crime may have on the way that licenses are issued to new gambling centers. As you might know”—he sounded very formal, as though addressing a public meeting, but I was used to it—”until recently, the issuing of licenses for the serving and consumption of alcohol was the responsibility of magistrates. Now that duty has been transferred to the local councils.”

  It sounded to me as if he trusted the magistrates rather more than the councils, but it was only relative, I thought, since he trusted nothing and nobody.

  “It is our expectation that gambling licenses will be issued in the same manner under the control of a new Gaming Board. As always, the bloody politicians are rushing things into law without working out how they’ll be implemented.”

  As often seemed to be the case, I thought, legislation tends to be shaped more by politics than by logic.

  Archie went on. “There are over three thousand bookmaking permits issued in this country and nearly nine thousand betting-shop licenses. There’s already lots of scope for corruption and we feel this will only increase.”

  Wow, I thought. More bookies than punters at some tracks. I hope he didn’t expect me to investigate every one.

  “And that doesn’t include the Internet sites, which are breaking out like a rash,” he said. “Online poker seems to be the latest craze, but racing is still the biggest market. Many of the new sites are based overseas and it will prove very difficult, if not impossible, to license and regulate them.”

  He paused, and seemed to have run out of steam.

  “What do you want me to do?” I asked.

  “I don’t really know. Get your antennae working and listen. Ask the right questions. What you usually do.”

  “How long do I have, and how many days do you want to pay for?” I asked.

  “Give it a month. Usual terms, OK?”

  “Fine,” I said. We had an arrangement that worked well. In the month, I might spend about half my time on Archie’s work and I would charge him for twelve days plus expenses. I didn’t know under which budget such work was included and I didn’t ask. Checks arrived promptly, and, so far, they hadn’t bounced.

  Archie stood and offered his hand. My audience was over.

  Workwise, the last few weeks had been rather thin, but now, like the buses in Whitehall, three had come along at once. Since Friday morning, I had agreed to look into the running of Jonny Enstone’s horses, find the murderer of Huw Walker and now the minor matter of determining if there was likely to be major corruption in the issuing of betting permits and licenses due to a change in the system. Piece of cake, I thought, but where the hell do I start?

  I decided I could get going on the first two jobs at the same time, and, I thought, maybe the third one, too. I went to see Bill Burton.

  •

  I COLLECTED MY Audi from the garage under my flat and drove the sixty or so miles west along the M4 to Lambourn.

  I had phoned Bill to make sure he would be in. “Come, if you like,” he had said. “Can’t think that it’ll do any good.” He had sounded tired and lifeless, not like the strong Bill Burton who had once helped me through the double trauma of a marriage breakup and a career-ending injury.

  It was nearly two in the afternoon when I pulled up the driveway and parked around behind the house near the back door. I could see through into his stable yard from here and all was quiet. A few inquisitive equine heads appeared over the stable doors to inspect the new arrival.

  I knocked, then, as is always the way in the racing world, I opened the door and walked straight into the kitchen, expecting Bill’s children to run in to see who had arrived, as they always did.

  “Hello! Hello, Bill, Kate,” I called out.

  An elderly black labrador raised his head from his bed, took a look at me and decided not to bother to get up. Suddenly, the house seemed very quiet. Dirty dishes were stacked in the kitchen sink and an opened milk carton sat on the kitchen table.

  I called out again. “Bill, Kate, it’s Sid, Sid Halley.”

  No reply. The labrador stood up, came and sniffed around my legs, then returned to lie down again on his bed.

  I went through into the hallway and then into the den, a small sitting room where I knew Bill spent many an afternoon watching racing on television.

  He was there, lying on a leather sofa. He was fast asleep.

  I shook him gently and he sat up.

  “Sorry,” he said. “Didn’t sleep too well last night.” He struggled to his feet. “Fancy a coffee?”

  “Love one,” I replied.

  We went into the kitchen and he put the kettle on the Aga. There were no mugs left in the cupboard, so he took a couple from the dirty stack in the sink, rinsed them briefly under the tap and measured instant granules into them with a dirty teaspoon.

  “Sorry,” he said again, “Kate’s not here. Left with the children on Friday morning.”

  “How long will she be away?” I asked.

  “Don’t rightly know.” He sighed. “We had a row … another row, but this was a big one. This time, maybe, she won’t be coming back.”

  “Where’s she gone?” I said.

  “Not sure. To her mother’s, I expect, or her sister’s.”

  The kettle started to boil and clouds of steam appeared above the spout. He didn’t seem to notice. I stepped around Bill and took the kettle off the heat, closing the lid on the Aga. I poured the boiling liquid into the mugs.

  “Haven’t you tried to call her?” I asked. I sniffed the milk. It was off.

  “I did call her mother’s number,” he replied. “I’ve never got on with my mother-in-law and she predictably hung up on me. I haven’t bothered to try again. Kate knows where I am, if she wants me.”

  I put a steaming mug down beside him on the kitchen table. “It’ll have to be black, the milk’s off,” I said, taking my mug and sitting down on a kitchen chair.

  “Oh, there’s more in the fridge,” he said but made no move to get it. He just sat down with another sigh.

  “It hasn’t been very good for a while, not since Alice was born, that’s my youngest. Three she is now.” He paused briefly and smiled. “We’ve been married twelve years. Bloody marvelous it was at first. I was the envy of th
e jockeys’ room.”

  I remembered. We had all fancied Kate, who was the elder daughter of the successful trainer for whom Bill rode. We had all thought it had been strictly “hands off” if he wanted to continue riding for her dad, so it had been a big surprise when Bill, twenty-eight at the time, had announced one day that he was going to marry Kate, who was six years his junior. It had been the wedding of the year in Lambourn.

  “We were so in love,” he went on, “and I was proud as proud could be of my beautiful wife. We both wanted masses of children and she got pregnant as soon as we tried. She came off the pill on our honeymoon and, bingo, first bloody time.”

  I knew—I’d heard this story numerous times before.

  “That was young William. Then there was James and Michael, and finally we had Alice. Always wanted a girl.” He smiled broadly at the thought of his lovely little daughter.

  “But since then, things have been going wrong,” he said. “When I was riding, it was easy. I went to the races, rode what the guv’nor told me to and came home again. Or ended up in the hospital. You know. Never had to bring work home. Easy.”

  I remembered that, too. I agreed with him. It was easy if you were one of the top jockeys, with plenty of rides and plenty of money, as we both had been.

  “This training lark is much tougher. Always kowtowing to the bloody owners. You try telling them that their horses are useless and only good for the knackers without upsetting them to the point of them taking my advice and having the bloody things put down. Then where would I be? No bloody horses and no training fees.” He stopped to take a gulp of his coffee, made a face and fetched the fresh milk from the fridge.

  “Then there are the entries, the orders and the staff.” He sat down again, leaving a second opened milk carton on the table. “You wouldn’t believe how unreliable staff can be. They just pack up and leave whenever they feel like it, usually immediately after payday. Someone offers them a job with a bit more money and they’re off. I had one groom last week told me he was leaving while we were in the paddock at the races. There and then. After the race, he was gone. Didn’t even turn up to take the horse back to the racetrack stables. I tell you, staff drive you nuts.”

 

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