his fingers laced rigidly together over a swelling paunch. His voice was much the same as Rubber Mask's: without much accent, but not English. His shoes, which were more on my level, were supple, handmade, and of Genoese leather.

Italian shape. Not conclusive: they sell Italian shoes from Hong Kong to San Francisco.

One of the rubber-faces cleared his throat. 'It is Griffon.'

The remains of laughter died coldly away. Griffon was indeed my name. If I was not the right man, they must have come for my father. Yet that made no more sense: he was, like me, in none of the abduction-prone professions.

The man in the armchair, with the same reined-in anger, said through his teeth, 'It is not Griffon.'

'It is,' persisted Rubber Face faintly.

The man stood up out of his armchair and with his elegant toe rolled me over on to my back.

'Griffon is an old man,' he said. The sting in his voice sent both rubber-faces back a pace as if he had physically hit them.

'You didn't tell us he was old.'

The other rubber-face backed up his colleague in a defensive whine and a different accent. This time, down- the-scale American. 'We watched him all evening. He went round the stables, looking at the horses. At every horse. The men, they treated him as boss. He is the trainer. He is Griffon.'

'Griffon's assistant,' he said furiously. He sat down again and held on to the arms with the same effort as he was holding on to his temper.

'Get up,' he said to me abruptly.

I struggled up nearly as far as my knees, but the rest was daunting, and I thought, why on earth should I bother, so I lay gently down again. It did nothing to improve the general climate.

'Get up,' he said furiously.

I shut my eyes.

There was a sharp blow on my thigh. I opened my eyes again in time to see the American-voiced rubber-face draw back his foot for another kick. All one could say was that he was wearing shoes and not boots.

'Stop it.' The sharp voice arrested him mid-kick. 'Just put him in that chair.'

American rubber-face picked up the chair in question and placed it six feet from the armchair, facing it. Mid- Victorian, I assessed automatically. Mahogany. Probably once had a caned seat, but was upholstered now in pink flowered glazed chintz. The two rubber-faces lifted me up bodily and draped me around so that my tied wrists were behind the back of the chair. When they had done that they stepped away, just as far as one pace behind each of my shoulders.

From that elevation I had a better view of their master, if not of the total situation.

'Griffon's assistant,' he repeated. But this time the anger was secondary: he'd accepted the mistake and was working out what to do about it.

It didn't take him long.

'Gun,' he said, and Rubber Face gave it to him.

He was plump and bald, and I guessed he would take no pleasure from looking at old photographs of himself. Under the rounded cheeks, the heavy chin, the folds of eyelids, there lay an elegant bone structure. It still showed in the strong clear beak of the nose and in the arch above the eye sockets. He had the basic equipment of a handsome man, but he looked, I thought fancifully, like a Caesar gone self-indulgently to seed: and one might have taken the fat as a sign of mellowness had it not been for the ill will that looked unmistakably out of his narrowed eyes.

'Silencer,' he said acidly. He was contemptuous, irritated, and not suffering his rubber-faced fools gladly.

One rubber-face produced a silencer from his trouser pocket and Caesar began screwing it on. Silencers meant business where naked barrels might not. He was about to bury his employees' mistake.

My future looked decidedly dim. Time for a few well-chosen words, especially if they might prove to be my last.

'I am not Griffon's assistant,' I said. 'I am his son.'

He had finished screwing on the silencer and was beginning to raise it in the direction of my chest.

'I am Griffon's son,' I repeated. 'And just what is the point of all this?'

The silencer reached the latitude of my heart.

'If you're going to kill me,' I said, 'you might at least tell me why.'

My voice sounded more or less all right. He couldn't see, I hoped, that all my skin was prickling into sweat.

An eternal time passed. I stared at him: he stared back. I waited. Waited while the tumblers clicked over in his brain: waited for three thumbs-down to slot into a row on the fruit machine.

Finally, without lowering the gun a millimetre, he said, 'Where is your father?'

'In hospital.'

Another pause.

'How long will he be there?'

'I don't know. Two or three months, perhaps.'

'Is he dying?'


'What is the matter with him?'

'He was in a car crash. A week ago. He has a broken leg.'

Another pause. The gun was still steady. No one, I thought wildly, should die so unfairly. Yet people did die unfairly. Probably only one in a million deserved it. All death was intrinsically unfair: but in some forms more unfair than in others. Murder, it forcibly seemed to me, was the most unfair of all.

In the end, all he said, and in a much milder tone, was 'Who will train the horses this summer, if your father is not well enough?'

Only long experience of wily negotiators who thundered big threats so that they could achieve their real aims by presenting them as a toothless anticlimax kept me from stepping straight off the precipice. I nearly, in relief at so harmless an enquiry, told him the truth: that no one had yet decided. If I had done, I discovered later, he would have shot me, because his business was exclusively with the resident trainer at Rowley Lodge. Temporary substitutes, abducted in error, were too dangerous to leave chattering around.

So from instinct I answered, 'I will be training them myself,' although I had not the slightest intention of doing so for longer than it took to find someone else.

It had indeed been the crucial question. The frightening black circle of the silencer's barrel dipped a fraction: became an ellipse: disappeared altogether. He lowered the gun and balanced it on one well-padded thigh.

A deep breath trickled in and out of my chest in jerks, and the relief from immediate tension made me feel sick. Not that total safety loomed very loftily on the horizon. I was still tied up in an unknown house, and I still had no idea for what possible purpose I could be a hostage.

The fat man went on watching me. Went on thinking. I tried to ease the stiffness which was creeping into my muscles, to shift away the small pains and the throbbing headache, which I hadn't felt in the slightest when faced with a bigger threat.

The room was cold. The rubber-faces seemed to be snug enough in their masks and gloves, and the fat man was insulated and impervious, but the chill was definitely adding to my woes. I wondered whether he had planned the cold as a psychological intimidation for my elderly father, or whether it was simply accidental. Nothing in the room looked cosily lived in.

In essence it was a middle class sitting-room in a smallish middle class house, built, I guess, in the nineteen thirties. The furniture had been pushed back against striped cream wallpaper to give the fat man clear space for manoeuvre: furniture which consisted of an uninspiring three piece suite swathed in pink chintz, a gate-legged table, a standard lamp with parchment coloured shade, and a display cabinet displaying absolutely nothing. There were no rugs on the highly polished birch parquet, no ornaments, no books or magazines, nothing personal at all. As bare as my father's soul, but not to his taste.

The room did not in the least fit what I had so far seen of the fat man's personality.

'I will release you,' he said, 'on certain conditions.'

I waited. He considered me, still taking his time.

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