my elbows on the desk and my head in my hands, and let time pass.

Outside, the beginnings of a damp dawn were turning the sky to grey flannel. There was ice round the edges of the windows, where condensed warm air had frozen solid. The cold went through to my bones.

In the brain department things were just as chilly. I remembered all too clearly that Alessandro Rivera was that day to make his presence felt. Perhaps he would take after father, I thought tiredly, and would be so overweight that the whole dilemma would fold its horns and quietly steal away. On the other hand, if not, why should his father use a sledgehammer to crack a peanut. Why not simply apprentice his son in the normal way? Because he wasn't normal, because his son wouldn't be a normal apprentice, and because no normal apprentice would expect to start his career on a Derby favourite.

I wondered how my father would now be reacting, had he not been slung up in traction with a complicated fracture of tibia and fibula. He would not, for certain, be feeling as battered as I was, because he would, with supreme dignity, have gone quietly. But he would none the less have also been facing the same vital questions: which were, firstly, did the fat man seriously intend to destroy the stable if his son did not get the job, and secondly, how could he do it.

And the answer to both was a king-size blank.

It wasn't my stable to risk. They were not my six million pounds worth of horses. They were not my livelihood, nor my life's work.

I could not ask my father to decide for himself; he was not well enough to be told, let alone to reason out the pros and cons.

I could not now transfer the stable to anyone else, because passing this situation to a stranger would be like handing him a grenade with the pin out.

I was already due back at my own job and was late for my next assignment, and I had only stop-gapped at the stable at all because my father's capable assistant, who had been driving the Rolls when the lorry jack-knifed into it, was now lying in the same hospital in a coma.

All of which added up to a fair sized problem. But then problems, I reflected ironically, were my business. The problems of sick businesses were my business.

Nothing at that moment looked sicker than my prospects at Rowley Lodge.

Shivering violently, I removed myself bit by bit from the desk and chair, went out to the kitchen, and made myself some coffee. Drank it. Moderate improvement only.

Inched upstairs to the bathroom. Scraped off the night's whiskers and dispassionately observed the dried blood down one cheek. Washed it off. Gun barrel graze, dry and already healing.

Outside, through the leafless trees, I could see the lights of the traffic thundering as usual up and down Bury Road. These drivers in their warm moving boxes, they were in another world altogether, a world where abduction and extortion were something that only happened to others. Incredible to think that I had in fact joined the others.

Wincing from an all over feeling of soreness, I looked at my smudge-eyed reflection and wondered how long I would go on doing what the fat man had told me to. Saplings who bent before the storm lived to grow into oaks.

Long live oaks.

I swallowed some aspirins, stopped shivering, tried to marshal a bit more sense into my shaky wits, and struggled into jodhpurs, boots, two more pullovers, and a windproof jacket. Whatever had happened that night, or whatever might happen in the future, there were still those eighty-five six million quids worth downstairs waiting to be seen to.

They were housed in a yard that had been an inspiration of spacious design when it was built in 1870 and which still, a hundred-plus years later, worked as an effective unit. Originally there had been two blocks facing each other, each block consisting of three bays, and each bay being made up to ten boxes. Across the far end, forming a wall joining the two blocks, were a large feed-store room, a pair of double gates, and an equally large tack room. The gates had originally led into a field, but early on in his career, when success struck him, my father had built two more bays, which formed another small enclosed yard of twenty-five boxes. More double gates opened from these, now, into a small railed paddock.

Four final boxes had been built facing towards Bury Road, on to the outside of the short west wall at the end of the north block. It was in the furthest of these four boxes that a full blown disaster had just been discovered.

My appearance through the door which led directly from the house to the yard galvanised the group which had been clustered round the outside boxes into returning into the main yard and advancing in ragged but purposeful formation. I could see I was not going to like their news. Waited in irritation to hear it. Crises, on that particular morning, were far from welcome.

'It's Moonrock, sir,' said one of the lads anxiously, 'Got cast in his box, and broke his leg.'

'All right,' I said abruptly. 'Get back to your own horses, then. It's nearly time to pull out.'

'Yessir,' they said, and scattered reluctantly round the yard to their charges, looking back over their shoulders.

'Damn and bloody hell,' I said aloud, but I can't say it did much good. Moonrock was my father's hack, a pensioned-off star-class steeplechaser of which he was uncharacteristically fond. The least valuable inmate of the yard in many terms, but the one he would be most upset to lose. The others were also insured. No one, though, could insure against painful emotion.

I plodded round to the box. The elderly lad who looked after him was standing at the door with the light from inside falling across the deep worried wrinkles in his tortoise skin and turning them to crevases. He looked round towards me at my step. The crevasses shifted and changed like a kaleidoscope.

'Ain't no good, sir. He's broke his hock.'

Nodding, and wishing I hadn't, I reached the door and went in. The old horse was standing up, tied in his usual place by his head-collar. At first sight there was nothing wrong with him: he turned his head towards me and pricked his ears, his liquid black eyes showing nothing but his customary curiosity. Five years in headline limelight had given him the sort of presence which only intelligent, highly successful horses seem to develop; a sort of consciousness of their own greatness. He knew more about life and about racing than any of the golden youngsters round in the main yard. He was fifteen years old and had been a friend of my father's for five.

The hind leg on his near side, towards me, was perfect. He bore his weight on it. The off-hind looked slightly tucked up.

He had been sweating: there were great dark patches on his neck and flanks; but he looked calm enough at that moment. Pieces of straw were caught in his coat, which was unusually dusty.

Soothing him with her hand, and talking to him in a common sense voice, was my father's head stable hand, Etty Craig. She looked up at me with regret on her pleasant weather-beaten face.

'I've sent for the vet, Mr Neil.'

'Of all damn things,' I said.

She nodded. 'Poor old fellow. You'd think he'd know better, after all these years.'

I made a sympathetic noise, went in and fondled the moist black muzzle, and took as good a look at his hind leg as I could without moving him. There was absolutely no doubt: the hock joint was out of shape.

Horses occasionally rolled around on their backs in the straw in their boxes. Sometimes they rolled over with too little room and wedged their legs against the wall, then thrashed around to get free. Most injuries from getting cast were grazes and strains, but it was possible for a horse to twist or lash out with a leg strongly enough to break it. Incredibly bad luck when it happened, which luckily wasn't often.

'He was still lying down when George came in to muck him out,' Etty said. 'He got some of the lads to come and pull the old fellow into the centre of the box. He was a bit slow, George says, standing up. And then of course they could see he couldn't walk.'

'Bloody shame,' George said, nodding in agreement.

I sighed. 'Nothing we can do, Etty.'

'No, Mr Neil.'

She called me Mr Neil religiously during working hours, though I'd been plain Neil to her in my childhood. Better for discipline in the yard, she said to me once, and on matters of discipline I would never contradict her. There had been quite a stir in Newmarket when my father had promoted her to head lad, but as he had explained to her at the time, she was loyal, she was knowledgeable, she would stand no nonsense from anyone, she deserved it from

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