Knock Down


Page 13 of 20


Ronnie North stood on one side of their battalion commander and the carrot-headed Fynedale on the other.

Neither of them looked either impressed or worried about my vaguely stated intentions.

‘How about a truce?’ I suggested. ‘You leave me entirely alone, and I’ll leave you.’

Six upper lips curled in unison.

‘You can’t do a damn thing,’ Vic said.

I bought four horses for various clients uninfected by Vic, and went home. Crispin, morosely sober, had spent the day watching a demolition gang shift the burnt rubble of the stables into lorries. The stale smell persisted, and the air was full of dust and fine ash, but the hard concrete foundations had been cleared and cleaned in some places and looked like the first outlines of the future.

He was sitting in the office drinking fizzy lemonade in front of a television programme for children. Two days had seen rapid action by the electricity people, who had insulated all burnt-through wires and restored the current, and by the Post Office, who had reconnected me with the outer world. With help from the village I had cleaned up the office and the kitchen and borrowed dry beds, and even if the house was partly roofed by tarpaulin and as sodden as an Irish bog, it was still where I lived.

‘About twenty people telephoned,’ Crispin said. ‘I’ve had a bloody awful day answering the damn thing.’

‘Did you take messages?’

‘Couldn’t be bothered. Told them to ring again this evening.’

‘Have you eaten anything?’

‘Someone brought you an apple pie from the village,’ he said. ‘I ate that.’

I sat down at the desk to make a start on the ever-present paperwork.

‘Get me some lemonade?’ I asked.

‘Get it yourself.’

I didn’t, and presently with an ostentatious sigh he went out to the kitchen and fetched some. The thin synthetic fizz at least took away the taste of brick dust and cinders,though as usual I wished someone would invent a soft drink with a flavour of dry white wine. A great pity all soft drinks were sweet.

During the evening apart from answering the postponed enquiries and finalising various sales I made three more personal calls.

One was to the breeder of the Transporter colt which Vic had bought for thirty thousand and let go to Wilton Young for seventy-five.

One was to Nicol Brevett. And one to Wilton Young himself.

As a result of these the breeder met Nicol the next day in Gloucester, and on the Friday morning I drove them both to see the mail order tycoon in Yorkshire.

The row between Wilton Young and his carrot-headed agent at Doncaster races that Saturday could be heard from Glasgow to The Wash. Along with everyone else I listened avidly and with more than general satisfaction.

Wilton Young had not wanted to believe he had been made a fool of. What man would? I was wrong, he said. His agent Fynedale would never conspire with Vic Vincent to drive the price of a colt up by thousands so that he, Wilton Young, would shell out, while they, the manipulators, split the lolly between them.

I hadn’t said much at the interview. I’d left it all to the breeder. The furious indignation he’d been exploding with at Newmarket had deepened into a bitter consuming resentment, and he had pounced like a starving cat on the opportunity of doing Vic a lot of no good.

Nicol himself had been astounded and angry on his father’s behalf and had sat next to me all the way to Yorkshire saying he couldn’t believe it at regular intervals. I was sure Nicol’s surprise was genuine but I privately doubted whether Constantine’s would be. Nicol’s father was quite subtle enough to make Wilton Young pay and pay and pay for the privilege of outbidding a Brevett. That was, of course, if his pride would allow so private a victory, and on that point I was in a fog.

Wilton Young and Fynedale stood on the grass in front of the weighing room shouting at each other as if oblivious of the fascinated audience of five thousand. Wilton Young attacked like a tough little terrier and Fynedale’s temper burned as flaming bright as his hair. One or two Stewards hovered on the perimeter looking nervous about the outcome and the jockeys on their way out to the first race went past with smiles like water melon slices.

‘… bare-faced bloody fraud,’ Wilton Young was shouting, the Yorkshire accent thick and blunt. ‘I tell thee straight, no one makes a bloody monkey out of me and gets away with it. You don’t buy no more horses for me, I tell thee straight. And I want back from you every penny you’ve swindled out of me these past two years.’

‘You’ve no bloody chance,’ scoffed Fynedale, driving nails into his own coffin with the recklessness of all hotheads. ‘You paid a fair price for those horses and if you don’t like it you can bloody lump it.’

‘A fair price to you and that damned Vic Vincent is every penny you can screw out of people who trust you. All right, I’ve been a right bloody fool, but that’s all finished, I tell you straight.’ He stabbed the air with his forefinger, emphasising every angry word. ‘I’ll sue you for that money, see if I don’t.’

‘Don’t bother. Tha’ll not win.’

‘Enough mud’ll stick on you to save any other mugs wasting their brass. I tell thee straight, mister, by the time I’ve finished every single person in this country is going to know they pay through the bloody nose for every horse you buy them.’

‘I’ll bloody sue you for libel,’ Fynedale yelled.

‘And it’ll be bloody worth it.’

‘I’ll take you for millions,’ Fynedale screamed, almost jumping up and down with fury.

‘You do already.’

The row hotted up in noise level and degenerated to straight abuse, and when the race began the unprintable insults rose in volume above the commentary. Along with many others I was chuckling so much I couldn’t hold my race glasses still enough to watch the distant runners. Nicol, standing beside me, had tears running down his cheeks.

‘Oh my God,’ he said, gasping for breath. ‘What is a fat-arsed hyena-faced blood-sucking son of a sodding bitch?’

‘A mongrel,’ I said.

‘Oh don’t. It hurts.’ He pressed a hand to his heaving ribs. ‘It’s too much.’

Even after the main row was over little eddies of it persisted all afternoon, both Wilton Young and Fynedale separately being anxious to air their grievances loudly to all who would listen. Wilton Young’s forefinger stabbed the air as if he were poking holes in it and Fynedale’s voice took on a defensive whine. I kept away from them for most of the time but before the end they both came looking for me.

Wilton Young said, ‘Like a bloody piece of quick-silver, you are. I keep seeing you in the distance and then when I go that way you’ve disappeared.’

‘Sorry,’ I said.

‘You were right and I was wrong. There you are then.’ He made a large gesture of magnanimity, letting me know how generous he thought himself to be making such an admission. “The little tyke was swindling me. Like you said. All legal like, mind. I’ve been told this afternoon I won’t have a chance of getting anything back.’

‘No,’ I said.

‘Cut your losses, that’s what I always say. Any line in my mail order business that’s not pulling its weight, I scrap it. Same with my horses. Same with employees, see?’

‘I see.’

‘You don’t approve. I can see it in your face. You’re soft, lad, you’ll never get anywhere.’

‘Depends where you want to go,’ I said.

He stared, then laughed. ‘Right, then. You go to the sales next week and buy me a horse. Any horse you think is good. Then we’ll see.’

‘Good for what?’

‘A fair return for outlay.’

‘In cash terms?’

‘Naturally in cash terms. What else is there?’

If he didn’t know, I couldn’t tell him.

‘I wasn’t born in Yorkshire,’ I said.

‘What the hell has that got to do with it?’

‘You only employ Yorkshiremen.’<br

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‘And look where it bloody got me. No, lad, you buy me a good horse and I’ll overlook you being born in the wrong place.’

Nicol drifted near and Wilton Young gave him a stare suitable for the son of his dearest enemy, even if the two of them had the common bond of victims.

‘Another thing you can do for me,’ Wilton Young said to me, stabbing the inoffensive air. ‘Find me a way of taking that effing Fynedale for every penny he screwed out of me. I tell thee straight, I’ll not rest till I’m satisfied.’

I hesitated, but I’d already gone a long way down the road. I said slowly, ‘I do know…’

He seized on it. ‘What? What do you know?’

‘Well…’ I said. ‘You remember those three horses you sent out to race in South Africa?’

‘Damned waste of good money. They had useful form here, but they never did any good in Durban. The climate was all wrong. And of course they couldn’t come back because of the quarantine laws.’

‘One died soon after it arrived in South Africa,’ I said. ‘And the other two never saw a racecourse.’

He was surprised. ‘How the hell do you know?’

‘They went by sea,’ I said.

‘They didn’t then,’ he interrupted positively. “They went by air. Had a bad flight, by all accounts.’

‘They went by sea,’ I said. ‘I sent two horses out there,and they went on the same boat. I sent a groom with mine, and quantities of food. Your three travelled alone for three weeks with no one to look after them. They were shipped with a total of half a ton of hay, and not even good hay at that. No oats, bran, or horse cubes. Just a starvation ration of poor hay, and no one to see that they even got that. The man I sent looked after them as best he could and gave them enough of my food to keep them alive, but when they reached Durban they were in such a poor state that they were almost not allowed into the country.’

He listened in disbelief. ‘I sent them by air,’ he repeated.

‘You thought you did. I read in the Sporting Life that they’d flown out to Durban. But when my man came back, he told me what had really happened.’

‘But I paid for air.… I paid more than four thousand quid.’

‘And who did you pay?’

‘By God.’ He looked murderous. Til screw him to the wall, I tell thee straight.’

‘Get a lawyer to do it,’ I said. Til tell him which ship it was, and give him the name and address of the groom I sent.’

‘By God I will,’ he said. He turned on his heel and hurried off as if going to do it there-and then.

Nicol said, ‘When you start a fire you do it properly.’

‘They shouldn’t have burned my stable.’

‘No,’ he said. ‘That was a bad mistake.’

Fynedale’s anger was in a different category altogether. He caught me fiercely by the arm outside the weighing room and his face made me determine to stay in well-lit populated places.

‘I’ll kill you,’ he said.

‘You could have had a truce,’ I said.

‘Vic will kill you.’

It sounded ridiculous. Fynedale might do at a pinch, but Vic wasn’t the killing sort.

‘Don’t be silly,’ I said. ‘You two can’t even light your own fires. And Fred Smith won’t kill me for you, he’s in clink.’

‘Someone else will.’

‘Jimmy Bell?’ I suggested. ‘Ronnie North? You’re all good at using threats but you need a Fred Smith to carry them out. And Fred Smiths don’t grow on trees.’

‘We keep telling you,’ he said fiercely. ‘We didn’t pay Fred Smith. We didn’t tell him to burn your yard. We didn’t.’

‘Who did?’

‘Vic did. No.… Vic didn’t.’

‘Sort it out.’

‘Vic reported that you wouldn’t play ball. He said you needed a bloody good lesson.’

‘Reported to who?’

‘How do I know?’

‘You ought to find out. Look where he’s got you. Out of a cushy job with Wilton Young and into a nasty prosecution for fraud. You’re a bloody fool to let someone you don’t know get you into such a mess.’

‘You got me into the mess,’ he yelled.

‘You bash me, I bash back.’

The message at last got through, and the result on him was the same as it had been on me. Aggression created counter-aggression. The way full-scale wars started. He expressed no sorrow. Made no apologies. No offer of amends. Instead he said again and with increased intention, Til kill you.’

Nicol said, ‘What are you going to do next?’

‘Pork pie and a bottle of coke.’

‘No, you ass. I mean… about Vic’

‘Stoke up his kitchen fire.’ Nicoi looked mystified. I said, ‘He told me once if I didn’t like the heat…’

‘To stay out of the kitchen.’

‘Right.’

The cold dank winter afternoon seeped under my anorak and my feet were freezing. Nicol’s face looked pale blue. A little kitchen heat would have come as no harm.

‘How?’

‘Net sure yet.’

It had been comparatively easy to break up the entente between Wilton Young and Fynedale, for the two hotheaded Yorkshire tempers had needed only a small detonation to set them off. Detaching Constantine from Vic might take longer. Constantine was not as bluntly honest as Wilton Young, and in his case face-saving might have priority.

‘There’s also someone else,’ I said.

‘Who?’

‘Don’t know. Someone helping Vic. Someone who engaged Fred Smith to do the dirty work. I don’t know who… but I won’t stop until I find out.’

Nicol looked at me speculatively. ‘If he could see the look on your face he’d be busy covering his tracks.’

The trouble was, his tracks were far too well covered already. To find him, I’d have to persuade him to make fresh ones. We went into the snack bar for the warmth as much as the food and watched the fifth race on closed-circuit television.

Nicol said, ‘Do you know of any other fiddles Vic and Fynedale have got up to?’

I smiled. ‘One or two.’

‘What?’

‘Well… there’s the insurance premium fiddle.’

‘What’s that?’

‘I shouldn’t be telling you.’

‘Things have changed. You don’t owe them a scrap of loyalty any more.’

I wryly agreed. ‘Well… Say you sell a horse to an overseas customer. You tell him you can arrange insurance for the journey if he sends the premiums. So he sends the premiums, and you pocket them.’

‘Just like that?’

‘Just like that.’

‘But what happens if the horse dies on the way? Surely you have to pay up out of your own money?’

I shook my head. ‘You say you were very sorry you couldn’t arrange the insurance in time, and you send the premiums back.’

‘By God.’

‘By the time you’ve finished you should be more clued up than your father,’ I said with amusement.

‘I should damn well hope so. Vic’s been taking him for one almighty ride.’

‘Caveat emptor,’ I said.

‘What does that mean?’

‘Buyer beware.’

‘I know one buyer who’ll beware for the rest of his life, and that’s me.’

The next week at the Newmarket Mixed Sales I bought a two-year-old colt for Wilton Young.

He was there himself.

‘Why that one?’ he demanded. ‘I’ve looked him up. He’s run in three races and never been nearer than sixth.’

‘He’ll win next year as a three-year-old.’

‘How do you know?’

‘Scorchmark’s progeny need time to grow. It’s no good being impatient if they don’t win at two. He’s being sold by an impatient owner and he’s been trained by a two-year-old specialist. They both wanted quick results, and Singel-ing wasn’t bred for that. Next summer he’ll win.’

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p; ‘He didn’t cost very much,’ he said disparagingly.

‘All the better. One good prize and he’ll be making you that profit.’

He grunted. ‘All right. I said buy me a horse, and you’ve bought it. I won’t go back on my word. But I don’t think that Singeling is any bloody good.’

Owing to the natural loudness of his voice this opinion was easily overheard, and a little while later he sold Singeling himself to someone who disagreed with him.

With typical bluntness he told me about it. ‘He offered me a good bit more than you paid. So I took it. I didn’t reckon he’d be much good, that Singeling. Now, what do you have to say to that?’

‘Nothing,’ I said mildly. ‘You asked me to buy you a horse which would give you a good return in cash terms. Well… it has.’

He stared. He slapped his thigh. He laughed. Then a new thought struck him and he looked suddenly suspicious. ‘Did you find another buyer and send him to offer me a profit?’

‘No,’ I said, and reflected that at least he seemed to be learning.

‘I’ll tell you something,’ he said grudgingly. ‘This chap I sold it to… when we’d shaken hands on it and it was too late for me to back out, he said… I tell thee straight… he said any horse Jonah Dereham picked as a good prospect was good enough for him.’

‘Flattering,’ I said.

‘Ay.’ He pursed his mouth and screwed up his eyes. ‘Maybe I was too hasty, getting rid of that Singeling. I reckon you’d better buy me another one, and I’ll keep it, even if it’s got three legs and a squint.’

‘You positively ask to be cheated,’ i said.

‘You won’t cheat me.’

‘How do you know?’

He looked non-plussed. Waved his arm about. ‘Everybody knows,’ he said.

Vic was not his confident cheerful self. He spent a great deal of his time drawing people into corners and talking to them vehemently, and in due course I learned that he was saying I was so desperate for clients I was telling outright lies about sincere men like Fynedale, and that I had a fixed obsession that he, Vic Vincent, had set fire to my stables, which was mad as well as wicked because the police had arrested the man who had really done it. I supposed the extent to which people believed his version was a matter of habit: his devotees never doubted him, or if they did they kept it to themselves.