"Another flippin' nursemaid job!"
Doyle grinned at the disgusted look on Bodie's face; he'd endured this particular tantrum too many times before to take it seriously.
"Ah, but for a very important visiting foreign dignitary, Bodie." He waved the file Cowley had given them. "And you heard the Cow; we accompany him everywhere, which includes the racetrack. Cowley can hardly complain if we take advantage of our surroundings, and place a few bets. We might just make enough to retire."
Bodie brightened slightly at the thought, then slipped back into gloom. "If I run true to form with the way my luck's been lately, I'd end up owing so much I'd never be able to retire."
Doyle had to admit that Bodie's usual good fortune seemed to have deserted him recently. It had been a string of small things, but one after the other; a prang with the car, his latest girlfriend dumping him, a lost wallet. And it seemed to be depressing his partner; Bodie usually shrugged off misfortune with barely a backward glance, but he'd been brooding for days.
"Your luck's gotta change soon, mate. Could be a big win that does it."
"Maybe." Bodie headed for the passenger door, and Doyle frowned. The prang last week hadn't been serious and most definitely not Bodie's fault, but it seemed to have put him off driving, a fact which unnerved Doyle. Bodie was more at home behind the wheel of the Capri than almost anywhere else; Doyle trusted his partner implicitly when it came to controlling a car under any circumstances, and it worried him that Bodie might be doubting his own abilities.
Catching the frown, and the guessing the reason behind it, Bodie managed a grin. "No need to tempt fate, is there?"
"Guess not." Doyle tossed him the file as he shoved the key into the ignition. "We'll stop off to grab some gear, and you can navigate us into the wilds of Berkshire..."
The trip down the M4 was for once completed without traffic hold-ups, and Bodie's mood had lifted slightly as they turned off onto the country lanes. Comparing the map to the address Cowley had given them he directed Doyle from the B road onto an unclassified. "Shouldn't be far now. Wonder what this place is like?"
"Big, I expect." As well as three of his best racehorses, the visiting sheik had apparently shipped in a supporting entourage for his stay in the run-up to the Cheltenham Festival. Doyle glanced at Bodie. "If he's brought any wives you'd better remember to keep your hands off them, unless you want to join the entourage as a eunuch."
"No chance. Anyway, I think I'm off women for a bit." He sounded light-hearted, but Doyle knew Bodie's pride, if not his feelings, had been badly dented when Gemma had dropped him after just a couple of dates. It was usually Bodie who did the dropping; initially Doyle had taunted him with comments about the boot being on the other foot and knowing what it felt like, but Bodie's responses had lacked the usual bite, and Doyle had given up, feeling like he was shooting a sitting duck. "Just until the next one comes along."
Bodie didn't reply, pointing instead at the house which had appeared when the car rounded a bend. "This looks like it." Doyle was right; Tuckett House was big, although not in the mansion bracket.
The large iron gates stood open, and Bodie twisted in the seat to look at them as Doyle started up the driveway. "Have to see if we can get those closed. Just invites anyone in."
"Didn't look like they've been shut for years. Anyway, the walls aren't exactly going to keep anyone out." The extent of the property's boundary appeared to be the 3' wall they had been driving level with.
"Suppose. We'd better hope the house has better security then." Bodie sighed. "How come we always land the babysitting jobs?"
"We probably get less than anyone else on average, Bodie. Cheer up; the sun's shining, and we're out in the country. We can have a bit of a rest; think of it as a holiday from Cowley for a bit."
"I suppose that's a plus point. As long as he doesn't follow us."
"And leave his office and telephones? Cowley's getting like a spider in a web these days, keeping a finger on the pulse." Doyle slowed and drew up smoothly next to a limo in the neat space at the front of the house. Two burnous-clad men stood on duty at either side of the front door. They were built like the proverbial brick house, and Bodie glanced at Doyle in mock-horror. "What do they need us for?"
"They're just the muscle, Bodie. We provide the brains." Normally Bodie wouldn't argue with that, but the pair looked as if they had brains too, and were regarding the partners with - probably justified - suspicion and advancing on the car. "Sure?"
Doyle bounced out of the car, grinning, and offered his ID for inspection. "Protection for the Sheik from HM Government." Whether the Arabs understood him or not, they were obviously expected and Doyle's ID paved the way. The muscle stepped back, as the door opened.
Anticipating some sort of smartly-dressed aide, the partners were taken aback at the sight of the young man who emerged, dressed in filthy jeans and sweatshirt. "Hi!"
In contrast to the middle-eastern appearance, the accent was American, and it was with no little surprise that they recognised the man they had come to protect, looking completely different to the official photos Cowley had given them.
"You're the guys from CI5, right?"
"Er, yeah, that's right. Ray Doyle; this is Bodie."
"Neat. I'm just going round to the stables - want to tag along?" The Sheik turned and said a few words to the men behind him, who moved to take the bags from Bodie. "They'll take your bags up; come on, I need to see how Jade Star has travelled."
Exchanging bemused glances, the partners followed the Sheik to the far side of the building and into a small stable yard. Three of the horseboxes were occupied and had the top half of the door open; three sleek heads looking out.
"Jade Star is the black," the Sheik informed them. "That's Wind Whisper, and this is Sandstorm." He paused to rub Sandstorm's nose before moving to Jade Star's box.
Despite not knowing much about racehorses, from what the partners could see the horses were well bred. "Are these the horses you're running at Cheltenham, Sheik Mahamand?"
The Sheik gave Doyle a sideways glance. "Call me Alex. Jade Star is entered for the Gold Cup. And I'm not just running them, I'm riding them, provided I can do the weights. I'm fit enough but may have to lose some more weight, which means exercise."
Bodie glanced at Doyle. Exercise? So much for the rest and holiday. Doyle was grinning. "We know all about exercise."
"I've come over to finish training Jade Star with Colin Walters. His stable is about 2 miles in that direction, across the Downs. I'll ride out first string in the morning and see how Jade Star holds up against Col's other horses. Do you ride?"
Doyle nodded. "Not as much as I'd like to, though. Don't often get the chance, particularly in London. And I've yet to get Bodie on horseback."
"Just because I prefer something fitted with brakes." Bodie grinned. He'd been on horseback once or twice in his career but as a mode of transport the equine species usually left something to be desired. "No offence, but I'm not drawn to them."
The Sheik returned the grin. "No chance of you riding out with us, then?" He seemed to take it for granted that Doyle would ride with him; a fact which both pleased and worried Doyle. He was a competent rider, but wasn't sure he was up to handling thoroughbred racehorses. "You want me to ride one of these?"
"If you can ride, you can handle Wind Whisper. Windy's a lady. And once we get over there, I'll ask for one of the stable lads to ride her for the working gallop if you're not sure about taking her. But you're light; she'll run well for you." He grinned again at Bodie. "And you can follow us over by car, if you want."
"It'll give Doyle something to ride back in, if he falls off."
"If I fall off, mate, I'll get straight back on. Doesn't help if you lose your nerve, y'know." At Bodie's slight flinch, Doyle regretted the words which sounded as if he were having a dig at Bodie's reluctance to drive. "I didn't mean - "
"S'OK. I know." Turning to lead the way back to the house, Bodie changed the subject. "Is this the first time you've ridden in England, sir?"
"The name's Alex," the Sheik repeated. "No, I've been riding over here for a few years; but as an amateur there are a limited number of rides I can have in a year. I rode in the Gold Cup last year, on one of the horses Col trains. We didn't even finish; the brute stumbled and threw me at the third. I'd only just got Jade Star then, but I was determined to run him this year."
His conversation assumed a level of knowledge, but neither partner let on that most of their racing knowledge was limited to placing bets at the bookies. "We'll get a meal, then I want to go over to Col's; let him know I - and the horses - have arrived safely, and talk over the training plans and my rides for next week. Col's lined me up with a few rides; there's one at Newbury on Friday."
Bodie exchanged another glance with Doyle. This was definitely not going to be much of a holiday; babysitting VIPs didn't usually take this much energy. On the other hand, there was less chance of getting bored this time out...
Alex willingly slid into the back of the Capri, and Doyle swung the car out of the drive, and turned right as directed. The trainer's stable was only a few miles along the already darkening country lanes, and he was expecting them; the door stood open, spilling light from a hallway.
Over the meal, the partners had gleaned more information on Colin Walters; a highly successful trainer with some 40 horses standing in his yard. He'd already trained winners for the Grand National and Derby as well as the Gold Cup, and was looking to take the Cup again this year with one of the three horses running from his stable. The man himself, probably in his early 50's but not looking it, came bounding to the door when he heard the car.
"Alex! Welcome back, you little sod!" Following them into the house, Bodie was beginning to feel this job wouldn't be so bad after all. It was certainly going to be different; it wasn't often their VIPs got greetings like that.
"Drink?" The trainer waved a whisky bottle at them, and they all nodded, Alex included. "Thought you'd be teetotal," Doyle commented, lightly.
"'When in Rome...'" Alex grinned. "Don't let on."
As trainer and jockey got into an involved conversation about weights, tactics and past form, the partners relaxed back into armchairs. "So, what do you think of him?"
"Our charge? Gonna be fun." Doyle was half-listening to the conversation, he found the whole horseracing scene that was being opened up in front of them fascinating.
"Fun for you, maybe. You like riding."
"So find something to amuse yourself. Bound to be a pub round here, with a willing barmaid. After all, this is a low profile, just-in-case job. Doesn't take two of us, all the time."
"Maybe." Bodie shrugged, but that wasn't such a bad idea. Maybe it was just what he needed, a light-hearted fling, with no strings attached.
There was an early start the following morning; Walters' first string left the stables at 7.30. The partners joined Alex in the yard just before 7.00; Bodie complaining that he hadn't had breakfast. Alex was inclined to treat his horses better than himself, and the entourage had included three grooms but a cook who didn't rise early.
"We'll get breakfast when we get back to Col's, Bodie. Alice will do a proper English breakfast for you. She's always trying to make me eat; in spite of knowing that I need to keep my weight down." He finished saddling Jade Star. "Windy's already saddled, Ray; you'll need to tighten the girth and fix the stirrups." Doyle nodded, and turned to the loosebox to fetch Wind Whisper, still slightly apprehensive about riding such a valuable animal.
"Bodie, I had a word with Col, and he said you can borrow the Land Rover to follow us up to the Downs if you want."
"Something with brakes?" Bodie grinned. They were used to arranging things for people under their protection, not the other way round.
Alex gave him a dubious smile. "Well, that's the general idea, although last time I drove it..."
"I get the picture. I'll see you over there." Hunching into his jacket against the biting March wind, Bodie trotted round to the Capri, acknowledging briefly the two men still on guard at the front door, who stared blankly at him. Had they been there all night?
He slid behind the wheel, experiencing a moment's panic, and took a deep breath as he pushed the ignition key in. There was no reason to feel like this; none at all. He was being stupid.
Starting the engine, he paused as he slid the gearstick into first. The accident the previous week flashed back into his mind. The woman driver who had swerved and smashed into their wing hadn't been injured, any more than the child she had been avoiding. So why was it affecting him so badly?
He'd avoided thinking about it so far; now wasn't the time. He was just getting paranoid. But with all the bad luck he'd been getting lately... He pushed the thought away and released the handbrake, letting the clutch up softly. He had to drive less than 3 miles, on a quiet country road. If he couldn't manage that, then Cowley'd better pension him off now.
Arriving in the stable yard, Bodie caught sight of Col Walters and waved. Looking puzzled for a moment, Walters stared at him, then returned the greeting. "Oh, yes, you're with Alex. Are they on their way?"
"Left the same time I did. Alex said I could follow you up in the Land Rover?"
Walters pointed towards the house; manner brisk and economic. "Keys hanging up in the kitchen. Hold on." He turned to shout into the milling yet organised crowd of stable lads and horses. "Ronnie!"
The lad that detached from the mass and came running didn't look quite as Bodie might have imagined. He was a she, although you'd never distinguish her from the others based on dress alone, aged about 19. "Yes, Col?"
"Ride up in the Land Rover, will you? I want you to take Wind Whisper for the gallop, anyway." Walters strode away to shout at a few more lads, and Ronnie grinned at Bodie. "You're driving. I don't."
"OK." It had crossed Bodie's mind that maybe he could get her to drive, making the excuse that she knew where she was going, but not if she didn't have a licence. "Where exactly are the keys?"
"Hook just behind the door. I'll just fetch my helmet; but we'll have to wait for the string to leave anyway." She darted away, and Bodie reflected that most of the people connected with racing seemed to be in a hurry...
"OK, which way?"
Grinning, the girl pointed. "Follow that horse." Bodie had followed a few things in his time, but horses were new. Bearing in mind Alex's comment about the brakes on the Land Rover, Bodie's first action was to test them, and either they weren't as bad as Alex thought or someone had fixed them. They weren't brilliant; he'd have to stand on them pretty hard, but they worked. "Name's Bodie, by the way."
"Veronica. But everyone calls me Ronnie."
"I gathered." Bodie let the Land Rover roll slowly out of the yard after the string of thoroughbreds. "Been working here long?"
"Nearly a year. Col's is a good stable; I was lucky to get a place here. And I'm riding some of the trials; it won't be long before Col puts me up for a race."
"As jockey?" Women jockeys weren't unknown, but Bodie couldn't visualise this slight, diminutive creature handling a racehorse. "Of course. Alex will be riding Bright Daffodil at Newbury, but if he weren't here, I think Col might've let me take her. I rode her last training gallop yesterday; she should take first tomorrow, no trouble."
Bodie grinned at the flood of information. "Bright Daffodil?"
Ronnie grimaced. "Godawful name, isn't it?" She pointed ahead. "That's Daffy; the dark chestnut. Her owner loves flowers; we've got Bluebell Glen and Rose Garden at the stable, too."
"So is it worth me putting anything on Daffodil tomorrow?"
"Depends on how much of a gambler you are. She won last time out, so could well start favourite. I reckon she'll leave the competition standing." Ronnie pointed over to the left as the horses started to pick up speed on the open downlands now stretching in front of them. "Follow the tracks up to the top. Col will meet us there."
Walters was already waiting on the top of the sweeping rise, together with the lad who had been riding Bright Daffodil, and Bodie was relieved to see Doyle and the Sheik had also arrived without mishap. Doyle had been concerned about riding the thoroughbred and that was enough to make Bodie concerned on his behalf.
Alex had already dismounted and was shortening the stirrups on the dark chestnut filly, and Walters called Ronnie as soon as she jumped from the Land Rover. "Ronnie, hold Jade Star while Alex canters Daffodil. When all the others have gone past, we'll trial Cherub against Jade Star and Wind Whisper."
Ronnie ran to take Jade Star, and as Walters continued with his instructions to Alex, Bodie joined Doyle. "OK?"
Doyle was glowing. "She's terrific, Bodie. Never ridden anything like her. Just a shame Col wants Ronnie to ride her for the trial, but as Alex explained, Windy's running next week, and they need a jockey who knows what's happening with the horse."
His enthusiasm was catching, and Bodie patted the horse's neck, envying the ease with which his partner sat on the filly. "Gonna tell Cowley you want a change of career, then?"
"I wish. Oh, it's brilliant, but you've got to start young. Nice, is she?" The casual nod towards Ronnie hid a wealth of meaning.
"Nice kid," Bodie told him, repressively. It hadn't even crossed his mind. Maybe not too young for a literal roll in the hay, but far too young for him.
He turned to watch Alex, who had trotted a short distance away, and was now turning the chestnut to bring her back to the group at a slow canter, grinning as he reached them. "She's going to run well tomorrow, Col. You've done a good job with her."
"A trot up, then? S'what we need." Walters gestured the other lad to take Daffodil's reins as Alex slid lightly from the saddle and turned back to Jade Star. "Chris, take Daffodil back down. Walk her; she's had enough for today."
Turning his horse to face the other way, Walters waved an arm, and for the next 20 minutes the partners watched spellbound as the rest of the string galloped up and past them, Walters following their every move with his binoculars, and discussing various individuals with Alex. "That's nearly the last of them. Ronnie, jump up on Windy, and you and Alex go down and join Alan on Cherub."
Doyle slid from the horse, and gave Ronnie a leg-up, and she landed in the saddle lightly, automatically gathering reins, turning the horse and reaching to adjust the stirrups all in one movement.
Joining Bodie at the Land Rover, Doyle leant back against the bonnet, watching the pair walk away with undisguised envy. "Thought I could ride," he said softly.
"You ride better'n me, sunshine."
"Not like that." Doyle grinned at him. "Anyway, that's not saying much. Have you actually been on horseback?"
"Couple of times. Could stay on if I had to."
Doyle didn't respond as they heard, then saw, the three horses at full gallop, bursting up over the rise, past them and down, slowing at the bottom, before turning to trot back. Walters was smiling. "If one of them doesn't take the Cup I may as well retire now. Cherub will probably start favourite, but you saw how Jade Star held him."
They'd simply looked fast to Bodie, and he nudged Doyle, as the horses returned. "Do we get breakfast now?"
Shaking his head reprovingly, Doyle moved forward to take the reins and remount Wind Whisper, and Bodie turned back to get into the Land Rover, starting the engine as Ronnie slid into the seat beside him. "Let the horses go down first," she told him.
Bodie nodded, and slipped the Land Rover into gear, letting the engine idle as the quartet of horses began the slow walk home.
The shots came from nowhere, and the peaceful scene was destroyed as the horses reared. Catching a flash of metal at the hedgerow below them, Bodie immediately gunned the vehicle forward, putting the Land Rover between the track and the horses, shouting at Ronnie to keep her head down.
Foot down, he sent the Land Rover speeding down the track, seeing that whoever the gunman was, they were running to a vehicle on the road, and that to get out to the road he'd have to swing to the left, to the point where they'd driven onto the Downs.
The car - it looked like an old Cortina from here - was already moving, away from them...
He hit the road already doing 30; much too fast for the rough terrain, and he felt the Land Rover jolt as it met the hard tarmac. Wrenching the wheel round he pressed the accelerator harder; he had catch up with the car... Round a couple of bends, and suddenly there was the car - stationary in the middle of the road; occupant out and waiting, gun pointed at them...
Without time to think, only react, Bodie swung the Land Rover to the left, bouncing over logs, hearing shots behind them, and swinging the wheel again to avoid a fallen tree trunk, slamming his foot hard on the brakes...
The Land Rover shuddered protestingly to a halt inches from the fence, and Bodie flung the door open, hearing the other car accelerating away. "Damn!"
Slumping back into the driver's seat, he reached across to Ronnie. "You OK?"
Obviously shaken, she nodded, her first words full of concern for the others. "I think someone was thrown."
It took several precious minutes to reverse and turn the Land Rover back onto the road, and Bodie could feel the steering shaking under his hands; not that it'd been perfect before. Reaching the open track, he turned slowly onto the Downland, relieved beyond measure to see all the horses coming down the track, being led by four apparently unharmed people.
He drew level with them, Ronnie leaping immediately from the vehicle to take Cherub's reins from Col Walters, who was leading both Cherub and his own hack. Alan, the stable jockey, was walking, but was pale, blood showing through the fingers of one hand, clutched to the other.
"Ray? Ronnie thought someone was thrown..."
Doyle flashed him an annoyed glance; Bodie's first concern for him was typical. "Alan took a bullet. Cherub tossed him off; not surprisingly. We're just lucky he managed to hold onto the reins until we could calm the other horses enough to help."
Walters had passed the reins of both horses to Ronnie and was helping Alan into the passenger seat of the Land Rover. "I'll drive him down, call the doctor. You'll be OK with the horses?"
Alex answered, showing remarkably few nerves, Bodie thought, considering that someone had just shot at him. "We'll bring them down safely, Col." Bodie issued a word of warning about the steering, then Walters was gone.
"What happened?" Doyle asked the question quietly, from where they were following Ronnie and Alex, leading their horses down the track. Bodie was concentrating on keeping a firm grip on the reins of the horse he'd been given to lead. Ronnie had said Dragoon was old and quiet, but he was still a big horse...
"Not too sure. I caught sight of whoever it was; he took off, and then lay in wait. I damn near ran the Land Rover into several trees and a fence." Bodie shuddered, the recollection of the recent chase evoking something in him - a memory - he just wasn't sure what...
Doyle accepted that without comment. "We were lucky. Open targets up there; he could've taken any one of us out."
"I should've got him. If I'd had the Capri - "
"The Capri would be useless on this ground, Bodie. And you said the steering felt dodgy on the Land Rover; it would have wrecked the Capri. So he got away."
"He shouldn't have done. My fault... that bad luck, jinxing me again..."
Doyle answered him sharply. "Who do you think you are? Jonah? Macklin himself couldn't have stopped him with that crate. Stop feeling sorry for yourself and start thinking, about why and who..."
They held the post mortem in Walters' kitchen. The doctor had come in and without questions had dressed the flesh wound to Alan's arm, while Alice had cooked breakfast for them all.
Bodie's earlier appetite had faded; he was only half-paying attention to the discussion going on round the table. They hadn't yet contacted Cowley, but knew what their boss would say, and Doyle was maintaining that if someone had been shooting at Alex, then they needed to put him under better protection, which meant not letting him ride about in the open.
Alex was denying that the shot was aimed at him. "I was about as far from Alan as I could be, Ray. There's no way they were firing at me."
"We don't know they were shooting at anyone." Walters' comment drew everyone's gaze, and Doyle focused on him intently. "So what were they shooting at? Rabbits?" His sarcasm bit deeply, but he continued before Walters could react. "What's going on? What haven't you told us?"
Walters shrugged and glanced apologetically at Alex. "I've had a couple of phone calls. Threats. Don't run Cherub in the Gold Cup. That sort of thing. But it's happened before, and everything's been OK."
"They meant to shoot Alan?"
"Make more sense to shoot the horse; I can get another jockey easily enough. But it was probably just a warning..."
Doyle switched his gaze to his partner. "Bodie? What d'you think?"
Bodie thoughts spun back from where he was trying to pin down the memory that had caught him earlier. "Er - could be." He pulled himself back to the matter in hand. "In fact, more than likely. I didn't get a good look at the weapon the guy was using, but I can't imagine anyone missing a horse at that distance."
Doyle grunted, not convinced. "We'll have to call in. See what Cowley has to say."
As usual, what Cowley had to say was quite a lot, and his response to Doyle's report was to insist that the Sheik was taken under protection to a safehouse. Rather than argue as an intermediary, Doyle had simply handed the phone to Alex, and listened, exchanging amused glances with Bodie, as Alex had calmly refused. "Your Government offered me the protection, Mr Cowley. I didn't, and still don't, believe my life is under threat. I will continue to stay here, and ride in the races as planned. Unless you want to withdraw them, I'm happy for your two guys to stay around."
Doyle had taken the handset back with a grin. "Sir?"
"The two of you stay with him. Stay in touch." The phone went down at Cowley's end with a thump. Doyle grinned still wider as he answered Alex's enquiring look. "We stay."
"Good. Let's get the horses home, then. I want to take a run this afternoon." Alex swept from the study, and shrugging, Doyle followed him.
Bodie slowly brought up the rear, and crossed the yard. Reaching the Capri he stopped, and leant against it, stomach suddenly churning. What the hell was wrong with him?
"Bodie? Are you OK?" A gentle hand on his arm made him turn. "Ronnie... yes, I'm fine. Thanks."
"You looked strange. Are you sure you're all right?"
"Yeah. Just a bit - nothin'. I'm fine," he repeated, catching sight of Doyle and Alex walking the horses towards him. The last thing he needed was Doyle seeing anything was wrong; give Doyle the hint of a bone and he'd worry at it. "You're going to Newbury races, aren't you? So I'll see you tomorrow."
Dragging the driver's door open he practically threw himself into the Capri, jamming the key home and starting the engine roughly. Ronnie had stepped away from the car, but didn't look reassured, and he tossed a half smile in her direction as he pulled away.
In spite of his swift exit, Doyle had caught sight of the look on Bodie's face before his partner dropped into the car, and he was concerned. Bodie had looked grey; sick almost. He'd been fine earlier that morning; so what was wrong? Come to think of it, Bodie hadn't been himself since he'd chased the gunman down the hill.
Although was it more than that? There'd been something wrong with Bodie for a few days now... Doyle dismissed the thought; he needed all his concentration for riding Wind Whisper, who despite her gallop earlier still felt fresh.
He was very much more alarmed however, when Bodie hadn't returned to Tuckett House by lunchtime. Doyle and Alex had arrived back just before 11, and initially busy with the horses they hadn't noticed that Bodie was missing. But by 12 Doyle was seething; an anger born of worry. Where the hell was Bodie?
He was just about to ask to borrow the limo when he heard a car, and saw the Capri starting up the drive, and he wrenched the door open as soon as Bodie drew to a halt. "Where the hell have you been? Couldn't you get it out of first gear, or something? It doesn't take an hour and a half to drive a few miles!"
He regretted the caustic words as soon as they were out; realising that Bodie still looked off-colour. "Well?"
"I went back to the Downs, to take a look round where the gunman fired from. There was nothing there; no useful book of matches, or foreign cigarette ends." Bodie got out of the car, but was stopped by Doyle's hand square against his chest.
"And?" It wouldn't have taken over an hour for Bodie to do that. If it hadn't been for the fact that Bodie wasn't looking up to it, Doyle would have been willing to bet his partner had stopped at a local pub, or gone back to the stables to chat up that stable girl, Ronnie...
"And - and I sat out in the car for a bit. I think - I've got a stomach bug or something."
Well, he certainly looked sick. Doyle relaxed his grip, and Bodie slid away. "I'm gonna lie down for a bit, otherwise I won't be up to this run Alex reckons he needs..."
"No. OK." Doyle watched his partner go, convinced Bodie wasn't telling him the truth.
Alex's idea of a run seemed to have a lot in common with Macklin's. He knew the paths and routes in the area, and seemed to take great delight in leading the way across the rough terrain; proving that he was as least as fit as the partners.
Although Bodie had looked better when he joined them in the hallway, Doyle could see that his partner wasn't his usual self. Such a workout would generally draw complaints from Bodie, but he was quiet, uncommunicative, a fact which only served to increase Doyle's anxiety. Instead of taking any opportunity to slacken, Bodie was pushing hard; almost as if he were deep in thought - except, somehow, Doyle knew he wasn't...
On their return to the house, Bodie had excused himself from dinner and their company, pleading the stomach bug; a convenient malady that Doyle no longer believed in. They'd just run several miles; if Bodie were really weakened by a stomach bug he'd never have managed that. He could see Alex thinking the same, although the younger man was too polite to comment.
Doyle stared after him, frustrated at his partner. Dammit, Bodie, what are you playing at? What's wrong with you?
...the Land Rover bounced over the log, and Bodie swung the wheel to avoid the even larger fallen tree trunk... braking savagely to stop the vehicle before he hit the fence... the scene flashed, changed... shouts, screams, black faces... an open jeep, Benny at his side... shots overhead... he swung the jeep left... bad mistake, Bodie... the road, littered with bodies...
Bolt upright, sweating, nauseous... gasping for breath in the darkness, Bodie realised he'd been dreaming, and as Doyle burst into the room, gun drawn, he knew he'd also been shouting.
At the quiet in the room, Doyle lowered the gun. "What's up?"
"Nothin'." Bodie dragged his arm across his face, feeling the sweat, still shaking. "Dreamin'."
Doyle found the lightswitch and snapped it on. "One hell'va dream." He frowned at his partner. It wasn't often things got to Bodie like this. "Wanna talk?"
"No." When Doyle continued to stare at him, Bodie shook his head. "Not now. Maybe - when I've thought it through..."
"OK." Getting Bodie to unburden himself was never an easy job, and Doyle retreated, letting it drop for now. "You know where I am."
"Yeah." As Doyle softly closed the door, Bodie made his way unsteadily to the vanity unit to splash water on his face, realising he was still shaking. "Christ."
He'd blocked out the thoughts earlier in the day, but it all made sense. Terrible, gut-wrenching sense. He turned and leant back against the unit, not wanting to look in the mirror, letting the water drip.
The crash last week... he'd seen the child running into the road, and the oncoming car, and had been sure the boy would be hit. But the young woman driver had reacted swiftly, swerving into their path; Bodie had already been braking, there were just a few dents, no injuries...
But it hadn't been like that in Angola...
Flicking off the light, Bodie slowly returned to the bed and lay down. But he knew he wouldn't sleep.
Doyle had been unable to convince the Sheik that he shouldn't ride at Newbury, and when Walters arrived with the horsebox just after 11, Alex cheerfully made his way to join him in the cab, still dismissing their protests. "Follow us down. We'll get you passes."
Bodie had been quiet all morning; obviously tired, and without much of an appetite for breakfast, the last point more concerning to Doyle than anything else. "You OK?"
"Yeah." The chances of getting Bodie to talk to him were slim, but they would be non- existent if anyone else were within earshot, and once they were alone in the car Doyle pushed a bit harder. "So what was the nightmare about?"
"Not now, Ray."
"Is it something to do with that crunch last week?" Bearing in mind the way Bodie had looked the previous day after returning from the stables, Doyle had automatically taken the wheel that morning. Indicating to turn right, following the horsebox, he glanced across at his partner, not failing to notice the savage grip on the door's grab handle. "Bodie?"
"Look, not now, please?" Bodie swallowed convulsively, and stared forcefully out of the window, away from Doyle. "Maybe later."
Doyle fell silent. He was never that forthcoming, but the way Bodie was behaving was a new one on him and he was determined to get Bodie talking later.
Col Walters was well-known at Newbury; his most local racecourse, and talked the partners' car past the gateman with just a few words, before following the well-worn track and slotting the horsebox next to the previous arrival.
The low suspension meant the Capri bounced awkwardly over the rutted field, and Doyle was conscious of Bodie's tightened grip on the door handle. He shot a suspicious look at his partner as he parked alongside the horsebox, but Bodie was out of the car in a flash, taking a few deep breaths.
Was Bodie really sick? That was twice this morning he'd seemed nauseous. If Bodie were a woman, Doyle would have been thinking 'pregnant' by now... He saved that one up to josh Bodie with later. But at least the colour was back into Bodie's face.
They had a few minutes respite as Chris and Ronnie dropped the ramp and unloaded Bright Daffodil from the back of the wagon. The chestnut was living up to at least part of her name; dancing lightly at the end of the rein, indicating her willingness to start running.
Taking in everything with interest, the partners followed the horse as far as the stables, trainer and jockey carrying on an incomprehensible conversation about the going, and how Alex would ride against the various other entries.
"I must go and change." As Alex separated from Walters at the stables, the partners took up their flanking positions, walking with him across the open ground; Doyle keeping one eye on his partner. Out of the car, Bodie seemed better; alert despite the tiredness, taking in their surroundings with a practiced gaze.
At the door to the changing and weighing room, Alex stopped them. "Can't follow me in here, guys. Holy of holies, this bit." He dismissed their concerns. "This is so well guarded even assassins can't get in. Wait for me here; I'll be fine."
In spite of Alex's assurances, the partners couldn't help but notice that there seemed to be an extraordinary number of people who did have access to the restricted area, and were silently subjecting everyone to their own brand of scrutiny when Walters approached them.
"Can you let Alex know I've left the saddling up to Chris and Ronnie; they'll take Daffodil down to the parade ring? I've been collared by the owner." He flicked a glance over his shoulder to a lady in pink frills, expression showing what he thought, and they grinned. "Seems to think she's at Ascot every damn race meeting she attends... Tell him I'll see him in the winner's enclosure."
Doyle stared after him. "Pretty sure of the horse, isn't he?"
"Ronnie reckons Daffodil's got a good chance, as well. Might be worth a bet, if you fancy it."
"You not putting anything on?" Doyle tried again to josh Bodie out of the depression. "Gotta be a light at the end of the tunnel soon."
"Right now, it'd be a train coming the other way." Bodie was saved from further response as Alex emerged, carrying his saddle and now wearing silks in the colours of the pink-frilled owner; contrasted bright pink stripes and yellow spots in quarters across the jersey.
Doyle stared at him. "Ouch. Wish I'd brought me sunglasses."
Alex grimaced. "Hideous, isn't it. Least there's no chance of me being mistaken for any other jockey on the field. Col about?"
"He's with the owner. He said Chris and Ronnie would be in the parade ring." Falling into step again, the partners joined the flow of similarly-attired jockeys towards the parade ring where Alex once again stopped them with a grin. "Go and put a few bets on."
As he strode away, Doyle flashed an exasperated grin at Bodie. "How're we supposed to keep him safe if he keeps waltzing out into the open like that?"
"Dunno. But I reckon he's safe enough. Too many people about to be sure a longshot would find it's mark."
They watched the slight form in garish silks swing upward onto Bright Daffodil, the horse walking with the other runners around the parade ring, before making their way down to the start.
Freed from her role, Ronnie came across to join them, and walked with them towards the bookies on the rails, Doyle fishing for his wallet.
Seeing the movement, Ronnie laughed. "If you're going to place a bet, I'd better leave you. No one connected with the stables bets on course. Plays havoc with the odds if the bookies see the stable lads or jockeys betting."
"I'm not betting," Bodie told her. "It's Doyle here who fancies losing his shirt."
"OK. Shall we get a drink? We can get a coffee at the bar up there. Have to leave the alcohol alone, 'cos I've got to unsaddle Daffy later."
Doyle was scanning the bookies' boards, seeing who was offering the best odds on Bright Daffodil. "I'll catch you up then." Without waiting for their response, he began to wander, and Ronnie grinned at Bodie. "Hope they haven't already passed on the message that he was with me."
She threaded her arm through his, and began to walk up towards the bar. "Tick-tack. All those weird and wonderful signals they make to each other. But he'd probably be lucky to get better than evens, anyway."
Bodie answered her absently. He'd been hoping for a bit of time to himself but it looked like Ronnie intended to stick with him. "Bodie? Is something bothering you?" He glanced at her but didn't have chance to respond before she hurried on. "Only, you didn't look good yesterday, then Alex said you'd been sick..."
He dredged up a smile. "Just a bit of a bug. I'm fine now." For Alex to have told her that, she must've been asking about him. She was a sweet kid, trusting and sympathetic, and could be just the sort of complication he could do without right now.
Moving at an angle, he managed to untangle her arm from his without making it obvious. "Where's this bar, then? Can we see the race from there?"
To the cheers of the large crowd, Bright Daffodil stormed home two lengths ahead of her nearest rival. Ronnie had insisted on being down at the trackside, and Bodie had allowed himself to be dragged back, where Doyle had joined them.
The chestnut was a popular win, and the partners were slightly alarmed at the crowd which surged forward as Walters led Bright Daffodil towards the winner's enclosure. There was no attempt by anyone to get at Alex, though, and the partners relaxed as the winners dismounted and went on into the weighing room.
Throwing a rug over the horse, Ronnie was grinning as Doyle edged away, waving his betting slip. "Gotta collect me winnings..." Bodie walked alongside Ronnie as she started to lead the horse away. "What do you have to do now?"
"Unsaddle her; walk her until she's cooled down a bit. We don't have any more runners today, so we'll load her and go straight back to the stables."
"No sign of Alex yet?" Doyle joined him as Bodie waited at the door to the changing room. "No. Walters has gone back with the horsebox, but said Alex wants to stay around and catch up with people. Looks like we're stuck here for the rest of the afternoon."
Doyle grinned and flapped some notes at him. "OK by me. Feeling lucky today; maybe I will win that fortune."
"Beginner's luck." Bodie shivered, and not just from the cold wind. "Anyway, you may not have the time; we have to stick close to Alex." That felt wrong; it was usually Doyle bringing him back on course when he was tempted to stray. And besides, he was inclined to believe the theory Walters had put forward, discounting any attempts on Alex's life; in which case, either of them could handle the protection element alone.
"Not that close." Doyle didn't raise any further argument; Bodie was right, although Doyle didn't need to be reminded.
Alex made the most of his afternoon and had passed them off lightly to virtually everyone with a comment about 'a spot of bother at home, government protection', and the partners grew used to curious looks. Doyle had slid away once or twice to place bets, the second time putting a large bet on for Alex, who didn't want to be seen gambling, and by the end of the afternoon was looking particularly pleased with himself.
Bodie had opted for the rear seat of the Capri for the drive back, giving Alex the chance to enthusiastically outline the rides and discussions he'd had to Doyle. Bodie sat silent, letting it all wash over him, vaguely conscious of Doyle's occasional anxious glance back at him.
Unable to escape the meal later, Bodie had joined Doyle and Alex, but had little appetite or inclination for conversation, and hard as Bodie had tried to disguise that there was a problem, Doyle could see past the act. As soon as he was able to he went to Bodie's room. "We need to talk."
"Ray - "
"Come on, Bodie. Don't try and fob me off with excuses. What's going on? What was the nightmare about?"
Bodie had spent most of the day trying to forget. He'd succeeded before; managed to suppress the memory so well that he hadn't remembered the episode in years. But first the accident, then yesterday, the shots and the Land Rover bumping across the field... He glanced at Doyle, still waiting. Maybe his partner would understand, if only he could bring himself to talk about it.
"I dunno - I don't think..."
"Talk to me, Bodie. Whatever it is; you have to get it out." Doyle's voice dropped; low and persuasive. "I know whatever it is, it's bad. There's not much gets you in this sort of mess."
Bodie moved to the vanity unit and filled a glass of water, suddenly nauseous again. "It happened a long time ago."
"So? It's obviously still affecting you."
"That accident - the boy - I was sure he was going to be hit. Worse, I could just see him going under the front wheels..."
Doyle wasn't sure what was coming. "He was OK, Bodie. You know that." Silence. "He was lucky."
"Yeah." It came out on a breath, barely audible. "Sometimes they're not so lucky..." Bodie shut his eyes, seeing again the jeep, the faces, feeling the hot sun...
Benny was shouting at him, trying to stop him from driving down the road, but there was nowhere else to turn... the jeep was bouncing, he was trying to steer between the bodies, trying not to hear the sound of bones breaking beneath the wheels... but they were dead, and couldn't be hurt any more... if he stopped, they'd be dead too...
"Bodie?" Doyle sounded anxious, and Bodie opened his eyes and stared into the mirror. His reflection stared back. "You OK?"
"Yeah." Bodie took a gulp of the water before setting the glass down, and turning to face his partner. Taking a deep breath, he flatly outlined the situation he'd found himself in. "I couldn't do anything about it, Ray. I had to go on."
If Doyle had found the revelation sickening, he had the sense not to let Bodie know. "Sounds pretty appalling." But there had to be more. "What else? What is it about the accident, and the boy?"
"We were almost through, I could see the empty road ahead... I put my foot down, and suddenly this boy ran out from one of the huts." Bodie closed his eyes again, the image flashing unbidden, starkly colourful. "He flung himself over one of the bodies, maybe his mother. I didn't even have time to swerve..."
The Land Rover bouncing over the logs had brought it all back; the sound of the logs crunching... He'd been sure he'd heard the child cry out, the jeep had bounced and gone on; Benny had shouted at him to keep going...
He was shaking again as he wearily opened his eyes at Doyle's hand on his shoulder. This time, Doyle was unable to completely conceal his feelings. "You still didn't stop?"
"No." Bodie dragged in a deep breath. He'd been wrong; Doyle didn't understand. How could he; you had to experience the hellhole that had been Angola to understand it. He shrugged Doyle's hand away, answering harshly. "No, because if I hit him, he was dead. If I didn't, he'd be dead soon enough anyway; if the rebels didn't kill him then he'd not last long without anyone around to care for him..."
Bodie was better at the comforting gestures; they didn't come naturally to Doyle, and he had dropped his hand back to his side, awkwardly. His partner's reminiscences of Angola had concentrated on the lighter side of things, such as they were; the camaraderie, the women... He'd never really opened up about the seamier side of the mercenary business.
"Oh, leave me alone. I can't expect you to understand." Bodie pulled away and stared out of the window at the dark landscape.
Doyle took a half-step towards him, then stopped. He'd missed the chance, and looking at Bodie's uncompromisingly stiff back, he knew he wouldn't be able to break through that reserve again, at least tonight. "This isn't the end of it, Bodie."
"Get out." Doyle went, and Bodie heard the door close with regret, half-turning, opening his mouth to call Ray back - Christ, why did he do that? Ray Doyle was the one person he could talk to...
He remained standing, irresolute, for a few minutes, before opening the chest of drawers to retrieve the whisky bottle and pour himself a glass. Doyle was right about one thing. The memory was eating him up inside, he should get it out; rather than forcing himself to forget, maybe he should force himself to remember...
It was a dirty life, being a mercenary. It didn't matter which side was in the right, you fought for whoever had the money. He'd seen atrocities; in the eyes of the civilised world, he'd probably even inflicted a few himself. He'd fought his way into and out of messy situations, somehow staying alive and uninjured. And he was hard.
Oh, he'd always been tough. You'd had to be where he grew up. Young as he was, he'd perfected the hard man exterior during his time in the Merchant Navy and by the time he'd jumped ship he had the body to match. It had taken just a little while longer to achieve the same level of toughness inside. By the time he'd become a mercenary, he no longer cared about anyone. It was the only way to survive, amongst the fighting and conflicts.
It didn't matter whether those around him were technically friend or foe. Man, woman or child, he didn't feel anything for them. The men he fought with knew that; no one crossed him. He trusted only a few - ironically the few who he'd had to track down when they'd come out of the jungle; Krivas, Benny - but he trusted no one absolutely.
No one until Ray Doyle. Pouring himself a second shot of whisky, Bodie reflected that in the early days, he'd not even trusted Doyle. Their partnership had initially been an awkward pairing; shaking down eventually into trust and mutual liking. One or two particularly hairy situations later, Bodie had realised exactly how good it was to have a partner you could trust. A partner who knew all the same moves, who backed you up when things went wrong and the boss was blowing a gasket, who could be relied upon, completely, at all times. And more importantly, a partner who cared.
But if it had been hard at first to trust someone that completely, it was now inconceivable that Bodie could operate without Doyle by his side. He knew that if Doyle was in danger he tended to over-react. Bodie smiled to himself. He also knew it irritated the hell out of Doyle. But it wasn't as if Doyle didn't react the same; he was perhaps just a bit better at hiding it. Anyway, it was a form of self-preservation; if Doyle weren't around Bodie would be vulnerable.
A third glass, and Bodie took his mind back to the jungle. By the time of the incident at the village, Bodie had been in the mercenary business for more than two years.
He took a deep breath, running the episode through in his mind, visualising every detail of that hot, dusty village, forcing himself to remember...
They'd been lucky to escape. He and Benny were the only survivors of that little lot, the rebels had massacred the rest of the mercs. Somehow he'd known Benny had been sickened by the episode as well, but they'd never discussed it; you didn't. You ignored it, forgot it, got on with the next thing.
Although he'd not got out for some months that had probably been the catalyst. He couldn't explain - even to himself - exactly what had made him decide to get out. It wasn't that he suddenly started to care about the people round him; far from it - and the short fuse on his temper meant he was even more solitary. But whatever he was being paid wasn't enough. His life was worth more than that.
The army had overlooked his slightly nefarious background in favour of gaining his obvious skills, and he'd gone legit, fighting on the right side. At least, what the British Government thought was the right side...
By now, the alcohol on a near-empty stomach was having an adverse effect, and Bodie hauled himself to his feet. He'd go for a walk outside, that might clear his head a bit.
The early-retiring, late-rising cook was nowhere to be seen as he let himself out by the kitchen door, shivering as he hurried across the stable yard and wishing he'd thought to put a thicker jacket on. At least the fresh air was proving beneficial. Reaching the gate to the paddock, he paused, and stared out over the dark fields; out here there were virtually no lights to be seen apart from the orange glow of streetlights to the south, which was probably Newbury.
Deciding he'd better keep moving unless he wanted pneumonia, Bodie turned and made his way back to the stable yard. The movement to his right near the loose boxes had him reaching instinctively for his gun, before he remembered he'd left it upstairs. Then the shadow spoke, and he relaxed again. "Bodie, is that you?"
"Ronnie? What on earth are you doing up here at this time of night?"
"It's not that late. I'm just walking Rexie for Col." A large black shadow brushed around his legs, identifying itself as the black labrador.
"Late enough when it's as dark and cold as this." Ronnie followed him into the kitchen, and Bodie realised that she at least was dressed for the weather. "We often come up this way. It's a nice walk."
Bodie was shivering, and filled the kettle. "Want a coffee?" The labrador had already flopped into a warm patch in front of the range, and Ronnie nodded, sliding onto one of the kitchen chairs. "Black." Bodie pulled a face, busy with finding the coffee powder, milk and sugar for himself.
The silence stretched out until Bodie finished making the coffee and sat opposite Ronnie. "How's Bright Daffodil? Doyle was delighted; he won a fair bit on her."
"Still full of beans. You'd never think she'd run a race this morning; she's got masses of energy."
There was another pause. Bodie's recent thoughts were refusing to be completely banished but he hadn't realised anything was obvious until Ronnie spoke again. "There is something wrong, I can see it. Maybe I can help?"
Bodie focused on her properly; seeing soft, short brown hair and large hazel eyes. She was young - about the age he'd been when he'd turned killer. "No," he shook his head. "But thanks."
She stared at him a moment longer before dropping her eyes to the coffee, but not before he'd caught the hurt in them, and Bodie cursed himself. He was trying not to hurt her, dammit.
She glanced up again, catching his regret, and he saw the hurt disappear as she reached to squeeze his hand. "Offer's open. When you're ready to talk."
Bodie nodded, without commitment, and Ronnie stood up, calling Rexie. "I'd better get back. I probably won't see you in the morning; I'll be leaving early with the horsebox for Sandown." She paused in the doorway. "Do you want to go for a drink tomorrow night?"
"Why not?" Bodie managed a smile. "Got a local?"
"In the village, The Horseshoe. Alex knows it; he'll give you directions. I'll meet you at 8."
He woke sweating again; at least this time he hadn't been shouting. Or so he assumed since Doyle hadn't burst in, unless his partner was ignoring him. He peered at the luminous hands on his watch. Just after 3. Another 3 hours before anyone else was up.
Propping himself up against the pillow, Bodie tried to clear the dream from his mind and cast about for something else to think about. Ronnie was the first thing he thought of. She was clearly interested in him; she was pretty enough, although with her short hair and boyish figure Ronnie wasn't the sort he normally went for.
It was flattering, but he'd have to be careful not to lead her on; he'd only be around for another week at most. It was inevitable that when he broke up with girlfriends some would be upset, but contrary to any opinion Doyle might have of him, Bodie tried not to leave a trail of broken hearts behind him.
His thoughts drifted onwards to Gemma. She'd been his type - so he'd thought. Long blonde hair, beautiful face and a figure to match; and their first date had been a complete success. The second had been spoilt by an emergency call-out part way through the meal when he'd had to dump her in a taxi.
It had taken considerable effort to get her to agree to a third date. They'd planned for dinner and a nightclub, but that was before Cowley put the partners on an unrelieved stake-out for the previous 18 hours. By the time Bodie reached Gemma's place he was exhausted; too tired to take her out, even too tired to try and cajole her when she'd said she was finished with him.
It was no consolation to know that Doyle, and many others in the team, had the same problems with their relationships. Bodie usually managed better than them; whether because he was better-looking, or more smooth-talking, or simply had more energy, he didn't know.
The casual nature of most of his relationships didn't usually bother him. Sometimes it was a positive relief to be able to cite work as an excuse for not seeing someone; he'd never yet met a girl that he'd been devastated by losing. Not that he'd wanted to lose them, necessarily, but he'd never fought to keep them either...
The following day passed slowly in the same way as Thursday; Alex and Doyle rode out with Walter's horses while Bodie travelled in the Land Rover, followed by another exercise run in the afternoon. Although tired, Bodie had felt considerably better; if he still felt queasy when driving, at least he knew why, and could cope with it.
It wasn't until late afternoon that Doyle had a chance to talk to him, but as usual when he'd tried to question his partner Bodie had given him the brush-off. "You were shouting again last night."
"Was I? Sorry."
"That's it? 'Sorry'? You've got a problem, Bodie - "
"Ray, look, I appreciate the concern, but I'm OK. All right - " Bodie cut across the protest Doyle was about to make " - there's a problem. But I'm dealing with it, OK? And yes, I know where you are if I want to talk."
Doyle left it, not wholly convinced, but at least Bodie seemed more relaxed than he had been the previous day. For all the influence he'd had on Bodie since they were partnered it was still difficult to break through the defensive shell he could throw up, sometimes at a moment's notice.
Bodie's next comment took him by surprise. "Anyway, I'm meeting Ronnie for a drink at the pub later. You want to come along?"
"And play gooseberry? Not likely. 'sides, one of us has to stay close to Alex. Unless you think he'll come as well?"
"Could ask him. Ronnie said he knows where the pub is; so he must've been there with them before..."
Alex had agreed to join them with almost indecent eagerness; and they reached the pub shortly after 8. Ronnie had obviously been watching out for them, and waved them to join the group of stable lads she was with. They were all celebrating; the stable's three horses had all been placed at Sandown that day. Alcohol was only partly responsible for the cloud Ronnie was floating on, since she had ridden a winner.
Knowing most of them well, Alex had immediately been drawn into the circle of stable lads and was soon trying to drink them under the table. Ronnie had eventually broken loose from the group and joined Bodie at the table where he was sinking a pint, watching the party and wondering when it was he suddenly got so old...
Sliding onto the bench next to him, Ronnie plonked another pint on the table. "Got you one in. You're not drinking."
"I am. Well, slowly. Need to keep a clear head."
"Doesn't seem to be bothering Alex." She glanced over at the bar. "He'll still be up to ride out in the morning."
The time was long gone when Bodie could throw off alcohol instantly. "Which is why I need a clear head. We're supposed to be protecting him, remember?"
"From that gunman? Do you think he'll try again?"
Bodie shrugged. "Anything's possible."
One of the lads hailed Ronnie from the bar with a demand that she buy the next round, and Ronnie glanced back at Bodie as she stood up, having sensed his discomfort at being there. "You won't go, will you?"
"Not for a bit." Bodie watched her weave her way back across the pub with mixed feelings. What on earth was he doing? Ronnie was too young for him, he had no intention of getting involved with her, yet he was increasingly drawn to her.
When she returned some three rounds later Ronnie was now decidedly the worse for drink, and dropping her head on his shoulder she grinned lopsidedly at him. "Think I'd betta go home..."
"Think you're right... Come on, I'll take you." Guiding her towards the door, Bodie caught Doyle's eye - not hard, since his partner had been paying equal attention to Bodie and Alex - and signalled he would walk Ronnie home and see him back at the house.
Fortunately, the fresh air sobered Ronnie up somewhat, although she showed no inclination to escape from the support of his arm around her. "It's been a fantastic day. My first win at Sandown... do you know what that means to me?"
"I can see what it means to you."
"Yes, but don't you see... It opens up a whole new world of possibilities... it means I'll get noticed, by other trainers, could get more rides, and more winners... It'll be a dream come true. Did that never happen for you?"
Few nightmares, maybe... He'd escaped the background of his childhood - but that had been a necessity rather than a dream. A dream come true? Somehow, he'd never had those sort of dreams - impossible dreams... "No. Not really."
"It's all going to happen; I just know it will. It won't be easy, I'll have to work for it..." Ronnie stopped suddenly. "It's not easy for you, is it? What you do?"
Bodie gently urged her forward again. "No. It's not an easy job, Ronnie. We all have to work at things."
"Is that what's bothering you? Your job?"
"Not really. It's complicated."
She gave a sigh, and he felt her arm squeeze around his waist. "Life is. But it can be wonderful too..."
Stopping at the door to a small cottage only a few minutes away from the stables, Ronnie produced a key from her pocket to open it. The interior was gently lit with a lamp. "Coming in?"
Bodie shook his head. Acceptance would give her the wrong idea. "Not tonight." That was still the wrong thing to say since it implied future assent, but he was still treading a fine line in trying not to hurt her.
"Maybe tomorrow then." Ronnie wasn't drunk or quite brazen enough to ask him to stay but she wouldn't have taken much persuading, as she took a step closer in order to place a light kiss on his lips and in spite of himself, Bodie caught her in his arms and responded.
Forcing himself to let go of her, Bodie frowned slightly, asking the question before he could stop himself. "How old are you?" She looked faintly worried. "Old enough. I'm 20."
He shook his head; that hadn't been what he meant. But it was a stupid question anyway; physical age was immaterial, since he felt several millennia older than her.
Putting some space between them, he changed the subject. "Will you be at the stables tomorrow?"
"As usual! 7 days a week job, horseracing. Saturday is generally our busiest day, because we have so many horses going out to races, there are more for those left behind to look after. Sundays are always quieter, though, especially the afternoons."
"Maybe I'll see you in the morning, then. Night."
He took his time over the walk back. In contrast to the previous night it was warm; the wind had dropped, so maybe Spring was round the corner. But however pleasant the walk, it didn't do much to lighten his thoughts.
Bodie wasn't surprised to see Doyle still up and waiting for him. "Checking up on me?"
"Not exactly. But I'd no idea what time you'd be back, and I didn't want you to get locked out, did I? Alex has got the staff trained to repel boarders, remember?"
"Thought you said he'd got us for that." Bodie started up the stairs, thoughts still weighing him down, in spite of his light words.
"Actually, I didn't think you'd be back at all. That Ronnie seems taken with you."
"She's a nice kid."
"So you said. Doesn't mean she won't come across. And you couldn't keep your eyes off her." Doyle stopped at the door to his room, and raised his hands in submission as Bodie turned back, glowering. "OK, OK, I'll keep out of it. None of my business. Sleep well."
Sleep well. Bodie shut the door of his room behind him, and leant against it. Chance would be a fine thing...
Sunday lunch, Alex had informed them, was traditionally taken at the stables, and after lunch the partners found themselves on a tour of the stables while Alex and Walters discussed the forthcoming Cheltenham Festival.
The stables were quiet; there were no stable lads about and even the horses looked drowsy in their boxes. Ronnie's appearance with the black labrador at her heels caught Bodie's attention before the others saw her, and she shot him a look before speaking to Walters. "Just taking Rexie up for a walk, Col."
Walters acknowledged her without answering, turning back to continue his conversation with Alex, and Bodie took a step closer to Doyle. "I'll go with Ronnie. I could do with some fresh air, and I'm getting bored with all this horse-talk."
He was away before Doyle could respond. It took a few seconds for Walters to notice and then he paused in mid-sentence, flashing a glare at Doyle, and speaking to Alex. "I hope he's to be trusted. Ronnie's vulnerable, you know."
Doyle caught the outraged parental inflection, and answered, feeling both amused and annoyed. "Bodie will take care of her." Walters gave him another glare, but dropped the subject and returned to the horses.
Ronnie's grin was mischievous. "Thought I'd rescue you because you looked bored. Col never seems to realise not everyone shares his passion for horses."
"I'd noticed. Anyway - " His usual glib comment about preferring to spend time with a pretty woman wasn't appropriate and Bodie cut short and changed the rest of his sentence " - I fancied a walk."
Ronnie didn't seem to notice. "I always need a walk after one of Alice's lunches."
The apparent warmth of the previous evening hadn't been illusionary; the day was bright with patches of blue sky and sunshine. Ronnie was seemingly content to walk without talking, occasionally throwing sticks for Rexie, but leaving him alone with his thoughts, and Bodie felt his spirits lift slightly, in spite of his weariness. He hadn't slept well, although he hadn't had the nightmare again.
The path through the patch of woodland led them up to the Downs, overlooking the gallops, and Ronnie dropped to sit on the sun-warmed grass. "I often come up here. When you can see for miles like this, it somehow puts things into perspective."
Bodie joined her on the grass, still not speaking, but gazing around him at the expanse of sun-dappled countryside. That's what he had to do; get things into perspective. It had happened years ago. There was nothing he could do to change it now. Accept it, deal with it - get over it, if he could.
He felt Ronnie slide closer to him and rest her head against his shoulder, and he sighed inwardly. "Ronnie - "
"Yes?" Bodie turned his head ever so slightly; her lips were close to his, soft, kissable... Bodie took a deep breath, trying to subdue his baser impulses. "I don't think - " The gentle pressure of her lips on his caused Bodie to forget the rest of the sentence, sweeping away his reservations.
The labrador brought them both back to a realisation of where they were by suddenly thrusting his nose between them, and Ronnie broke away with a laugh. "Get out of it, Rexie! We're not playing, you stupid dog..."
Her amusement faded suddenly, anxious brown eyes holding his blue gaze. "We're not playing, are we?"
At that moment Bodie saw that whatever his reasons for needing her, Ronnie needed him as well, and he shook his head. "No," he muttered thickly.
The walk back was a blur, swiftly accomplished, and inside the cottage Ronnie led him straight to the bedroom, barely giving him time to get his jacket off...
He collapsed onto her with a cry as he came, hearing and feeling her heart thudding under him almost in time with the pounding of his own heart, feeling her hands soothing and stroking his head and shoulders...
It was a minute or so before Bodie found the strength to raise himself back onto his elbows. Ronnie was gazing at him, tears on her face. Oh Christ... he was usually so careful, but she'd seemed as aroused as him, maybe he'd been too rough... "Did I hurt you? I'm sorry..."
She caught his face in her hands, caressing the anxiety away. "You didn't hurt me, it was wonderful." A half-smile lit her face. "But you are heavy..."
"Sorry..." Bodie shifted his weight off her. She had a thin, almost under-developed figure, although strongly muscled in her arms and legs; from riding, he supposed.
"S'OK." Ronnie twisted onto her side, and gazed at him, one hand still caressing his face. Bodie felt his eyes closing as the recent lack of sleep and sexual exertion caught up with him, and tried to rouse himself; falling asleep was almost as bad as getting up and leaving a woman immediately afterwards...
He felt Ronnie pull the sheet over them as she whispered. "Go to sleep..."
...the jeep bounced, wheel jumping under his hands, sounds of shots... but it wasn't Benny beside him, it was Ronnie... she was trying to tell him something... "Bodie, it's OK, I'm here..."
He woke abruptly, shuddering, finding himself clutching at Ronnie, her arms around him, trying to comfort him. "It's OK, Bodie, wake up..."
Disorientated, Bodie continued to hold her until the blood pounding in his ears slowed, and he could hear her heart along with her soothing words; feeling safe.
"Tell me." At her words, Bodie drew away and dropped back on the pillow, and tried a joke. "What, and give you nightmares too?"
"Bodie - don't treat me like a child."
"No. I'm not. But - "
She interrupted him. "If I don't want to hear, I'll stop you."
Her eyes held him, and Bodie nodded, although still not convinced. But somehow, he felt he owed her, and her reaction couldn't be much worse than his partner's...
Ronnie listened in silence as he recounted, as briefly and simply as possible, his history as a mercenary and the incident that was giving him nightmares. She slipped from the bed as he finished, avoiding him. "Won't be a minute."
Bodie closed his eyes, seeing again the dusty track and the bodies... He shouldn't have told her; Ronnie was probably horrified and disgusted and was just working out how to kick him out of her bed... "Bodie?"
She was offering him a glass; whisky by the looks of it. She held one herself, and dropped back onto the bed next to him. She didn't look too upset. Bodie ran his hand lightly over her back. "You OK?"
Nodding, Ronnie twisted around to face him. "Why do you feel guilty?"
"Why?" Surely that was obvious...
"None of that was your fault, was it? You didn't kill all those people in the village; that was the 'other side'... Oh, I'm sure you've done a lot of things you're not proud of; things you probably should feel guilty about. But not this."
"But the little boy..."
"What would have happened if you'd stopped? Even if you managed to escape, what were you going to do, pick him up and take him with you?"
"Ronnie..." Bodie wasn't sure what to say. Calm acceptance was the last thing he'd been expecting.
"And why now? Years later?"
"I don't know. It didn't bother me at the time - "
"You didn't let it, you mean." Ronnie reached out to take his hand. "But you're not the same person any more; you've changed. You care now, about other people, your partner."
"Yeah..." Maybe she was right. He'd certainly developed a conscience once he'd started working with Ray. He realised there were tears running down her face. "Hey..."
She brushed them away, and snuggled down next to him. "Just hold me..."
Bodie was up before Doyle and Alex in the morning, following a dreamless, peaceful sleep for the first time in a couple of days. It had been gone 8 by the time he left Ronnie the previous evening, but he was still concerned about her. It seemed that talking to her had begun his healing, but had left her subdued and quiet.
He knew she'd be riding a training gallop for Alex on Wind Whisper that morning, and resolved to find a moment to speak to her.
Following the others to the stables, it wasn't until he was trundling the Land Rover (still running despite the dodgy brakes and steering) across the Downs that he realised he'd driven without the slightest qualms of anything going wrong.
Ronnie was already on the Downs, waiting with Col Walters, who favoured Bodie with a vicious glare. It wasn't too hard to find a reason for it; Ronnie was heavy-eyed and tired. She didn't seem to be avoiding him though, smiling in his direction as he got out of the Land Rover, while taking Wind Whisper from Doyle.
Doyle wasn't slow to catch onto the exchange of looks; he'd not managed to talk to Bodie the previous evening but had guessed where Bodie had been all afternoon. "Things OK yesterday?"
"Yeah. And she's still a nice kid. I did some talking, she listened..." Bodie broke off at the look on Doyle's face. "What?"
"Shit - you didn't tell her? About Angola?"
Doyle caught his arm and pulled Bodie further away from Col Walters, although the trainer seemed occupied with the horses and wasn't paying them any attention. "Did she say anything about her parents?"
"She hasn't told me anything about herself. What's going on?"
"Look, Walters seemed overly-protective of Ronnie, so I asked Alex about her last night. Seems Walters' has known her for years, and her parents. They were killed, Bodie, just over 18 months ago. They were mown down, in a country lane not far from here, by a pair of rich kids in fast cars who were racing each other. Her father went through the windscreen of the first car, her mother went straight over the top of the first car and into the path of the second..."
"Jesus..." Now he understood Doyle's reaction. Bodie swallowed. "I'll talk to her."
"I think you'd better..."
Frustratingly, Ronnie was too busy working with the horses for Bodie to be able to talk to her during the day, and when early that evening Alex asked Doyle to drive him back to the stables so he could discuss plans with Walters, Bodie made an excuse, and escaped after telling Doyle he'd meet them at the stables.
It was just after 6.30 when he tapped on the cottage door. "Bodie! I didn't expect you..." Ronnie seemed surprised but pleased to see him.
Bodie wasn't about to insult her intelligence by making out he'd just been passing. "I have to talk to you." There was an immediate wariness in her manner, as she moved back to let him in. "Why?"
"Because I heard what happened to your parents." His response silenced her, and Ronnie turned away.
"Do you want a drink? Whisky?" As Ronnie clinked the bottle against the glasses Bodie saw her hands were shaking, and moved swiftly to put his arms around her. "Ronnie... why didn't you tell me?"
"Why should I? It happened a long time ago." For a moment, Ronnie resisted his embrace before Bodie felt her shudder and relax against him. "Come on." Bodie pushed her gently onto the sofa. "Your turn to tell me."
Ronnie brushed away the tears, shaking her head and trying to wriggle free from his arms. Bodie refused to be pushed away. "Come on, Ronnie."
"You know what happened." Her voice was muffled against his chest. "Nothin' else to tell."
"I only heard the outline. You can tell me the detail." It took a few more minutes to persuade her, before the story tumbled out between sniffs.
"My parents were walking from our home; they were coming over to lunch with Col. And these cars were racing, they tore around a blind bend, and hit them. They said Dad died instantly; he went through the windscreen... Mum was thrown over the first car, under the wheels of the second."
Bodie had heard all that from Doyle. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"Why should I?" Ronnie drew herself away from him. "What good would it do?"
"You listened to me. I can at least do the same for you." Bodie was suddenly certain there was more to it, and unconsciously echoed her question to him. "Why do you feel guilty?"
Ronnie was startled, and pulled her hand away from him. "I don't." She turned away but couldn't disguise the shake of her shoulders, and Bodie drew her back to him. "If you weren't there, why do you feel guilty? What happened? Had you argued?"
"No... but they shouldn't have been walking. If they hadn't walked they'd still be here." This didn't make too much sense, and Bodie gently hugged her. "So why were they walking?"
He could barely hear her whispered response. "I'd borrowed Mum's car to go to the club in Newbury on the Saturday night. Dad's car was at the garage, and I promised I'd get back in time for lunch. But I didn't."
Bodie didn't have time to reply before she continued. "I didn't, because I met someone, and we slept together, and I stayed with him all morning... I didn't know they were dead until hours afterwards, when I got home... Col was waiting for me."
No wonder Ronnie had sensed his guilt, and understood it. Her tears were soaking through his shirt. "It wasn't your fault."
"But it was. My parents died, while I was lying in some boy's bed... If I'd got the car back as I promised they wouldn't have been walking..."
"Ronnie, it was an accident. The pair speeding are to blame, not you." He stroked the tears from her cheeks.
"That's what everyone keeps telling me. But it doesn't make any difference to the way I feel."
"And me telling you about Angola... it must've brought it all back."
Ronnie managed a watery smile. "It never went away. It's always on my mind; that's why I can't face driving. And - " Her smile faded as she faltered to a stop.
"And?" Bodie gave her a gentle hug of encouragement.
"Yesterday - us - was the first time I've been with anyone since then. I don't know - it was just I felt that you were feeling guilty about something too. And - somehow - it helped me."
Bodie lifted her chin, dropping a light kiss on her lips. "It helped both of us."
Ronnie had sobbed in his arms before falling asleep, but this time Bodie knew it wasn't anything he'd done; it was almost as if the moment of ecstasy had released months of pent-up guilt.
By the time Bodie left it was fully dark. She followed him to the door, still taking comfort from his presence. "Will I see you tomorrow? Are you going with Alex to Cheltenham?"
"If that's where Alex is going, we'll be there."
"Col's got several runners tomorrow..." Ronnie nodded, but starting to frown, her attention drawn past him, towards the stables. "Bodie - can you smell smoke?"
He could - but before he could confirm it, Ronnie was tugging the boots standing by the door onto her bare feet, and shouting at him. "The stables - it could be a fire...!" Without bothering about a coat, she was out of the door and running, Bodie beside her. Stables were full of wood, straw and hay - all things that burnt well...
Bodie was fast, but Ronnie outsprinted him and was already banging at the door, raising the alarm. Closer now, they could smell the smoke, and see a red glow from one corner of the stable block, and the sounds of growing alarm from the horses in the nearest loose boxes...
"It's in the Tack room - but it'll spread... we've got to get the horses out...!" Dodging Bodie's arm as he tried to stop her, she sprinted across the dimly-lit yard to the furthest loose box. "Ronnie!"
Alex was dashing past him to help Ronnie; Doyle suddenly by his side. "Bodie, get the gate to the paddock open... we can get the horses safe down there..."
Bodie went, aware that the others would handle the horses better than he could. Flinging the gate open so that it blocked the path out to the Downs he turned and sprinted back towards the yard, meeting Ronnie leading a very skittish gelding. Thrusting the rope at him, Ronnie twisted and ran back to the yard, and Bodie hauled on the rope. Since it was heading away from the source of terror the horse came easily, and he released the rope to let the horse canter into the dark of the paddock, hoping it wouldn't be scared enough to try and escape from there.
Back towards the yard, and passing Ronnie and Alice Walters leading another, both hanging on. "The others... see if you can help..." Reaching the yard, Bodie dodged Walters leading another horse dancing on the end of a rope, catching sight of Doyle beyond, pulling at a headcollar and dangerously close to flying hooves...
Walters called to him - "There's a hose - by the kitchen door..." Bodie had seen it previously, and headed for the kitchen. No doubt Walters had called the fire brigade but they weren't exactly round the corner; they'd have to try and get it under control themselves.
Shaking the coil to try and straighten the twists out, Bodie gave the tap several hefty turns before dragging the hose out behind him. As Ronnie reappeared from the paddock, a horse burst loose from the box in the corner, terrified and heading straight for her. Dropping the hose Bodie ran forward, not sure what he could do, but Ronnie didn't get out of the way, instead jumping up and waving her arms. The horse skittered, swerved and turned away, heading for the paddock.
Reaching her, Bodie caught Ronnie in his arms, feeling her shaking. "OK?" The smoke was getting to him too; the word catching in his throat. She nodded, trying to say something, as Doyle appeared, and stopped, looking round him in the yard before shouting to Bodie.
Bodie shook his head; he didn't know - at the paddock? He felt Ronnie's wrench at his arms - and saw Doyle's sudden comprehension, before his partner ran for the loose box from which the horse had escaped...
Holding Ronnie back, he forced the command out; "Stay there!" before following Doyle.
The loose box was next to the Tack room; the roof already ablaze as Bodie flung himself through the open door, coughing as he sucked in a lungful of smoke. It was dark apart from the red and orange flickers, and Bodie stumbled towards the shadows where one shape was helping another to stand, and lent his strength to pulling Alex to his feet.
Doyle was coughing on the other side; the smoke was stinging their eyes as they almost carried Alex out into the yard. Over their heads Walters was spraying the hose onto the flames, half-soaking them in the process, and Bodie laughed to himself - they'd escaped the fire; it'd just be their luck to get pneumonia from being drenched...
Alex was coming round, putting his feet to the ground and coughing, as the partners led him into the kitchen where Alice was already on the phone to the doctor. Dropping Alex into a chair, Bodie left Doyle and Alice to look after him and hurried back out to the yard, where Walters already had the fire under control, and Bodie relaxed, hearing alarm bells in the distance.
As he checked his watch, surprised to find that only 10 minutes had passed since he was at the cottage, Ronnie flung herself into his arms, clutching at him tightly. "I was worried about you..."
"I'm OK. We're all OK." Bodie could feel Ronnie shaking, and led her towards the house. "Come on inside..."
Apart from sore throats and a tendency to keep coughing, no one was injured and once Alex had been checked over by the doctor, he had hoarsely explained what had happened. "Firebrand - the mostly aptly named horse in the stable - wouldn't let me get hold of his headcollar, and just as I did he reared and crashed into me, throwing me against the wall before he dashed out. I wasn't knocked out; just winded and dazed, but with the smoke and everything..."
"It was just lucky we realised you were still in there." Doyle's voice was husky; he'd breathed in more of the smoke than Bodie. "That's thanks to Ronnie."
Ronnie was securely tucked under Bodie's arm, where he leant against the sink unit. "And that horse would be halfway to London now, if Ronnie hadn't jumped in front of it."
"You got in front of Firebrand?" Walters was horrified. "You know how stupid that could be."
Bodie felt her shrug. "I didn't think. I just didn't want him to get out to the road. And of course Firebrand was lashing out; he was scared." She glanced up at Bodie. "He wasn't the only one."
Doyle broke into the pause that followed, having stayed with Alex whilst Bodie had helped Walters with things outside. "So what was the damage?"
Walters had found some of his stable lads to help, and the loose horses had been rounded up. "Well, there were no injuries to the horses, thank God. The Tack room's burnt out, along with everything in it; and the boxes either side are unusable. But it could all have been a lot worse."
"Can you still send the runners tomorrow?" Alex's question was followed by a coughing fit; and the partners exchanged worried glances. There was every chance they could play down the scale of the fire as far as Cowley was concerned since Alex hadn't been injured; but if he went down with a chest infection or something from the smoke, then their boss would know things had been more serious. Their first duty should've been to protect Alex from any danger; not let him go rushing into the guts of a fire... although they'd have been hard pushed to have stopped him.
Once he'd stopped, Walters answered Alex's question. "No question about it. Whoever started that fire tonight is trying to stop me running my horses, and that only makes me more determined to do so. I'll get on the phone in the morning to Andrew Miles; ask him to lend me the tack for Cheltenham. We'll need to leave earlier; at 9.00."
Alex got to his feet, leaning against the table. "We'll be here." He silenced Doyle's incipient argument with a look. "I'll be fine by then." Doyle shrugged; he'd argue the point in the morning if necessary. "Let's get back for some rest, then."
Bodie could still feel slight tremors coming from the slim body beside him. "I'll take Ronnie home and walk back."
Doyle didn't argue with that either; Ronnie was bringing out Bodie's protective streak and Doyle knew better than to argue with his partner. He just hoped Ronnie wasn't starting to care about Bodie too much...
He was on the phone to Cowley when Bodie arrived back at Tuckett House. "No, sir. We're keeping him safe, just like you said." Doyle suppressed a grin at Bodie's raised eyebrow. "Yes, OK. I'll call in tomorrow."
"What did the Old Man have to say then? As if I can't guess."
"I told him that the fire couldn't be an attempt on Alex because it was down at the stables, not here. He wasn't convinced. 'Someone could've followed us there'. I didn't tell him how close Alex got to becoming toast; I let him think he stayed safely in the house and someone else put the fire out." Doyle regarded his partner, lounging back on the sofa. "Is Ronnie OK?"
"Bit shaken. No burns or anything."
"And? You two looked pretty cosy..."
Bodie shrugged. Not that it was any of Doyle's business; but he understood what his partner was concerned about. He'd accepted Ronnie's offer of a shoulder to cry on, and returned the favour. As long as she saw it like that too. But after tonight; after her reaction to him being in danger, he wasn't sure she did.
He stood up abruptly. "I checked all the doors. We should get some kip; long way to Cheltenham."
The only lasting effects of the fire seemed to be sore throats all round; and Doyle discovered how stubborn Alex was. There had been no question of Alex missing the first day of Cheltenham, but it was with some reluctance that Doyle followed the horseboxes. As Cowley had pointed out - not without some justification - even if the attacks weren't aimed directly at Alex, then proximity to Colin Walters could result in the same outcome.
While Doyle had played down the possible danger to Alex, he couldn't help but agree. He intended to try and keep some space between Alex and Walters, if possible. It shouldn't be difficult to do, with Bodie's help. Doyle glanced across at his partner, getting a grin in response. Bodie seemed to be dealing with his problem; he appeared to have conquered the nightmares and be getting some sleep, anyway...
Cheltenham Racecourse was buzzing. The Festival was a major event in the racing calendar; and the partners glanced about them in some apprehension. The place was bigger than Newbury, and in spite of being a weekday there were already crowds of spectators - and they had no way of knowing whether their gunman-turned-arsonist was somewhere out there, hiding in the hordes.
Fortunately, Alex was intending to spend much of the day catching up with trainers and other jockeys, and once again the partners trailed him around, occasionally recognising a face they had seen at Newbury.
The grapevine had been hard at work, and several people asked Alex about the fire at Walters' stables. Alex had glossed over the incident; reassuring everyone and leaving the impression that it had been trivial and there had been no danger to anyone.
In a break between people, Doyle caught Alex's arm. "Why are you so determined to play down the fire?" Alex glanced around him before replying. "Listen, Ray, if there's any suggestion of me not being fit, the Jockey Club will stop me riding this week. They're my horses; I train them, and I ride them. Anyway, no one was in any danger."
"No danger? You could've been killed."
Alex shrugged, nonchalantly. "I wasn't." He turned away to greet another trainer, giving Doyle a parting comment over his shoulder. "I ride races at 30-odd miles an hour over those jumps, Ray. I risk death every time I race."
Taken aback, Doyle cocked an eyebrow at Bodie; whose equally stunned expression dissolved swiftly into amusement. "Better pray it doesn't happen, sunshine. I've no idea how we'd explain that one to Cowley..."
Although the day's racing was over by 6, Alex was invited by one of the local trainers for a meal, and consequently it was nearly midnight before they returned to Tuckett House. Bodie had been undecided whether to see Ronnie that night anyway; the lateness of the hour made the decision for him.
It had been another early start the following morning and Walters' horsebox arrived just after 9.30 to collect Sandstorm and Wind Whisper, both entered at Cheltenham that day.
This time, the partners knew the procedures for following Alex about; to and from the changing room and back to the parade ring. They hadn't relaxed their vigilance, particularly when Alex was anywhere near Colin Walters, but there was no attempt by anyone to attack them.
Sandstorm was in the first race of the afternoon, and the partners watched Alex's ride from the finish line with Walters, as delighted as the trainer when the bay won, before they followed Walters around to the winner's enclosure, still scanning the crowds for any sign of trouble.
Alex had dismounted to make his way towards the weighing room with the second and third-placed jockeys, and from the door of the weighing room, Bodie turned to continue scanning the crowds. Ronnie was with Sandstorm, throwing a rug over the large horse, and Bodie sent a quick grin in her direction.
She didn't see it, as at that moment the lad dealing with the second-placed horse barged into her, sending her flying. Bodie took a quick step forward, but found Doyle's restraining hand on his arm. "Leave it."
"That was deliberate, Ray."
"So I saw. But our job's over here. Ronnie can look after herself."
And was, in fact; as Bodie watched Ronnie bounced back to her feet, sending a few angry words in the lad's direction before turning back to calm Sandstorm, who was dancing nervously.
Bodie smothered his anxiety; Doyle was right. Their first responsibility was to Alex, and to rush to Ronnie's aid could be misconstrued. The horse-racing business had its rules and regulations like everything else; any one of the official-looking stewards standing around would take action, if any were needed. Not that he wasn't going to ask Ronnie about the incident, later.
Alex emerged, wearing an anorak over his racing colours. "Windy's race isn't until 4."
Bodie dragged his attention back from Ronnie, now leading Sandstorm away. "So we have time for lunch?" What with following Alex about, they hadn't had time to eat earlier.
Alex exchanged a glance with Doyle, who was grinning widely, delighted to see that his partner was back on form. "You have time for lunch. I'll have to make do with a tonic water."
Alex led the celebration back at the Horseshoe that night; buying several rounds for the stablelads and clearly delighted with the two wins of the day. Doyle was celebrating as well; he'd put a large bet on Wind Whisper. Concentrating on staying sober (well, one of them had to), Bodie fetched a second pint for himself, not surprised when Ronnie joined him.
She was already slightly the worse for wear, plonking her glass on the table and sliding sideways to rest her head on his shoulder, and Bodie regarded her with amusement. "I think you've had enough."
"Not yet." She gave a small but unladylike hiccup, and giggled. "I'll be OK tomorrow."
"Not if you've got a hangover. You'll never manage to hang onto the horses." Bodie cast a glance over to Alex; the Sheik was buying drinks and drinking himself but was in fact consuming less than everyone else at the bar - including his partner.
"Be fine." Leaning forward, Ronnie drained her pint before slumping back against him, and lowering her voice into what she thought was a conspiratorial whisper. "Wanna come back with me?"
"I'll take you home," Bodie agreed. Someone should; if only to stop her drinking any more. He glanced up to the bar again. If he took Ronnie home was Doyle in a fit state to drive back with Alex safely? At the rate his partner was downing the drinks, the answer was No, and Bodie hauled Ronnie to her feet. He'd have to take her home and come back to drive the Capri.
Passing the bar, he pocketed the car keys that Doyle had abandoned on the counter, and spoke quietly to Alex. "I'll be back to drive you home."
Ronnie wasn't too drunk, needing a bit of gentle steering but not carrying, and Bodie kept her moving as quickly as possible. Holding her up as she stumbled over a kerb, he remembered the earlier incident at the racetrack. "Ronnie, why did that other stable lad push you this morning?"
"Mmm? Oh, Augustus. Gus. Gussie!" She giggled to herself. "What an idiot..."
Bodie grinned. "Maybe. But why did he push you?"
"Don't like me. Thinks I got him sacked." She treated Bodie to an evil grin. "Maybe I did. But he deserved it; always pushing me about, thinking he's better'n rest of us 'cos his dad's an owner... And he was taking bribes from the bookies; so I told Col." She went off into amused giggles again. "Gussie..."
Well, that explained the push. Bodie was about to dismiss it when Ronnie decided to tell him some more. "He was steaming when Sandstorm beat their runner today. Col's a much better trainer than who Gus works for... Lord Dover... Jus' 'cos he's got a title. He hates to lose to Col; he's always trying something... nasty piece, Col says... s'why Gus went to work for him. Two of a kind..."
Her words gave Bodie a sudden thought; one he tucked away until they were inside her cottage. Ronnie dropped onto the sofa, still giggling. "Ronnie, Gus and Lord Dover - do you think they would try to stop Col's runners?"
"Maybe. Prob'ly." Not interested in talking, she caught his sleeve and pulled, batting her eyelashes at him. "Gonna stay?"
Bodie wasn't going to take advantage of her present state and instead pulled Ronnie to her feet. "No. I've got to go. Will you be OK?"
She pouted. "S'pose. Stay with me tomorrow?" she added hopefully.
"Maybe." Bodie disentangled her hands from his jacket and guided her into the bedroom, beating a swift retreat and closing the cottage door behind him.
His return to the pub was timely; Doyle was just emerging, leaning rather too heavily on Alex.
"Bodie! Where y'been? Was gonna buy y'a drink!" Bodie caught his partner as Doyle tripped over his own feet, and propped him up against the car as he fumbled for the car keys. "Maybe tomorrow, sunshine." This was getting daft; having to deal with two drunks in one evening.
In contrast, Alex was nearly sober. "Ray's just been celebrating."
"I can see that." In truth, Bodie didn't begrudge Doyle his self-indulgence - he'd done it often enough, and spent enough nights on Doyle's sofa where his partner usually left him. Grinning, he pulled the car door open, and manoeuvring Doyle, poured him into the back seat.
Sliding behind the steering wheel, he could hear Doyle already snoring, and Bodie grimaced at Alex as he started the engine, tossing a hopeful comment into the back. "Give it a rest, Ray!"
His partner ignored him. Alex grinned. "I think you'll be driving in the morning."
"Looks like it. Wouldn't trust him with a shopping trolley after a binge like that." Automatically, Bodie turned the car out of the car park, flicking the lights to full beam to cope with the dark lanes, the fears of the past few weeks behind him. "Alex, what do you know about a trainer named Lord Dover?"
"Col's greatest rival? He's wealthy, ambitious, and determined to beat Col. I don't like him, and don't trust him. Why?"
"Something that happened today. Got me thinking." Bodie outlined the incident in the winner's enclosure. "It was vindictive and pointless, and might just be bad feeling by the stablelad. But is it possible Lord Dover would resort to underhand means to beat Walters? Is he that keen to win?"
"In my opinion, yes, he is that keen to win. But shooting at us? Arson? It's a bit extreme, even for him. There's no proof."
"No. But the attacks aren't exactly random, Alex. Someone hates Walters." He shrugged. Instinct was telling Bodie he was right. "Least I know which direction to look in tomorrow."
As predicted, Doyle was in no fit state to drive, and Bodie took the wheel for that day's drive to Cheltenham; radio up loud and feeling unapologetic as his partner moaned. "Bodie, please, turn it down..."
"Thought you liked the radio in the mornings. Always telling me how it wakes you up." Particularly when I've got a hangover, Bodie added to himself.
"OK, I give in. I won't ever put you through it again."
Bodie relented, reducing Noel Edmonds to a whisper, and glanced at Doyle. "You capable of listening?"
Head back, eyes closed, Doyle nodded. "Just don't expect coherent answers."
"If you can manage a word like coherent I will. I think I may know who's been aiming the gun and setting fires."
Doyle straightened up and gave Bodie his full attention, listening to the theory. "Did you check out this Lord Dover?"
"Not sure there's anything to check out. No proof of anything, just a sneaking suspicion - and complete lack of any other suspects. But I suppose we might have something on him."
Doyle reached for the R/T. "Worth a try."
Cowley's reaction was predictable. "Not exactly within our remit, 4.5."
"I'd've thought someone letting off guns and setting fire to buildings was smack in the middle of our remit, sir," Doyle responded mildly, grinning at Bodie.
"Don't get smart, Doyle. I'll have someone run a check and we'll get back to you. Have a good day at the races," he finished sarcastically.
Doyle closed the connection, and Bodie smirked. "He's jealous."
Doyle smirked back. "With what I've won this week, he ought to be. Why don't you place a few bets today?" The query was casual, but searching, as he awaited Bodie's reaction.
Bodie felt a twinge of alarm, but dismissed it. Only way he'd know if his run of bad luck was over. "Maybe I will. I'll get Ronnie to give me some inside tips."
Leaving the Capri in the car park, the partners hurriedly caught up with the horseboxes as they unloaded at the stables, and followed Alex down to the course. Prior to the Gold Cup at 3.15, he intended to keep an eye on the betting to find out how the bookies were rating Jade Star. Unable to speak to Ronnie, Bodie made his own decisions about betting on the first race and was both gratified and relieved when the numbers on the winner's board matched those on his betting slip.
Doyle had lost, and he refused to place a bet on the second race. "If you've got your luck back, I won't win. I'm quitting while I'm ahead."
Scanning the racecard, Bodie grinned. "Just the natural order of things, Ray." Placing a bet on the outcome of the second race, Bodie also took advantage of the bookie's odds on the Gold Cup, before they followed Alex over to the changing room.
He emerged from the weighing room just before 3, wearing his own colours of gold and black and chatting with Walters' jockey Alan. Bearing in mind Bodie's theory, the partners were especially alert and without making it too obvious placed themselves either side as Alex made his way to the parade ring.
Ronnie was walking Jade Star, just ahead of Walters' horse, Heavenly Cherub. Walters' himself was with his runner, anxiety and hope for the race's outcome written clear on his face. Still scanning the crowds for any sign of trouble, the partners reluctantly let Alex walk into the parade ring alone.
Before he'd even reached the gelding, the loudly audible crack of a rifle echoed over the racecourse, and Bodie saw a spurt of dust just between Jade Star and Heavenly Cherub as the bullet hit the ground. He and Doyle were moving even before that happened; Doyle slightly closer and knocking Alex flat as they both heard a second shot ring out.
The relative calm of the parade ring had been sent into turmoil as all the horses reacted in varying ways to the sound of the shot, and Bodie jerked in reflex as Ronnie, trying to hang onto Jade Star's reins, suddenly shrieked and dropped to the ground.
Doyle had already located the source of the bullets. "Up on the roof of the stands, Bodie!" Picking themselves up, they began to thrust their way through the crowds, waving their handguns and shouting in an attempt to clear the way.
Reaching the building, they split up; Doyle hitting the stairs and starting upwards, Bodie heading around the back, both aware that they didn't know the building and that it probably had far too many exits. If they missed the gunman in the stands, he would escape, either by mingling with the crowds or a casual stroll to a waiting vehicle...
Bodie headed for the car park exit from the stands. No cars with engines running... He made his way inside, avoiding the spectators milling about. Up to the first floor. No gunman.
Hearing a shout, and discerning his partner's voice, he headed back for the stairs and emerged into the car park, ducking immediately as a shot whined somewhere over his head.
Now using some sort of handgun, the gunman had obviously ditched his rifle; and Bodie could now make out Doyle shouting the official warning to the gunman whilst chasing him across the car park.
Thrusting his Browning away, Bodie sprinted for the Capri, relieved they'd left it in the car park that morning, and threw the gearstick into first even as he shoved the key home and twisted, releasing the clutch and handbrake simultaneously.
The Capri leapt forward, and he narrowly avoided shunting the line of parked vehicles; crowded car parks weren't the best place to do 0-30. Heading towards the gates, he spotted a rust-coloured Chrysler Avenger speeding along the parallel line of cars; beyond it, Doyle, cutting across between the vehicles, Walther up and trying to fix on their target.
Slewing to a stop at the gate to wait for his partner, Bodie barely gave Doyle chance to get half in the Capri before he hit the accelerator again and tore after the Avenger.
The main gates to the Racecourse, and a roundabout. With barely a pause the gunman threw his car onto the road junction, and seconds later Bodie did the same, able to see that the Avenger had taken the first exit to the left and was now picking up speed down the long straight B-road.
Doyle hung onto the grab handle as Bodie put his foot down, determined that the gunman shouldn't escape. All professionalism as he wove between parked vehicles and oncoming traffic in his pursuit; at the back of his mind, Bodie could still hear Ronnie's shriek. He'd had no time to check on her...
Ahead, the Avenger swung right, making a sharp turn onto another B-road before speeding up again, then swinging suddenly left. By far the better driver, Bodie had succeeded in catching up, but the narrow suburban road left no room to manoeuvre past, and there were too many other cars and pedestrians about to try shunting the gunman off the road.
Another mile or so down the road, weaving and scaring the life out of other drivers, and the gunman swung left again into an even narrower road, still speeding, trying to shake the Capri from his tail.
Then he was braking sharply because of a queue of cars waiting at the t-junction ahead; the Avenger swung right into the open gates of a small park, and hanging onto the wheel, Bodie did likewise. Fortunately quiet, there were nonetheless some pedestrians forced to leap from the service road onto the grass as the gunman accelerated.
The road was running out, and Bodie smiled, grimly. "Mistake coming in here. Got him cornered."
The gunman didn't appear to think so; heedless of the kerb, he bounced the Avenger roughly onto the grass to the left. Following suit, Bodie felt the car jerk under his hands - and a flash of memory, of the bodies, caught him...
Shoving the memory firmly away he pushed the accelerator, spotting the danger even as Doyle began to vocalise a warning. "Bodie, there's a playground..."
"I see it..." The most populated area in the park, and their gunman had to head for it. As Bodie revved the engine still harder and the Capri shot forward, he swung the wheel to the left, drawing level with the tail of the Avenger. 50 yards... Flattening the pedal to the floor, he wrung another boost of power out of the engine and pulling slightly ahead of the Avenger he gripped the wheel tightly and jerked it to the right.
25 yards... There was a painful, high-pitched screech of metal as the cars connected, before the Avenger bounced away and spun. Wrenching at the wheel again, Bodie spun the Capri and braked sharply, flinging open his door and following his partner who had thrown himself from the car and was already sprinting towards the other vehicle, weapon in hand.
Faced with Doyle's Walther, the shaken gunman surrendered without further fight and was pulled from the car, face down on the ground and cuffed almost before Bodie reached them.
Relaxing now that the chase was over, Bodie glanced over to the playground. Assorted kids and mothers stood around; thrilled and horrified at the drama that had unfolded in front of them. The Capri was only a few feet from the edge of the hard-standing, and he shuddered as he imagined what could have happened...
The cheers from the racing crowd were clearly audible as they left the Capri and hurried back onto the course. Bodie's relief at the successful capture of the gunman was tempered by anxiety over Ronnie; and Doyle was almost running to keep up with his partner.
The results of the finished race were just being announced; the partners found Walters in the winner's enclosure, waiting for the runners to come in. "How's Ronnie?"
"She was shot in the shoulder." Walters' own anxiety was clear. "But she should be OK; they took her straight off to hospital. As soon as I've seen the horses in I'm going down there."
"They still ran the Gold Cup?" Doyle was surprised, expecting that race at least to have been cancelled, but Walters nodded. "Started a bit late, of course, but it takes more than one maniac with a gun to disrupt an important race like this. Ronnie wasn't killed, or anyone else injured."
Doyle exchanged a glance with Bodie; it wasn't often they came across such prosaic acceptance of being shot at. Bodie was already edging away and Doyle caught his arm. "Hang on. We're still s'posed to be looking after Alex."
"You can cope. I want to see how Ronnie is."
"Bodie!" Doyle strode towards his partner, Alex and Walters close behind him. "How is she?"
"I haven't seen her yet, but the doctor said the bullet just creased her arm. He's still with her." Bodie was still worried, until he saw her for himself he wouldn't be sure Ronnie was all right.
"She'll be OK then." Doyle drew Bodie to one side. "I spoke to Cowley. The gunman came clean to the local CID that Lord Dover hired him. Cowley's just visited his Lordship, and confronted him with that and the fact that we knew he was on the verge of bankruptcy, and he confessed. He hired the gunman, and bribed that stable lad to set the fire, all in the hope that Walters would pull out of the Gold Cup and his runner would win instead."
"Nice to know my theory was right." Another thought occurred to Bodie. "Who did win?"
"Alex." Doyle grinned at Bodie. "You had a bet on him, didn't you?"
"Yeah." Bodie grinned widely. "Wonder how much I won?"
"More than just money, mate." Doyle clapped him on the shoulder. "That was a nice job with the car today. Knew you could do it."
Spotting the doctor emerging, Bodie started towards the door to Ronnie's room, tossing a comment back to Doyle. "Had to start winning again sometime..."