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The Grave Maurice



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He found it interesting that any alcoholic, if asked What do you want most in the world? would gaily cry, “A drink!” But this was self-delusion, for they wanted something else even more: salvation, Dad, acceptance no matter what-one or all of these things, and Vernon supposed they blended together like Stoly and dry vermouth.

He was calling his start-up SayWhen.

Money gave Vernon the same rush he knew Arthur Ryder got out of watching Aqueduct win the Gold Cup at Cheltenham, not once, but twice, the second time carrying twenty-three pounds. Yet he could not get Art to see how the stud fees would quadruple if he incorporated Ryder Stud and made an initial public offering by selling seasons for, say, Beautiful Dreamer and Samarkand. “It would bring in millions, Art.”

“Vernon, I don’t want millions.”

Vernon was much too kind to point out that his stepfather had certainly wanted at least one near million two months before.

“But listen, Art. Look what they did in the U.S. with horses like Seattle Slew. Just for one breeding season they pulled in three quarters of a million. Multiply that by the number of stallion slots for one horse like Aqueduct. Then multiply again by the stallions you have at stud.”

Arthur continued his round of evening stables, Vernon walking with him. He shook his head and said, “Vernon, this is what you do for a living? Why not just play poker?”

“Because this is more fun. And I’m trying to help you out, you know. How about foal sharing? That’s getting popular.”

Foal sharing? Jesus.” Arthur just shook his head.

It was true that Vernon wanted to help; he very much wanted to lessen his stepfather’s money concerns. But in addition, of course, it would be fun to trade some of the Ryder Stud horses on the exchange. In the last twenty months, there had been a more compelling motive: Vernon wanted to get Arthur’s mind off Nell, if only for a few moments at a time.

For he had never seen Arthur Ryder stopped dead in his tracks before. Not even the death of his son Danny had done this-turned him to stone, unable to act. Roger, too, despite the fact he dealt with death every day, and often in the most shocking way, could not work Nell’s disappearance into the equation. The two of them, Arthur and Roger, had stared too long into the same space. Perhaps, Vernon thought, sharing the same space might be some comfort to them.

Vernon had tried to handle things. “Things” included the bulk of police questioning, at the outset, Arthur and Roger having been unable to answer anything beyond yes, no and possibly. He also hired the best private investigator in London, a man named Leon Stone, known for his chameleonlike ability to melt into the background. Nineteen months before, they were sitting in Vernon’s flat, as Vernon related the story. He told Stone, “It must not be money they want. It’s been nearly a month now.”

“Not necessarily,” Leon Stone had said. “Ransom might have been the reason originally, and then something happened to change their minds.”

Vernon leaned forward, toward Stone, who was occupying the deep leather chair on the other side of the glass-and-mahogany coffee table. He said, “So we have to factor into this search all of the circumstances that might have surrounded their change of plans. Bloody hell. That’s impossible.”

Stone held up his hand. “I should have added that it’s unlikely they changed their minds. If they haven’t asked for money, they probably don’t want money, as you said.” He asked Vernon if there was any reason to believe the little girl’s father or grandfather might be responsible for this.

Vernon was appalled, possibly because he had thought about it. “You mean could they have staged it? Of course not!”

“It does happen.” Stone shrugged.

Over the last year and a half, Leon Stone had been thorough, no question of that. He’d earned his hefty fee. He’d visited every stud farm in Cambridgeshire and others elsewhere. Cambridgeshire, though, was the heart and soul of racing and breeding.

“Why do you think this villain might have a stud farm?”

“Proximity, for one reason. Knowledge of Arthur Ryder’s household for another. And for another, it’s possible there might be some bad feeling between Ryder and other owners. Mr. Rice, let’s look at the picture: one or more villains go to Ryder Stud in the night-no, let me change that-they might have been there during the day or sometime in the recent past to take in the situation before acting. Or the person might already have been there in the capacity of an employee-stable lads, exercise boys, trainers. There’s the vet, too. I have a list of those people.

“Next: let’s go back to the incident. Someone comes to the stables, for what reason we don’t actually know-”

“You mean the object might not have been Nellie?”

“It’s possible. The thing is, if the target was the girl, the person must have known Nell’s habit of sleeping in stables if a horse was sick. That would certainly limit the suspects to family, friends and employees, wouldn’t it?

“That’s one possibility,” Stone continued. “The other is that the villains were there for another reason altogether and Nell got in their way. Because she saw something, and they had to take her with them because she presented a threat.”

“You think they came for the horse?”

Leon Stone shrugged again. “That’s also possible. And not necessarily to take the horse, but to do something to the horse or horses. There are extremely valuable stallions there.”

“Besides Samarkand there’s Beautiful Dreamer, Criminal Type, Aqueduct and Fool’s Money.” (The last having been named in honor of Vernon, according to Arthur.) “No car or trailer seen, but I guess they had transport.”

“I’m thinking one person, and he didn’t need a car or van.”

“He had to have something.”

“He had Aqueduct.” Stone smiled thinly. “Obviously.”


He was given to anxiety attacks that overtook him when he was outside, standing on ground no longer firm or familiar. When this happened, Maurice would take out a horse, any horse that seemed eager for a gallop or just a walk up and down the cinder paths that wound around for miles through the farm.

After Samarkand, Maurice’s choice was Beautiful Dreamer, an elegant stallion who would shake out his mane and raise his head as if divesting himself of Maurice or anyone except Nell. The horses loved Nell.

Beautiful Dreamer had always felt doomed to race around some mile-and-a-half course as if this were all he was good for, and only tolerated the winner’s circle in which he often found himself. Though he rather liked the flowers, armfuls of roses thrown about his neck, and smiles and gold glinting about him. No more than he deserved. It had happened so often he wondered if there was anything left worth winning.

Now, it was this boy again, who was better than some who rode him. He actually liked the boy. But he knew what would happen, and it did after they’d walked the paths for fifteen minutes. Yes, he felt a shift in the boy’s position, body stretched out, head on Dreamer’s neck, arms dangling. At least his feet were still in the stirrups, which would hold him in place a little.

Asleep again. Dreamer would have to be careful not to walk under any overhanging branches. Better get off the path and onto the road, which is what he’d wanted to do anyway.

Why was it that whenever the boy got up on Dreamer, he fell asleep, yet didn’t seem to know it? If he did know it, he wouldn’t try to ride Dreamer. Or maybe he would; yes, maybe he would, if he wanted to escape once in a while. The boy was just lucky he was up on Dreamer and not Criminal Type, who’d do anything.

The old road. Beautiful Dreamer walked a while careful to move out of the way of branches, to where the path went parallel to a road that nobody used anymore. It was scarcely more than a single lane, two if the cars were small. No cars, not even one of the Ryder Stud farm’s cars drove along it anymore. Once the hedgerows had been so tall you couldn’t see over them, so straight they could have taken a plumb line, and so tidy a yardstick would have fit neatly against the bottom. But now large parts of dried-up hedge crumbled like brick too long stressed.

Beautiful Dreamer walked on, careful and quiet. Walked, but yearned to break into a trot, then a canter, then a gallop. He saw a winter landscape, small clumps of snow bearding roots of hazels and oaks, ice gloving their high branches, dripping water, but he passed through spring-clouds of daisies, mists of cowslip, wild rose, pennyroyal, violets. Beautiful Dreamer did not so much have memories as he did comings and goings, entrances and exits, other places becoming these places. The past was like the path he had left, which wound around and sometimes turned back on itself, crossing the present.

He heard the lads at stables calling out time: time for feeding, time for grooming, for morning stables and evening stables, time for this, time for that, time after time. It meant nothing, yet they needed it. Memory was time. He still heard the raised voices under the vaulted sky; he still stormed around that rough three-quarter-mile turn; he still won or still lost; he still smelled the collar of roses.

Beautiful Dreamer loved to walk down this road but only when the boy was riding him, sleeping. When one of the exercise lads or anyone else came on it by accident, he reared up and refused to go.

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