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Authors: Christina Jones

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BOOK: Jumping to Conclusions
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The trap set, Vincent sat back to wait for a catch.

'Ned.' The gums stretched into a smile as hands were shaken. 'Bit in your position meself. Worked as travelling head lad for Mizz Seaward for years.' A whine crept in as he motioned his head towards the trainers at the bar. 'Cow sacked me just before Christmas. Still got me home, thank the Lord – but I has to scratch a living where I can. Not welcome in many yards round here, I can tell you, thanks to her ladyship. Not that I did nothing wrong – but mud sticks, don't it? There's not much going for me in the old nine-to-five lark — but if you're looking for a bit of work, no doubt I could point you in the right direction.'

More drinks were bought. Vincent made a show of patting his pockets and proclaiming in great distress that his wallet must have been nicked at the service station.

Ned patted his shoulder. 'Never you fear, mate. I'm not short of a bob or two.' He tapped the side of his nose. 'Know what I mean?'

'Little jobs pay well round here then, do they?'

'Little jobs pay piss-poor like they does everywhere.' Ned scowled through his Guinness. 'But it pays to keep your ears open and yer mouth shut and be first in the queue at the bookies, if you get me drift. You looks like a man who likes a gamble, if you don't mind me saying?'

Vincent thought that he did mind. It was far too early to show his hand. He shrugged. 'Not really. A little flutter on the Derby, a fiver on the Grand National, that sort of thing. I'm a bit hazy when it comes to horses, to be honest.'

'Stick with me then, mate.' Ned wiped away the Guinness traces with the back of his fist. 'There ain't nothing I don't know about gambling, nor horses come to that. You're in the right place here and no mistake. What brought you to these parts, anyway, if you're not into the nags?'

Vincent fudged a bit, playing with his beer mat, staring across the bar to where Kath Seaward and Ferdy Thornton had been joined by – hallelujah! – Matt Garside. Vincent was pretty sure that if Matt Garside had been riding Dragon Slayer in the National, and not that jerk, Charlie Somerset, all his financial problems would already be over.

'I hitched a lift. Had to go somewhere. Lorry driver dropped me off up the road. This seemed as good as anywhere. I can't stay in the shelter for more than three nights on the trot, you see.'

Ned smacked his gums together in sympathy. Vincent wondered if he hadn't gone a little over the top with the sob story. Apparently not.

'Well, Vince mate, this could be your lucky day. I've heard that they're looking for a gardener for Peapods. Fitzgerald's place. Heard of him, have you? Drew Fitzgerald?'

Vincent was on the point of nodding enthusiastically, and then remembered and shook his head. Christ! Drew Fitzgerald! A racehorse trainer! He could be working for a racehorse trainer! His eyes gleamed at the thought of all that inside information.

Aware that Ned was watching him, he assumed his hangdog expression again. 'I don't think so. He wants a gardener, you said?'

' 's right. Should suit you down to the ground.'

Vincent, who knew less about gardening than he did about particle physics, tried to look positive.

Ned drained his Guinness and was standing up for refills. 'Got a nice yard. Nice bloke, Mr Fitzgerald. Lovely family. His lady-friend potters about a bit, but she's got a kiddie now and her own business to run, and I've heard on the grapevine that they're looking for someone to keep the weeds down, mow the lawns, do a bit of repair work round the place. What do you reckon?'

Vincent reckoned it sounded like hell but continued to grin. 'I'd have to find somewhere to live, though.'

'Cottage what goes with the job.' Ned scooped up Vincent's glass. 'Not much, mind you. Just a couple of rooms – but it'd be better than sleeping rough. Good like that, is Mr Fitzgerald. Allus gives accommodation to his staff. Tell you what, we'll have the next jar and then I'll show you where Peapods is. It won't hurt to ask, will it?'

Vincent watched Ned disappear into the scrum again, his brain working overtime. This was exactly what he'd wanted: chums with a stable insider; someone with the contacts that he lacked; someone with the knowledge that could turn his gambling from disaster to success; someone who would guarantee him winnings ... Of course, he'd only toyed with the idea of actually living in the area – God knows what Jemima would say – but this was far too good an opportunity to miss. Especially actually living in a training yard!

There was one fly in the ointment. A rather unpleasant, wriggling fly. A not knowing a dandelion from a delphinium type of fly. Still, Vincent thought cheerfully, watching all the familiar faces from television racecourses passing merely inches in front of him, he'd always been able to persuade people that he knew exactly what he was talking about. Plausibility, that was the key. Not overdoing it – he'd come up with something, he was sure of it. He always had before.

He took the frothing pint from Ned's gnarled hands and felt a surge of excitement. Everyone's luck had to change, didn't it? He had a feeling that his just had.

A shadow fell across the table, blocking out the midday sunlight. Vincent looked up, but the tall gaunt figure didn't even seem aware of him. Kath Seaward was glaring at Ned.

'I've heard that you had the bloody nerve to go crawling to Drew for his handyman job! You've got some neck! After what you did to me! No trainer in the village will have you within spitting distance of their horses! You could have killed mine – you bastard!'

Ned muttered something into his Guinness. Vincent kept his eyes studiously on the tabletop. He was beginning to think that perhaps Ned wasn't quite the right choice for a best buddy in Milton St John. What the hell had he done to Kath Seaward's horses, for God's sake? Vincent liked animals – there was no way he'd condone anything nasty ...

'And who's this?' Kath's invective speared towards the juke-box. 'Another one of your unsavoury cronies?' She leaned towards Vincent, peering from under the brim of a dirty white cap. 'A word to the wise – this man is a bad 'un. Don't you go getting sucked into any of his schemes.'

Not a good lady to cross, Vincent decided, giving Kath his most charming smile. 'Thanks for the advice, but there's no need. This – er – gentleman and I have only just met. I'm in the village for an interview – at Peapods. He was giving me directions.'

'Make sure that's all he damn well gives you.' Kath drew her bony shoulders together. 'Because if Drew and Maddy got wind of you being in cahoots with Ned Filkins you wouldn't get a sniff of any job!'

Vincent exhaled slowly as Kath marched away, slicing through the Cat and Fiddle's throng with the determined precision of a surgeon's scalpel. He had always followed Kath's horses, always had a bit of luck with them – especially the ones ridden by Matt Garside. She was an excellent trainer. But there had been some sort of scandal in the autumn, he remembered now, when a couple of her horses hadn't run as well as expected. Major gambling coups were suspected. The racing press had been full of dope-testing, but nothing had been proved, and Lancing Grange had emerged lily-white.

Vincent cast a rather worried eye over Ned. Had he been behind that, then? This was big-time stuff. He wasn't sure that it was quite what he'd planned. Ned, however, seemed remarkably unruffled.

'Silly cow. She can't get over the fact that she entered the wrong horses for the wrong races a couple of times. Didn't get the results she wanted. Had to blame someone – couldn't accept that maybe she'd made a mistake and sent out a couple of green 'uns before they were ready. I copped the blame. Still, no point in being bitter. Life's too short. Another pint, mate? Or do you want to go and find Mr F?'

Deciding that if he had another pint he'd probably forget who he was, Vincent stood up. The Cat and Fiddle's public bar dipped and swayed slightly, and Vincent caught hold of the edge of the table. This wouldn't be any good at all. No one would employ him if he staggered and slurred. What he needed was a brisk walk and several lungfuls of good clean downland air.

Once outside and squinting in the sunlight, Vincent followed the direction of Ned's twisted finger.

'Just down there on the curve,' Ned said. 'There's a little tumbledown cottage with a green roof on this side of the road, and Peapods' drive is dead opposite. The house is through the clock arch – if there's no one about, give 'em a shout in the yard, or go into the office. Okay?'

'Yes, thanks. But – shouldn't I have an appointment?'

'In Milton St John?' Ned roared at this civilised notion. 'Good God, no. If it's an appointment, it's VAT or double glazing! Just you show your face – oh, and maybe it wouldn't be a good idea to say you'd heard about the job from me. Mizz Seaward and Mr Fitzgerald are pretty close, you know? Like I said, mud sticks and all that. Look, good luck, mate, and I'll see you back in the bar later, okay?'

Vincent nodded his agreement, and as Ned dived back into the Cat and Fiddle's fray, he took a deep breath to steady himself.

It really was a pretty village, he thought, with the winding road and the bubbling brown stream running alongside. And, whether Ned was a wrong 'un or not, Vincent wasn't going to chuck away this sort of opportunity. He was a gambler, for heaven's sake! He'd spent his life throwing everything on to the turn of a card or the tumble of a dice – or, more relevantly here, the nose of a horse. Situations like this were worth their weight in gold. How he'd cope if he got the job would be something to worry about later. A minor detail. The handyman part would be fine – he could knock in nails and repair gutters – but the gardening ... Still, there were always library books and umpteen television programmes, weren't there? Vincent whistled cheerfully. He was sure he'd manage somehow. He always had before.

His optimism almost deserted him as he walked across the cobbled yard.

Drew Fitzgerald was a prominent trainer. No mug. Surely he'd see straight through him? And if he did, then Vincent's plans for a prosperous future would be scuppered before he'd even started. And Jemima? What the hell would Jemima say? She knew he'd never gardened in his life. And surely Jemima, of all people, would know exactly why he was living and working in Milton St John? He hoped against hope that he wouldn't run into his daughter today.

These worrying thoughts were interrupted as a tall, dark-haired man in jeans and T-shirt emerged from beneath the clock arch. A slight frown was followed by a friendly grin. 'Can I help you?'

Christ! Too late now. Recognising Drew from his numerous visits to racecourses, Vincent felt hopelessly star-struck.

'Er – yes. I've come about the post you're advertising. Gardener and handyman?'

'At last! Mr Benson, isn't it? You rang this morning?'

'Carlisle. Vincent Carlisle. And I –'

Drew was grinning even more broadly. 'My fault. I probably wrote it down wrongly. God, am I pleased to see you. We'd all but given up hope of finding anyone. You've brought your references?'

Vincent, who'd taken the opportunity of calling in a few favours prior to the receivership, had elicited several glowing reports of his abilities from various colleagues. They had all stressed his honesty, hard-working attitude, integrity, and team spirit, and had conveniently left out what he was capable of doing. He nodded.

'Great.' Drew was walking back beneath the clock arch again, and beckoned Vincent to follow him. 'Come along and meet Maddy. She's the expert. I'm sure you'll get on really well. I know damn all about flowers and things.'

And that makes two of us, Vincent thought, following Drew Fitzgerald into the cool gloom of the ancient archway.

Chapter Seven

Jemima pocketed the key to the bookshop, and made her way across the lay-by to the Munchy Bar. Bronwyn Pugh was opening up the Village Stores for its Monday-morning onslaught, and waved to her. Having managed to avoid the anti-erotica meetings under the pretence of Maureen being a slave-driver, Jemima waved back. As she wasn't due behind the Munchy Bar's counter until half past seven, she'd sneaked a few minutes to open up her shop and simply stand and stare.

The shelves and counters were in place, the decorators had finished the green-and-gold decor, and the furniture for the sitters and browsers was stacked in a corner hermetically sealed in polythene. She'd touched everything, closing her eyes and imagining how it would be when the shelves were stocked with colour and the sisal floor was hidden by dozens of pairs of feet. She'd also tried adding a constantly ringing till to the fantasy, but realism insisted on creeping in. She'd been a bookseller for long enough not to have too many aspirations.

A small sound system had been fitted at one end of the shop and Jemima was planning to have audio books playing quietly. The realism reminded her that the shop would probably never make her fortune, but its mere existence was the embodiment of a dream.

And as soon as she started to make a profit she'd look for a house to buy, and then contact her father and invite him to live with her. As there was no telephone in Vincent's bedsit, she'd written to him, just to let him know that she was settling in well and about her job with Maureen. He hadn't replied yet. Vincent, she knew, would love Milton St John and, with her to keep him under control, would never slide back into his old ways.

Having sorted out the next ten years of her life at least, she'd locked the door behind her and breathed in the pink pearly mist of the downland morning. Oxford and Bookworms and Petra's Parties were all in another lifetime, she thought. Her future was here in Milton St John and, horse-racing or no, she'd have to make the best of it. She knew she was lucky to have the chance.

Tucking the glossy layers of hair behind her ears, Jemima lifted her face to the sun. She'd pulled a long beige dress over the top of her T-shirt that morning and hoped that she wouldn't bake to death. The newscasters on Thames Valley FM were drawing comparisons with the summer of '76 and warning of impending water restrictions and drought.

'Doom, gloom and despondency,' Gillian had said as she'd left the Vicarage. 'It's either too hot or too cold. We get two weeks of early sunshine and every programme is full of global destruction and skin cancer. Still, being England, it'll no doubt pee down for the rest of the summer.'

BOOK: Jumping to Conclusions
6.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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