Doyle caught an elbow in his ribs and went to his knees, the breath knocked out of him. He leapt to his feet, panting with the effort to draw in enough air, and circled his opponent, keeping his fists clenched. His adversary feinted to the left but Doyle brought his forearm up and blocked the blow to his abdomen with a swift chop. He danced lightly out of the way on the balls of his feet, shaking the sweat out of his eyes.
Gauging his challenger's weariness, Doyle forced eye contact, smiling at the fiendish glee he saw in those blue eyes. "You're going down, my son," he said, finally pulling in a satisfying breath.
"Not likely." Bodie went at him with both fists.
He missed completely when Doyle lashed out with a leg sweep and breeched Bodie's defences using a rapid series of punches. Bodie backed up, guarding his chest, but leaving his flank free.
With a surge of joy, Doyle swung right and hooked his bare foot around Bodie's ankle, off-balancing him. Bending one knee, he drove it into the back of Bodie's calf, toppling him onto the blue mat. Doyle celebrated his victory, straddling Bodie with his knees braced on either side of his partner's hips.
But his victim was not down for the count. Bodie bucked, rising with a graceful twist and a wicked thrust of his right arm that slammed Doyle hard into the mat.
Landing on his back, Doyle wasn't surprised when Bodie pounced on him like a conquering lion claiming his kill.
"Win-nah and still cham-peen!" Bodie chortled in an horrendous American accent.
"Gerroff!" Doyle pushed at him, but all of Bodie's thirteen stone was resting on his pelvis and it was impossible to shift him. "You're heavy."
"Raymond," Bodie said with a mischievous lift of his left eyebrow. "You know what I want now…"
"Not here," Doyle groaned, but his groin had other opinions. Despite being nearly squashed flat, his cock rose hopefully, pressing against Bodie's arse.
Bodie slid his fingers under the flap of Doyle's white gi, brushing lightly over his right nipple. "Good as place as any, I say." He pinched the hard nub with his forefinger and thumb, digging his nails in just exactly enough.
"Bo-die…" Doyle whispered, once again unable to pull in a steady breath but for a completely different reason. His right nipple throbbed, and the left begged for the same treatment, which only made his cock demand equal rights. "Do that again and…"
"Like this?" Bodie applied himself to the left nipple and then bent down to use his teeth.
Doyle gasped, his raspy breathing and Bodie's raunchy chuckle not quite drowning out the squeak of the outside door of the building opening.
"Bodie!" Doyle reared up just as Bodie bit down hard on that sensitive portion of his anatomy. "Bloody hell!" Doyle yelled, shoving his partner away in the nick of time. He managed to get his gi into some sort of proper alignment when a blond head peeked through the double doors of the gym.
"'Allo!" he said, blue eyes alight with lively humour. "I wondered who'd be here early to set up before the competition. Got all the mats out and had time for some sparring, didn't you?"
Bodie smoothed a hand over his head, not a hair out of place, as if he hadn't been displaying cannibalistic intentions moments before. Beside him, Doyle felt quite untidy and reknotted his black belt into regulation form.
"Early morning exercise—good for the soul. The name's Bodie." He stuck out a hand.
"Chico Barnes. Ray didn't say I'd be in?" Chico asked, clasping Bodie's hand.
"Ray's been preoccupied," Bodie apologised with a grin, giving Chico the once over. "You're one of the other karate teachers?"
Doyle wasn't surprised at Bodie's mild disbelief. Chico Barnes didn't look the part of someone with a second level black belt in karate. At slightly over five foot five, he made Doyle feel tall. Deceptively slender for a man of his strength, Chico had the face of a youth who hadn't finished his O levels yet.
"Ray has been waylaid by a friend who volunteered to help him lay the mats and then challenged him to a show of skill," Doyle said through his teeth. "What time is it, Chico?"
"Half past eight." Chico opened the door and hauled in a large, lumpy bag. Gold karate trophies poked out the top. "The lit'le bleeders'll be gatherin' like Mongol 'ordes in just over an hour. Better shake a leg."
"The competition begins at ten?" Bodie asked, hurrying over to help Doyle get out chairs and tables.
"Four local gyms are competing in this round," Doyle answered, unfolding chairs for the judges. He set out six and then opened up the legs of two folding tables. He glanced down at the end of the gym—the parents could sit in benches against the wall. "For a chance to go on to the All-Britain semi-finals in two months. My lot are primed to win."
"Not likely!" Chico said with good-natured competitiveness.
"Got a blue belt and two greens ready to advance to the next level," Doyle added.
"There's a lad going for a blue in my group, as well. And another keen for his brown belt," Chico said casually. He began arranging the trophies on one table, placing the smaller ones in the front.
"Sounds like I am out of my league." Bodie set another table up on its legs. "I'll just take myself off for a late morning brekker once the violence commences."
"You do go on." Doyle rolled his eyes, his nipples throbbing with every movement he made. "Anymore of those sausage rolls and huge omelettes, and you'll need to work off some of the excess with regular sparring on the…"
"I look forward to it, Sensei." Bodie made a mocking bow and winked.
Doyle saw Chico smile out of the corner of his eye, and tried to stuff all the arousal Bodie ignited back into its daytime vault. "If you could put one more table up over there for the ladies selling chocolate biscuits and Cornish pasties, we'll let you go."
"There's choccie bikkies, I might stay," Bodie declared with a grin to Doyle that hinted at so many things.
Doyle had to pretend to examine one of the karate trophies to disguise his chuckle, imagining everything he and Bodie could do tonight. He could not go on this way or he'd be wanking off right in front of his students, which would certainly not be tolerated.
"'Ave you got the scoring sheets?" Chico asked, obviously amused by the banter.
"I think they're in the manager's office along the corridor, I'll fetch them." Doyle trotted off, glad for two things—his gi was roomy enough to completely hide his erection, and the little excursion would hopefully drain away some of his desire for William bloody Bodie.
"You and him, been friends long?" Chico asked casually.
Bodie glanced up at the man. He hadn't sensed any tension from his partner when Barnes arrived. Doyle trusted him, he must be all right. The lad had a sunny disposition that matched his bright curls, but there was something watchful, something deep lurking behind his cheerful smile.
"Five years, we're civ--"
"Civil servants. Yeah, 'eard it, 'aven't I?" Chico cocked his head. "Me and 'im, we've talked every now and again after these matches for the last year."
There was something in the way he said it: Chico didn't quite believe their cover stories. Bodie's hackles raised, and he went on the defensive. What did this little git think he knew?
"See, I'm a private detective meself," Chico continued, his posture relaxed and loose, but obviously aware of Bodie's hostility. "And I got this feeling—" He tapped his breastbone with a wink. "You two are MI6, maybe?"
"MI6?" Bodie snorted inelegantly. "Not bloody likely."
"Wondered how long it'd take you to suss it out," Doyle said, coming back from the corridor, his arms full of printed forms. "This one's quick, he is."
"Saw the pistol you hid in your kit bag last month." Chico shrugged. "So if it's not MI6…?"
"Better you didn't know," Bodie said with a sniff of superiority. MI6, indeed. Like those bounders could find their way out of a paper bag. "You work divorce cases, take naughty pictures of cheating husbands?"
"When we 'ave to, but generally, it's off to the race course every day." Chico glanced over at a couple of young boys walking in still dressed in jeans and striped t-shirts. "Go suit up in the locker room, Seamus and Derrick!" he called, shooing them off.
"You've said you do race course security?" Doyle asked, parceling the judging forms out on the tables in front of all six chairs.
"That and background studies on 'orses, jockies, that sort of thing. My partner's Sid 'Alley."
"The Sid Halley?" Bodie repeated, stunned. "The steeplechase jockey who lost his hand."
"That Sid 'Alley." Chico nodded, with just a touch of annoying smugness. "'E couldn't ride anymore, so he had to take on another line of work, didn't he? Being around 'orses suited him."
"Why can't we get a case at Epsom Downs or Sandown Park?" Bodie was suddenly keen to question little Chico on some of his cases. Sounded far more interesting that the dull, endless stake-outs he and Doyle had been on lately.
Their one day off in a fortnight and Doyle had to oversee his students in their inter-gym sparring and katas. Bodie really needed his alone time with his partner more than he could say, and had planned out just about every moment of the evening during the long, agonisingly slow stake-outs camped across from the home of a known IRA terrorist. Except the dumb fuck hadn't done a single terrorist activity in the last two weeks. Which had just given Bodie all the more time for daydreaming about a naked Doyle.
"You'd just lose every farthing you have in your pocket betting on the races," Doyle said.
"Raymond!" Bodie walked over and poked a finger in his partner's tight abdomen. The most he could do in such a public place which suddenly seemed to be crawling with kids all decked out in white with coloured belts. "You're the one lost money on a horse called Flirty Gert!"
Chico burst out laughing. "That was a nag. Never won a race in her career! Put out to pasture, she was."
"See, your horse sense is lousy, sunshine," Bodie said.
"It was only fifty p," Doyle retorted mildly.
Parents with small children ready to show their martial arts skills were pouring into the gym and there was no more time for joking around.
"Come along with me and Sid on a race day," Chico suggested over his shoulder as he walked to where his students were gathering. "We'll show you a good time."
"Sounds great!" Bodie grinned. Fresh air, a couple of sandwiches and beer, watching huge, powerful horses galloping around the track. He'd win a few bob and then go back to his flat to screw Doyle into the mattress. A perfect day.
"Mr Doyle!" a piping voice called out. "We're ready!"
Bodie turned around to see the object of his daydream surrounded by children clamouring for Doyle's attention. It destroyed the fantasy, but he grinned nonetheless. Doyle was glowing—his eyes as bright and excited as any of his students.
"You look like winners," Doyle declared, shaking hands or patting the shoulder of each of the nine boys. "Where's Farook?"
"Late, I expect, sir." A dark skinned lad with tight black curls carefully knotted his yellow belt and shrugged. Several other boys nodded in agreement.
Doyle glanced over at Bodie with a "what can you do?" roll of his eyes and consulted his clipboard. "Here's the line up. Trey Collins, you're up first, opposite Bandhu Patel from Mr Barnes' dojo."
"I'm first?" Trey gulped, the whites showing around his brown eyes, a stark contrast to his chocolate skin.
"You've got your kata. Just clear your mind and go for it," Doyle encouraged. "Come on, let's warm up. The judges will be calling names, soon." The boys assembled themselves into two lines and bowed to their Sensei.
Bodie watched Barnes collect his boys on the other side of the room, just the way Doyle was, as parents found their seats on the benches. Six men, all local businessmen and minor city officials, settled themselves at the judges' tables with haughty, stern expressions. The two other karate instructors from the other gyms were readying their pupils, solemnly intoning Japanese phrases. There was a palpable thrill in the room, the smell of excitement and nerves—competition to be the best, determination to win. All attributes Bodie completely understood, even if he had an odd tension in his belly.
He'd been one of these kids once, before all hell broke loose. He remembered going out for youth wrestling, lined up with a cluster of smooth-cheeked seven and eight year olds, all keen to win the trophy for their school. He'd been up next, nervous to be down on the mat, pinning another boy in proper Greco-Roman style and anxious to have the match over with. He had no da to cheer him on in the crowd, so where was his mum? Remembered his nan coming in, her face stricken with grief, taking him to hospital before he even got his turn to wrestle. Remembered his mother lying there, her eyes closed, skin like creamless milk, almost blueish. Hit by a car on the crossing. Dead on arrival to Casualty. He gulped air, coming out of the reverie at the sound of Doyle's voice.
"Kamate!" Doyle commanded. His students faced him, nine pair of eyes watching him attentively.
As the class all went into zanshin kamae, the awareness pose, a ten year old with a shock of straight black hair rushed in, his rucksack banging against the back of his legs. The tardy Farook, Bodie guessed. And judging from the obi around his waist, he was the blue belt Doyle had boasted was going to be earning his brown.
"Sensei!" Farook skidded to a halt in front of his assembled classmates, obviously embarrassed. "Sorry I'm late, sir! My father's park--"
"You'll be last in the rotation, Farook," Doyle said evenly, pointing him to the end of the line with a shake of his head.
"Arigato Gozaimashita," Farook muttered shamefaced. He took his place next to the dark skinned boy with the yellow belt and bowed to his teacher.
"Doesn't pay to be late," Bodie muttered, taking a seat with the rest of the spectators.
"Collins versus Patel!" a judge with the portly belly of a two-pint a night at the pub habit called out.
The gym doors opened one last time to admit a black haired man with a trim black beard and a suit that easily cost more than Bodie's monthly take-home pay. The man glanced over at Farook with a look of remorse for making him late and walked sedately around the room to where the parents were sitting. He raised his eyebrows in a question at the empty space next to Bodie.
"Not savin' it, mate." Bodie slid over to make more room, wondering what tailor he used. He looked up as the first two boys launched into their routine.
After forty-five minutes of watching short tournament bouts between eight and ten year olds, Bodie had had enough. Waiting until a blond haired boy with a orange belt won his round, Bodie walked out of the gym. He took a deep breath, debating the merits of hiking through the spitting rain to High Street to get a midmorning breakfast or staying to sample one of the pasties the karate mums were selling for fifty p. It was a tempting price, and he wouldn't have to get wet that way.
The car park was crowded with small cars, but it didn't take a genius to guess which one Farook and his father must have come in. There was a Bentley parked between Doyle's Capri and a battered Renault. Must be money in that family.
Bodie stretched and rubbed his arse. Sitting on that hard, wooden bench was murder—and he'd been sitting all week at the stake-out. There'd be hell to pay if Macklin found out that he'd been slacking on his exercise regime of late. Maybe a jog around the gym in the mist to earn that pasty?
He bounced on the balls of his feet, grinning when a cheer sounded from the auditorium. Some little blighter had come out on top.
A black panel van cruised by the front of the building as if searching for a place to park and circled around the whole fenced-in area. It was just an ordinary van, nothing special at all but when it went entirely around the gym and came back to drive slowly through the car park again, the hair raised on the back of Bodie's neck. Watching the van more closely this time, he caught sight of a thick-necked man in the driver seat. The man turned his head as if aware of Bodie's scrutiny and drove out onto the street to the right. Not two minutes later, the same van came up on the left side and parked at the kerb.
Bodie reversed his course and walked purposefully into the corridor leading to the gym. The double doors burst open, a dozen boys dashing out, all headed for the WC. Inside the gym, there were clumps of boys noshing chocolate biscuits, Ribena and sultanas. The queue at the refreshment table was growing longer by the second and Bodie resigned himself that he had lost his chance to get a Cornish pasty. The freshly baked crumpets were going quickly, as were the Bath buns. The pleasantly plump woman presiding over the tea trolley couldn't dole out cups of tea fast enough to keep up with demand.
A determined mum propped open the double doors to get air into the stuffy gym and the first lot back from the loo streamed over to the snacks. Bodie hadn't seen so many small boys in one place since he'd helped Inge with her school play. He glanced over a sea of heads and glimpsed two burly men standing at the outside door just where he'd been stretching moments ago.
The two men were quite obviously not tardy relatives here to watch their offspring earn a higher belt. They gave off the vibe of serious muscle. Who were they after?
"Bodie," Doyle said from directly behind him. "Thought you'd gone off to get breakfast."
"Might have but…" Bodie turned to point out the bullyboys, but they weren't there any more. "You seen two bruisers, dark suits, one in a pair of wellies, come through?"
"It's raining, lots of the audience are in wellies." Doyle regarded him with a lift of his eyebrows, immediately trusting Bodie's instincts. He scanned the crowd in the large room. "Don't see anyone new…"
"Who's the wealthy guy, looks Arab?" Bodie inclined his head very slightly at his former seat-mate who was talking to the portly judge.
"Farook Khorsandi's father?" Doyle nodded. "Karim Khorsandi. He owns that horse that's got all the press lately. Won thousands of pounds last week at Doncaster. Farook was very excited."
"He's probably the one then, could be someone is after him for something," Bodie said quietly, searching the crowd for the boy. He couldn't say why his instincts picked the Khorsandis, but he knew they were the targets. And just now, he didn't see Farook's thick black hair or blue belt. "The blokes I saw didn't look like proud parents, I can tell you that."
Doyle frowned, obviously caught between being a concerned teacher and not quite wanting to believe that his student was in danger. He beckoned to a boy with the dreads of a Jamaican rock star. "Matthew, where's Farook?"
Matthew took a strong pull on the straw in his paper cup. "Gone to the loo, sir."
"Ta. Go gather the rest of the group for the next round. Interval ends in five minutes." Doyle gave Bodie a tight little smile. "Need to take a wiz?"
"Always game to try." Bodie navigated through the knots of boys and parents in the corridor to the gents'. "Hey, do you have a piece?"
"Not here, with all these kids." Doyle held out his arms to show there was nowhere to hide a gun under his gi.
"Barnes said he saw yours in your kit bag once." Bodie felt on alert, the way he did when they were trailing suspects. He glanced through the glass front doors of the gym again, but there was only a lone parent smoking a cig.
"I was late, coming from an obbo with you. Took the tube over, had nowhere to leave it," Doyle said defensively, pushing open the door to the loo. "I usually try not to."
He nearly hit Chico Barnes in the face. "Fancy running into you here," Chico said with an easy grin, stepping to one side to let them go inside.
"You seen Farook Khorsandi?" Doyle asked. "Black hair, blue belt?"
Bodie walked all the way in, taking in the sinks and urinals, his feeling of danger rising with every second. One tiny blond boy finishing up his pee stared at Bodie, aghast, and scuttled away without washing his hands. There didn't appear to be anyone in the two private stalls—no feet showing below the edge of the doors, but Bodie called out Farook's name, just to be on the safe side.
"Who's this Farook?" Chico was saying when Bodie came out.
"Son of a wealthy bloke out of some oil-rich nation nobody ever heard of," Doyle said. "Though, you of the race course set might've heard of Aladdin's Treasure."
"Won the Albion Oil Cup last week." Chico nodded.
"Should have put me whole packet on that one," Bodie said gloomily.
There was a single high pitched cry of fear, totally out of place. Doyle took off in a flash, Chico and Bodie trailing behind him. With the competition about to reconvene, there was almost no-one loitering in the hallway anymore. Once outside in the car park, Bodie went left, leaving Chico to follow Doyle to the right.
There were no bullyboys, no signs of the panel van any more and no cries of alarm. Bodie chugged around the large gym and had reached the far corner of the building when he heard Doyle yell.
"What's going on?" Chico asked, jogging past the gym to a secluded area of the car park.
"Bodie's guts talkin' to him. Thinks there's someone after the boy," Doyle said quickly. The downpour had abated, but the air was damp and his bare feet splashed in puddles. Why hadn't he taken the time to slip on a pair of shoes?
There were sounds of a struggle and a grunt of pain around the west corner. Holding up his palm for Chico to stay put, Doyle peeked carefully around the edge of the brick gym. Three Middle-Eastern men were trying to drag Farook toward a black van parked in the delivery/loading area. The trio were dressed nearly identically, in dark suits, just as Bodie said. One was wearing Wellingtons and another had on a small black watch cap pulled down over his ears.
Farook was not taking his kidnapping lying down. Proving that he definitely deserved to move up to a brown belt, he'd decked a dark-skinned man much larger than he and was currently hammering the one in wellies with swift rabbit punches. The recipient of Farook's largess backed away long enough for his mate wearing the watch cap to grab the boy around his waist.
"Huey, Dewey and Louie are about to get their heads bashed in," Chico said recklessly, bouncing on his toes.
"Oi!" Doyle charged at the gang, wishing like hell he was carrying his gun. As it was—once Bodie got there, they'd overpower the kidnappers with manpower, if not size. Each one of the men outweighed he, Chico and Farook combined. "Going it a bit much, gentlemen?"
His arrival startled the rotter lifting Farook off the ground long enough for the boy to get in a good roundhouse kick right to the man's bollocks. Watch Cap howled, dropping Farook to clutch himself. Landing in a puddle, Farook scrambled away, making room for his instructors.
"Pick on someone your own size!" Doyle ducked a swing from Watch Cap and dropped into a defensive stance with his back to Barnes. "C'mon, Huey, play with me," he taunted the dark-skinned one just recovering from the drubbing Farook had given him.
Chico attacked bald-headed Dewey with a low growl, dancing around him with fancy footwork and carefully orchestrated attacks. Doyle feinted to the left, catching the man cack-handed and trounced him easily with a quick kizami tsuki right in the solar plexus. Coming late to the party, Bodie swung in with a solid fist to Watch Cap's nose, knocking him to the ground.
"They tried to grab me!" Farook cried out, obviously incensed. He was panting and had the beginnings of a shiner, but he didn't seem the least bit frightened.
Impressed at the boy's self-reliance, Doyle shoved Huey up against the van and used his obi to tie the man's hands behind him. "What did you think you were doin', sunshine?" he asked, going for nasty. "Like lit'le boys, do you?"
The man narrowed his black eyes but made no reply, standing imperviously in the drizzle.
"You there!" Bodie shook watch cap-wearing Louie like a pup and slammed him into the metal wall of the van alongside Huey. "Cat got your tongue? What was your job here?" Bodie patted the man down, finding a knife that he tossed into the hedge growing alongside the car park.
Louie glowered without a word after a glance at his partner in crime.
Chico was sitting on Dewey with a triumphant gleam in his eye, David having felled the giant Goliath. "Shall I quote the cliché? The bigger they are…"
"The harder they fall," Doyle and Bodie finished with a laugh. Doyle frisked Huey, but didn't find any diving licence or credit cards to give him a name. "Got nothing. You?" he asked Chico.
Shoving his hands into the man's pockets, Chico came up empty with a shrug.
Farook looked at the three kidnappers with astonishment. "Took a bloody chance doing this in daylight, didn't they?"
"This happened to you before?" Bodie asked seriously, giving Louie a kick in the back of the legs when he started to move. "Keep your hands still, git, and we'll all be happier."
"This is the reason my father wanted me to continue karate after we moved here." The boy inhaled quickly as if the shock was finally catching up with him. He wrapped his arms around his body, wet and shivering, but obviously too proud to fold like most ten year-olds.
"You certainly earned your brown. We'll need to talk later." Doyle thought fast. There was no way they were going to keep this quiet very long. The parents in the gym had to have heard the noise of the fight, no matter how brief it had been.
Farook grimaced and faced the man Chico had pinned to the ground, firing off a rapid question in a language Doyle didn't know. Quite possibly Farsi.
Dewey was as disinclined to chat as his two comrades. He didn't move a hair, just stared blandly up at the spitting clouds.
"What'd you ask 'im?" Chico came up cautiously, stepping away from the thick-necked man lying on the wet tarmac.
"Who he worked for," Farook said with disgust. "My father's enemies, I am certain."
"And who would that be?" Bodie bumped Doyle with one shoulder. "Got the r/t in the car, going to call in reinforcements."
"Quick as you can." Doyle nodded, feeling like a berk to be without the familiar equipment of his trade. No gun, no official ID in the damned gi, and not a handcuff in sight. Luckily, the gang of three seemed completely resigned to their fate and hadn't made any attempt to escape. He wiped his damp, bedraggled curls out of his eyes.
A babble of voices came from the front of the building, and before Bodie could get very far, a clutch of parents, led by the senior Khorsandi, rushed into the car park. Bodie slipped around the pack, making for the Capri.
"Farook!" Khorsandi cried, speaking in the same language his son had. He pulled the boy to him with frantic love, all the time glaring at Huey, Dewey and Louie.
"I fought them, Father!" Farook said, muffled by his father's embrace. "And then Sensei and Mr. Barnes took them down."
"Allah be praised," Khorsandi said reverently.
"What happened?" several parents asked at once. "Call the police!"
They were crowded too close around the van, making Doyle very aware of how easily it would be for his prisoners to take a hostage and use the van as a getaway car. "Back up, please!" He found the beer-bellied city official in the group. "You—Cavendish, is it? Can you sequester everyone back in the gym until we can get the peelers in here?"
"Of course!" Cavendish said pompously, squaring his shoulders with his new responsibility. "It's too rainy to stand around out here. Let's get the tournament restarted…" Most of the parents grumbled but turned to go inside with him, leaving just Farook and his father speaking together in Farsi.
Doyle inserted a toe under the man doggo on the ground. "Get up, no lying down on the job." Dripping wet, Dewey heaved himself to his feet, standing a good six inches above Doyle's head. "Bloody great Brobdingnag," Doyle muttered, feeling like a Lilliputian. Grabbing Dewey's arm, he pushed him over with his partners by the van. "Stay put or I'll set the brand new brown belt on you—he already got Louie there in the goolies, didn't he, old son?" Doyle slapped Louie on his massive shoulders, and the man glanced over his shoulder with a grunt.
"I have a mobile phone in my auto," Khorsandi said, still clutching the boy to his chest. "Sensei Doyle, I will call the authorities."
"No need," Doyle said hurriedly, assessing the situation. Chico was doing a very good job of watching the three men with the determination of a terrier standing guard on a trio of moose. He'd used his obi to tie Dewey to the van door, leaving only Louie with his hands free. Keeping his eye on the Duck cousins, Doyle said respectfully, "Mr Khorsandi, I'm…" He glanced swiftly around, hoping Bodie was coming back with useful items such as CI5 identification. "With the government."
"Not MI6," Chico offered cheerfully, baring his teeth when bald Dewey looked about ready to take a runner. "Think again, idjit."
"A million thanks for saving my son. You are truly blessed." Khorsandi approached the silent band of kidnappers with a Farsi curse that sounded violent and very, very nasty. "But I know people who can deal with insolent sons of whores who attempt to snatch innocent children."
"Yeah, well, you're in England now, and we've got to go by the book," Doyle broke in before Khorsandi started stoning the men or whatever punishment they used in his country. "Mr Khorsandi, whether or not we like it, this has turned into an international incident right quick and it'd behoove you to wait for our boss to decide what happens to these gentlemen—within the law."
"It is none of your affair, you are civil servants who have to…"
"Karim Khorsandi?" Bodie jogged back, holding the r/t in one hand and his CI5 card in his left. "Seems Cowley's already heard of you—and planned to meet on Monday. Looks like you'll get to see the old man sooner that you expected." He held out the r/t.
"I was here to attend my son's karate tournament," Khorsandi said stiffly, staring at the radio transmitter as if it was a bomb.
Doyle caught Bodie's eye, just glad to have his partner back. He didn't like having Huey, Dewey and Louie unsecured except for a couple karate belts between the three of them. Too much danger of things getting out of hand. He could feel their malevolent presence like some kind of blight ruining the plans he'd had for the day. Now he and Bodie would never get to that much anticipated evening together. And he'd had no time to search the van for evidence yet.
"Father, you are always teaching me to respect the law," Farook murmured in English.
"Those vile whelps are the interlopers." Khorsandi looked down at Farook with fear and longing.
"And they'll be dealt with, never you mind," Doyle said. He glanced at Chico, standing guard on the Ducks and listening with rapt attention. "Fancy a visit to CI5 headquarters?"
"Don't have to ask me twice!" Chico said eagerly.
"I am grateful to your men, Mr Cowley," Karim Khorsandi said, smiling indulgently at Farook tucking into the Dime bar Bodie had fished out of the vending machine. "More than you will ever know, but I am accustomed to settling these…situations on my own."
"I am aware that you prefer to keep things private, man." Cowley peered through his huge spectacles like a benevolent owl. "However, this is already out of your hands. There were witnesses who have no doubt given statements to the police. Bullyboys threatening young boys on a pleasant Saturday afternoon. It's not to be tolerated."
"Pleasant?" Bodie said out of the corner of his mouth.
"Raised in Scotland, he was. They're not used to sunshine," Doyle murmured to him, shaking the last of the wet out of his curls.
"Doesn't look much like a spy headquarters," Chico said, eyeing the dull paint on the wall and jumble of banker boxes jammed with papers just piled against one wall.
"We're not spies." Doyle watched McCabe and Jax escort the prisoners downstairs.
"Can't show you the subterranean level," Bodie said in an accent straight out of a Bela Lugosi movie. "It's secret…" He wanted to get things moving—interrogate the prisoners, get them into Her Majesty's custody as soon as humanly possible but Khorsandi had been surprisingly obstinate so far.
Farook giggled, taking the last bite of his candy in one giant gulp.
"Where you're lodging the Duck cousins, yeah?" Chico shoved his hands in the pockets of the anorak he'd donned over his gi.
"I'd like a full report in my office," Cowley said firmly, leading the group toward his door. "Mr Barnes?" He gave Chico a long appraisal. "Of Trackdown Investigations?"
"Yes, squire." Chico bobbed his head, blond curls still damp. "'eard of us, 'ave you?"
"I once won quite a sizable bet on Sid Halley." Cowley smiled at the memory.
Bodie grinned at Doyle in delight, always very interested in all mention of Cowley's life beyond CI5. "And by sizable, what exactly do you mean, sir?"
"Enough to keep me in whisky, Bodie," Cowley said dismissively. "Speaking of which, Mr Khorsandi, may I offer you anything?"
"I enjoy a drink when I am able." Khorsandi nodded, taking a seat in the chair opposite Cowley's desk. Underneath his gracious façade there was a barely concealed anger. He was furious at the kidnappers.
Bodie studied the man from under his lashes. He hadn't had time to do more than exchange a few words with Khorsandi at the gym before they'd all piled into cars and driven to CI5. Why were the bullyboys after him? Simply because he had a prize winning horse? Didn't quite seem enough to try to snatch the man's son.
Farook looked around the ordinary office, obviously agreeing with Chico's earlier assessment that the place wasn't as exciting as James Bond's headquarters.
"The best whisky money can buy." Cowley doled out wee drams to the adults, although he gave Chico a long look before handing over a glass. Holding his own aloft, he took a drink and the others followed suit. "Now, to get to the matter at hand. Young Farook, what can you tell me about the three men who attempted to kidnap you?"
Farook stood up proudly. "I was on my way to the lo…" He paused, changing mid-word, "the WC, and the thugs came over to me. At first, I thought they were some of my father's associates—they spoke Farsi." He scowled. "Told me my father was leaving and I had to come." He bit his bottom lip, looking like a scared ten year old for the first time since the whole thing started. "I'm sorry, Father, I should have known…"
"Do not concern yourself with those sons of jackals, my heart," Khorsandi said gently, touching his cheek.
Farook stopped worrying his lip. "But when we got outside, the one with the watch cap just picked me right up, and I remembered what Sensei Doyle taught me. Worked a treat."
"Earned his brown belt, good and proper," Doyle said, patting the boy on the back. "Stayed calm and focused."
"Thank you, son." Cowley wrote down what the boy had said. "If you'll go out with Betty—" The secretary appeared as if summoned, holding the door open. "Whilst I talk with your father, she's got a television in the VIP lounge."
"Good enough for me!" Farook escaped with alacrity.
Bodie laughed. He'd have preferred to watch footie on the telly, as well. He, Doyle and possibly Barnes were in for what was probably going to be a lengthy going over of the salient facts. Questioning Khorsandi senior on exactly why this was not the first time his son had been threatened was also, no doubt, on the agenda.
"I'd like to invite you and your men—and Mr. Barnes, as well, to the races tomorrow afternoon, in my box," Khorsandi said quickly as if trying to forestall Cowley. "Aladdin's Treasure will be running in the fourth race…"
"The Richard Francis Silver Cup," Chico supplied. "Winnings are twenty thousand quid."
"Mr Khorsandi, as excellent as that invitation sounds, we need to get down to brass tacks," Cowley said, lacing his fingers together, his bright blue eyes focused on the man in question. "You and I had planned to get together on Monday to discuss a security matter involving Albion Oil, is that correct?"
Bodie perked up: now there was something new. He glanced over at Doyle leaning against the bookshelves. Doyle looked sleepy and there was a new bruise high on his already damaged right cheekbone from the dust up, but his green eyes were alert. He was paying rapt attention. Barnes was standing near the door. Probably expected to be thrown out at any time, but he, too, was listening with interest.
"As you say." Khorsandi inclined his head. "I own a large percentage of the oil fields in my country—"
"Kharistan," Cowley put in for clarity,
"Exactly. Our young king Amahl is very interested in courting the west, and with that in mind, has asked me to work with Albion Oil in a long term partnership to sell our oil to your country."
"Sounds like a lucrative deal," Doyle commented without moving.
"While there will be money exchanged," Khorsandi spoke as if he were choosing his words very carefully, "we were more interested in strengthening our ties with allies and forging strong bonds with the United Kingdom. With the upheaval in Iran and the Ayatollah Khomeini changing the political atmosphere of the Middle East—"
Bodie couldn't stop the amused grunt that came out of his mouth. Guess Khorsandi could be diplomatic and ironic at the same time.
"King Amahl wanted England to see us as a country with no secrets, willing to deal in the world market. While we are also Muslims, our country has not instituted the…" Khorsandi hesitated, frowning, and smoothed his deep blue silk tie. "Strict religious laws that Khomeini enforces. We are a much more secular country." He paused to sip the whisky.
Bodie polished off his own drink. Yes, Khorsandi had acquired western ways, since most of his faith didn't drink alcohol.
"We were anticipating a prosperous meeting next week with Albion Oil," Khorsandi went on, "but my family has been plagued with threats ever since the merger was announced. This is the third time thugs have endangered one of my family. Farook twice and my wife once."
"So you wanted us to be there to keep the peace?" Bodie asked, including Cowley in the question.
"He and Sir Reginald Briggs are to sign the contract on Wednesday next," Cowley said. "At Camden House."
"That place will be difficult to secure, sir," Bodie said, envisioning the one hundred year old building on Blackfriars Road. "Too many other buildings around. Snipers could be on any number of the surrounding rooftops."
"Snipers?" Khorsandi stared at him with shock in his dark eyes. "Never has anyone taken a shot at us. It has been intimidation, using my family as leverage."
"How'd you…" Both Chico and Doyle spoke at once.
Barnes laughed and swept his hand out, giving Doyle the floor. "This is your bailiwick, not mine."
"How did you deal with the threats the last time?" Doyle stood upright finally, crossing his arms.
Damn. Desire shot through Bodie at the most inopportune time. He reveled in Doyle's slim hips, despite the camouflage of the baggy gi. He wanted nothing better than to skim those voluminous white pants off his partner and bend him over… Cowley's desk came to mind in a stupefying flash of idiocy. It both titillated and appalled at the same time. They could play interrogating the prisoner. Doyle looked good in chains…
"Bodie?" Cowley's voice broke into his reverie.
Realising he hadn't heard of word of what Khorsandi had said, Bodie nodded solemnly, hoping that was the right move. Doyle smirked at him, probably reading his mind, the randy git.
"Mr Barnes, how exactly did you get involved?" Cowley asked.
"Chance." Chico shrugged. "Wrong place, right time. Was in the loo, wasn't I, when these two came in lookin' for the boy."
"Useful in a pinch," Doyle smirked. "Those blokes must have been over 15 stone each."
"What was your impression of the three men who attempted to snatch Farook?" Cowley leaned forward with interest.
Bodie wasn't surprised that Cowley saw past Barnes' youthful exterior and carefree Cockney façade. The old man had a keen ability to read character.
Chico frowned, glancing at Bodie and Doyle before speaking. "Strong but not expecting a couple of black belts to descend. Which, considerin' that they came 'round to a karate tournament, was poor planning on their part." He chuckled, absently scratching his neck. "But they nearly got away with grabbing the kid at a public event with people all over the place."
"They didn't seem to have a back up plan. It was obviously supposed to be snatch and go," Bodie said, thinking back. They'd driven around the gym several times, and he may not have even seen the first foray. Which means they had been watching the Khorsandis for some time, possibly even tailing the Bentley to the gym. "Mr Khorsandi, were you aware of a black van parked near your residence or following you earlier, before you got to the competition?"
"No, not at all." He pondered the question, his jaw muscles twitching. "I saw nothing suspicious. Because I had an earlier appointment, I drove myself and then returned to fetch Farook right before the tournament. Unfortunately, we were tardy, for which I bear all responsibility."
"No worries." Doyle waved a dismissive hand. "But they obviously must've known your schedule. Known where Farook would be. Where are you staying? Could it be bugged?"
"We're renting a flat near Harrods, a few streets away." Khorsandi looked like a pressure cooker on high, about to burst. "If those infidels have been in my home…"
"I'll have a team go in to check for listening devices," Cowley said smoothly, rolling a fountain pen between his palms.
"Those three definitely knew exactly where Farook would be," Bodie mused. "Do you have a secretary, someone who schedules your appointments, makes phone calls?"
"Albion Oil graciously assigned a young woman, Eliza Jennings, when we first arrived two months ago, but they would have nothing to gain by frightening off me or my family."
"We'll go have a dekko at your engagement diary and chat with Miss Jennings," Doyle spoke up.
"Too right." Bodie looked down at his empty glass but there was no more where that came from. "Albion must be cosseting you with fruit baskets and choccies. What kind of reaction did this arrangement with AO have with the chaps back in Kharistan?"
"As I said, King Amahl wants this scheme to move forward and bring us into the world market. There was…" Khorsandi seemed to reconsider, but soldiered on with barely a pause, "very little opposition to the proposal."
"Very little isn't none at all," Cowley observed, rolling the 'R' in very.
"Nothing is ever popular with everyone," Khorsandi said philosophically, but he grit his teeth. "My own brother is unhappy because he will have a smaller percentage of the profit. He is already a millionaire, he will get by."
"Your brother?" Doyle echoed. "Would he do anything to sabotage the meeting?"
"Not at all—when he is in England, he only spends time with his horses. In my country, he does very well in finance."
"Could we speak to him?" Bodie directed at Cowley.
"He went back to Kharistan." Khorsandi shook his head. "I cannot imagine anyone less interested in retaliation. Nazir is all talk. It is nothing but a family squabble. These three you have detained, they are the key. They must be forced to confess who they are working for."
"Just takes a bit of pressure to the right point." Bodie pinched his fingers together and mimed twisting, glancing at Doyle to gauge his reaction.
Doyle's eyes widened and he glared at Bodie, crossing his arms over his chest, which hid his nipples. "We'll question them, see what they're made of."
"You have any other family members, enemies?" Cowley looked over at Khorsandi expectantly.
"A brother Ramen, but he is not much more than a boy. He's attending Oxford. I know of no-one who would harm my family." Khorsandi frowned, some of his pride slipping enough to show a scared man concerned about his son. "These are evil men, to threaten a small child!"
"Wot 'bout the racecourse this weekend?" Chico asked astutely. "Track'll be mobbed with people, as well as the press, celebrities. Aladdin's Treasure is worth a Queen's ransom."
"Even with the security who work for Sandown, it's a bugger to monitor a big place like that," Bodie said.
"All the more reason for your men to be there!" Khorsandi declared with forced bonhomie. "Just this morning, I retained security for the horse because of the win last week."
"Ah, yes?" Cowley asked politely.
"Trackdown Investigations." Khorsandi fished into his pocket and came up with a small white card.
Chico laughed abruptly. "Glad to see I'm on the payroll then. You must 'ave spoken with my partner, Sid 'Alley?"
"Yes. Despite his infirmity, he seemed to understand what I required to protect Aladdin's Treasure."
"Don't let him 'ear you say infirmity, mate," Chico advised with a wink. "Arm's made of 'eavy gauge steel, and he's been known to use it like a club."
"I'll remember that," Khorsandi said faintly. "Aladdin is truly part of my family, no harm must come to him."
"On that end, I'll assign a team stay with you at all times until after the meeting with Albion Oil." Cowley skewered Bodie and Doyle with a fierce blue gaze. "Since you two have already established a rapport with Mr Khorsandi and Farook, you will remain with him—"
"Sir!" Bodie started, seeing any free time with Doyle slipping down the drain.
"Bodie?" Cowley mimicked his delivery, with a thick helping of Scottish brogue. "You'll do shifts with 6.2 and the new agent, 5.5. They may take the night shift, if you prefer."
"We prefer," Bodie said gratefully, glancing at Doyle. He could swear the idiot was blushing, but Doyle never blushed, so it must have been a trick of the light.
"It's settled then." Cowley brushed off his hands. "Mr Khorsandi, we will interrogate the three men who attempted to snatch Farook and get back to you with any pertinent information."
Khorsandi looked ready to argue the point. He got to his feet with a scowl but apparently reconsidered. He gave a tight nod that didn't hide his discontent. "I look forward to hearing from you."
"Should we question the miscreants?" Doyle asked, sounding casual, although the look he sent Bodie was all promise and heat. "Or stay with Farook and his father?"
"Och, good point." Cowley considered the question for a moment, tapping his chin. "You two have important insight in what occurred at the gym. Yes, go relieve McCabe of guard duty and see what you can get out of the brigands. Mr Khorsandi, if you'll accompany me, I can introduce you to Kevin Murphy and his new partner, Matthew Cougan."
Khorsandi raised a hand. "I must assert my right to be in on the interrogation. The men appeared to speak only Farsi, which your men do not understand. I could be of—" He paused, weighing his meaning, "assistance."
"While I respect your rights under normal circumstances," Cowley's voice had a ring of steel, "we do not allow the family of the victims to be present at an interrogation. There could be undue influence." He stopped Khorsandi's response before the Kharistani man opened his mouth. "On both sides. I require an impartial Farsi interpreter."
Bodie enjoyed it when others underestimated him. "Qwll'ran is a lovely city," he said in Farsi, smugly satisfied when Khorsandi looked momentarily startled.
Doyle sucked in his lips, hiding his amusement.
"You have been to my country?" Khorsandi asked in the same language.
"Don't know what he's going on about," Chico put in. "But I got the first word. Been to that Kharistani restaurant off Leicester Square, 'aven't I? Qwll'ran's the capital city. There's a map on the wall."
"3.7, you didn't inform me that you speak Farsi." Cowley was delighted.
"Not fluent, sir," Bodie said, which was far closer to the truth than he wanted to admit in front of Khorsandi. "But I get by, and I can…influence those three berks down in holding."
"Excellent, get on your bikes, then, the two of you." Cowley shooed them out of his office.
"How much Farsi d'you actually have?" Doyle elbowed Bodie in the ribs when they got to the lift.
Bodie noticed that Doyle very deliberately didn't ask how much did he speak. Too smart by half, he was. "I can say five phrases, and only four of them belong in polite company."
"Then do the fifth one." Doyle grinned at him when the doors to the lift parted.
Bodie chuckled, dredging the words up from the ancient vault he'd stored them in. Farsi twisted his tongue around and he'd never gotten the hang of the language. Once they were enclosed in the privacy of the lift, he put his mouth to Doyle's ear and murmured the words in a soft, sensual voice.
"What does it mean, when it's at home?"
"Your mother fucked a snake."
Doyle mock slugged him in the belly. "Actually, could be true, as it happens. Me older sisters' da was a right bastard."
"And yours was better?" Bodie had heard tales of Brigid Doyle's three husbands, all of them alcoholics.
"My da had a job," Doyle said quickly. "You went to the Congo, did you learn to speak…"
"Congolese?" Bodie acknowledged the change of subject without comment. Doyle could comment on his father's shortcomings, but no one else could. "They speak French, mostly, and Bantu." He led the way out of the lift to the dank corridor where the prisoners were kept for interrogation. "Oui, je parle Francais. Also have some Turkish and a bit of Swahili—just enough to make my way around a café and a brothel."
"Very handy, that." Doyle eyed him skeptically. "What makes you think any of that will win over these bullyboys?"
"Because I'm just naturally handsome and--"
"Charming, yeah, heard it before, Bodie," Doyle said dryly. "Makes you the sympathetic one here?"
"Biensur," Bodie intoned elegantly. He'd already expected that Doyle would take the angry role. It suited him better, most days. And with that bruise on his cheek, he looked wild and fierce.
"Beginning to regret bringing up the languages."
"You two here to get them to talk?" McCabe got up from a chair posted outside the door of holding room number one.
"We know anything more about them yet?" Bodie asked.
"Dabs gave up names on two of the three. Both named Mohammed." McCabe retrieved two sheets of paper from the floor by the chair. "This one's Mohammed Ansar." He jerked a thumb at the door behind him. "That one's Anwar Mohammed, just to confuse things." He indicated the door across the hall. "The third one ain't listed in the UK database. Got an inquiry into Customs and Interpol now, but no word on when there might any results. He's got English, though."
"Oh?" Bodie asked, suddenly much more interested. If any of them spoke English, he could be far more effective in putting on the squeeze than if none of them could fathom what he was saying—and he them.
"Yeah." McCabe grinned fiendishly. "Heard the results from Sandown on the radio on the way back from your gymnasium, didn't I?"
"Don't let Father know you've been shirking your duties!" Doyle said with an amused twinkle.
"And more importantly, did you win anything?" Bodie asked, deliberately nudging Doyle with his elbow just to be touching him,
"No, but I suspect, neither did our nameless friend." McCabe pointed to holding room three. "He was obviously listening to the radio and whispered bugger when Lady of the Lake came over the finish line first."
"Unless there's a word in Farsi that sounds like bugger." Doyle chuckled. "Which horses came in second and third?"
"What were their names?" He screwed up his face for a moment, muttering under his breath. "Ah, yeah, Cascade and Torino Flash."
"Thanks, mate." Bodie nodded. "Let's go give our racing fan a little poke."
"Love to." Doyle bared his teeth, which gave him the look of a crazed nutter. His deep breath gaped the V in the front of his gi, providing Bodie with a magnificent view of his chest.
The chance to relieve Doyle of that gi was becoming a faint hope, but Bodie clung to it nonetheless. He needed the feel of Doyle's warm skin against his own like he needed oxygen.
"You leave your trap open any longer, I'll start calling you angelfish soon," Doyle said with a smirk and opened the door.
The one Doyle had christened Dewey—well over six feet and completely bald—was hunched in a ladder-back chair with his hands cuffed behind him. Bodie plastered on a friendly smile, circling the man so they could both get a good look at one another while Doyle glowered near the door. He leaned one shoulder against the cement wall, since Doyle never did stand up straight if he could lean.
"Raymond," Bodie said conversationally. "You won that wager this morning, didn't you?"
"Put ten bob on Lady of the Lake, got a tidy profit," Doyle growled, low and—to Bodie's mind—quite sensual. "What's it to you?"
Watching Dewey out of the corner of his eye, Bodie saw him glance briefly over at Doyle with a curl of his lip. Yeah, the man understood the Queen's English. "Thought I'd offer Mohammed here a bribe."
"A bribe?" Doyle echoed, crossing his arms, sneering. The aura of menace coming off him was a damned aphrodisiac.
Bodie felt himself go hard in seconds, not the best choice in a situation like this.
"What's he want with British money?" Doyle continued. "He's probably already booked on a flight back to his country, which sounds like the name of a carpet."
"It is the name of a carpet." Bodie grinned.
"Something to wipe my feet on," Doyle muttered.
"What'd it take, Mohammed?" Bodie turned, catching Dewey's eye. "Fifty pounds? One hundred? Ray's loaded tonight."
Dewey didn't move a muscle, his face set, the overhead light glinting off his bald head.
Time to play his trump card. Bodie worked with tongue over the twisty syllables of "your mother fucked a snake."
Dewey didn't have the acting ability to pretend he wasn't completely insulted by the slur. He sat bolt upright and ground out, "my name is not Mohammed."
"Now we're getting somewhere." Doyle shifted himself, prowling around Dewey like a restless tiger. "Why'd you grab the boy?"
"Who hired you?" Bodie came in fast on the heels of Doyle's question.
"What's this to do with Karim Khorsandi?" Doyle whispered, cold and hard.
"What is your name?" Bodie asked right in Dewey's face.
"Why did you grab Farook?" Doyle shouted suddenly, grabbing Dewey's chair and tilting it backward. The man had to be nearly twice Doyle's weight but Doyle kept the chair from falling with one hand braced on the back.
Shoving his knee up under the raised seat of the chair, Bodie balanced it on his side. Between them, Dewey had gone from wary to confused, his black eyes shifting anxiously from Bodie to Doyle. Sweating profusely, he sucked in a breath, and then Doyle let go of the chair.
Anticipating his partner's move, Bodie moved his knee at just the right second. Dewey cried out in fear but the chair landed with a crash on all four legs.
"What's your name, git?" Doyle snarled, never touching him, but he was still damned scary.
"S-salar Hamidi," he sputtered in a heavy accent. "I am from Kharistan, you cannot arrest me."
"Where'd you get that bloody information, mate?" Bodie laughed. "You won't have diplomatic immunity, that's the first thing we'll check."
Hamidi pursed his mouth shut, obviously considering what to say. "I was on a work visa, in the stables at Epsom."
"Know horses, do you?" Doyle smiled thinly, his eyes glittering a threat that he never voiced. "You bet on the races and lost today, didn't you? Like you have done since you got off the plane." He kicked the chair leg, without actually hitting Hamidi. "Lost your job over the betting, I'll wager, and had to find work elsewhere. Anything to keep a bit of hummus and pitta on the table, yeah?"
His breath coming noisily, Hamidi nervously watched him stalk the confines of the room.
"So you weren't too picky when offered something on the wrong side of the law 'cause Mohammed told you the mets couldn't nick you?" Doyle came to a stop directly in front of Hamidi, fists on his narrow hips, feet planted solidly. The karate kit should have looked ridiculous here, instead, it gave him a formidable presence.
Bodie could have jumped Doyle's bones right then and there. Shoved him against the wall and taken him fast from behind. The thought of it skittered through him and he had to shove the images away. Luckily, Hamidi turned, imploring Bodie with his eyes.
"Please, I…I've never done this before."
Got 'im, Bodie thought triumphantly. "Talk to me, then, Salar," he said gently. "Tell me what's going on, and you'll be back with your family in Kharistan in no time at all." He patted the big man's shoulder. "Who hired you?"
"Mohammed Ansar," he answered in a monotone, the smell of fear rising off him. "He picked me up in the van, said we just had to take the child. It was to threaten the father, only. No harm would come to the boy."
Doyle had settled against the wall again, as patient as a lion watching his prey.
"Not exactly following the tenets of the Koran, are you?" Bodie chided with a light touch. "Not being very kind to your fellow man. You'd do anything for money?"
"We weren't going to harm…" Hamidi struggled to find the correct words. "I am strong, used to dealing with horses. I don’t know karate like the boy. He…could fight!" There was an absurd admiration for Farook.
"Great, so you were beat up by a ten year old." Doyle laughed. "All for what, a few bob? How much was Mohammed going to pay you?"
"Two hundred pounds."
"Two hundred pounds?" Bodie echoed. "I might kidnap you," he leered at Doyle, "for that kind of money. Why'd this Ansar want to threaten the boy's father?"
"He did not say," Hamidi mumbled. He looked ridiculous, huddled in the chair like a child, his big moon face pale under his desert tan.
Was he possibly mentally deficient? Bodie had no way to assess that. The man understood all their questions well enough, but he might be on the low end of the IQ scale.
"Speak up," Doyle snapped, coming off the wall. "Let the headmaster hear your answer, boy."
Hamidi gasped, staring at Doyle, the whites of his eyes showing all the way around his irises. "He did not say!"
"So you go along with this dodgy scheme, to kidnap a ten year old child, threaten a loving parent, all so you could bet on another horse race?" Doyle stalked closer, contempt evident in every line of his body. "And you don't even know what Ansar was up to?"
"Be fair," Bodie said reasonably, unable to take his eyes off his partner. "He probably wanted to pay off his debts, go back to Kharistan in style." He nodded at Hamidi who bobbed his head in response like a puppet. "He's not British. Can't have known that kidnapping has a mandatory sentence of twenty years to life in prison."
"To life?" Hamidi cried out. "I never!"
"But you did, mate," Doyle drawled with a feral smile. "You and the other two Duck cousins were set on kidnapping that child. And he kicked you in the goolies." He mimed doing so and Hamidi flinched. "Oh, I stand corrected, it was your friend, one of the Mohammeds that Farook unmanned."
Hamidi's chin quivered. "Ansar said that the father had shamed our country, that he was selling out to the British."
"Selling what?" Bodie stepped on the end of his sentence.
"Oil. He sold good Kharistani oil to the British."
"Got 'im." Doyle smiled, all teeth.
Chico had to take a bus back to the gym to fetch his car, a rather ignominious aftermath to his exciting morning.
He'd been to CI5 headquarters! Sid would be impressed—or not. Sid had a certain contempt for governmental authority figures that rivaled Chico's own. In his case, it was from being raised by nuns in a convent for the first 16 years of his life. Chico wasn't about to kowtow to anyone unless they were in full habit with a rosary dangling from one hand. He'd learned early on that while he might not be the most book smart bloke in a room, he was clever, intuitive and quick, and could read other people far more astutely than most.
That had saved his skin on numerous occasions when bigger, stupider boys thought someone his size was a pushover. Chico had never in his life been a pushover—and he viewed most cops and other governmental gobs as the bullies they often were. But Doyle had always been a good bloke when they'd met during karate tournaments. Now, learning that he worked for CI5 with his partner Bodie, Chico was more than intrigued.
Retrieving his kit bag from the gym, Chico loaded it into his battered little car and drove over to the flat he shared with Sid. They'd started out as partners in this experiment as private eyes soon after Sid lost his hand and his livelihood as a steeplechase jockey. Their work was needed on and off the racecourses, and they soon had a successful business. The carriage house Sid had rented after his divorce to his ex-wife Jenny had been bombed during their first unofficial case. Luckily, he'd always done very well in the stock market and had bought the two upper floors of a 19th century Victorian house that served as their office and living space.
It wasn't until a year later that Chico began to realize that his dalliances with various girls never reached a deep, meaningful relationship because he already had his heart set on someone else. Someone exactly his height, with deep dark brown eyes framed by long sooty lashes, close cropped dark hair and a watchful, intelligent expression. And a false, heavy gauge steel hand enclosed in a skin-like glove.
He and Sid tumbled into bed one night purely by accident. A late call to a stable in the north of England had necessitated a stay in an anonymous hotel. A scuffle with local toughs responsible for roughing up their client—and his prize winning mare—had left Sid and Chico covered in mud and bruises. Too tired to care, they had checked each other for serious injuries, applied a few sticking plasters to intimate places most partners would have avoided, and—in a sudden intimacy borne of equal parts adrenalin and exhaustion—Chico had kissed Sid. Kissed him hard.
He'd been more than shocked when Sid returned the kiss with equal ardour. They'd been lovers ever since. Nearly six months.
Moving in with Sid had been the easy bit. Chico parked his car behind the house and climbed the stairs to their level. Living with Sid had been more mercurial than he'd expected. Sid was passionate about his causes and driven to a fault, but he could be moody and grim, the total opposite of Chico's sunny, even disposition.
Chico had always known that Sid dropped into great black depressions that swamped him for days. Had seen the black clouds just after Sid's amputation. Since then, he'd learned to jolly Sid out of pessimism when he could, and deal straight-forwardly with the more bleak periods when he had to. Chico could usually read Sid at a glance. It was not a good sign if he was slouched on the sofa, nursing a glass of whisky and staring at the old pictures of his triumphs on the race course. Far better was Sid listening to classical music while whipping up something exotic in the kitchen with his shirt sleeves rolled up to reveal the blunt stump on the left. Ever sensitive about his missing hand, Sid only allowed a handful of people to see him without his prosthesis. Chico had always been one of the privileged.
With any luck, Sid would be gleeful with a new client on the books. Chico swung open the front door.
"Where've you been?" Traces of Sid's Welsh childhood gave all his words a certain lilt—but he sounded far better murmuring sexy endearments than snarling enquiries.
"Been to the tournament, you knew that!" Chico replied hotly, dropping his bag with a thud to stand nose to nose with Sid.
"Which was to end at twelve thirty! So where've you been since then?" Sid had a strange kind of fear in his eyes before he abruptly hid whatever concern away. He raised his right hand to touch Chico's forehead, the tenderness belaying his gruff tone. "What happened to your head?"
"Tossed a few blokes around, and not the little bleeders at the tournament—" Chico shook off Sid's hand. Neither of them went in for much cosseting. He was far more used to the sarcastic edge of Halley's tongue than worry for his well being.
"You forgot how to put a coin in a phone box?"
"Oh." Chico rolled his eyes, more than exasperated with his welcome. "Is that 'ow this is? Suddenly, you're on pins every time I don't come 'ome when expected?"
"Piss off, Chico!"
Sid voice's was both soft as velvet and as rough as gravel on a roadway. It sent a bolt of arousal straight to Chico's groin but he didn't give in, not yet.
Chico turned his back to march into the bathroom. He wanted a shower and some food, in that order. He'd had nothing to eat since a pasty at eleven o'clock. He wasn't just peckish, he was famished.
Sid grabbed Chico's arm with his metal hand and hauled him in close. "Don't know why I bother," he whispered against Chico's mouth before kissing him thoroughly.
"The blue eyes and the blond curls, completely irresistible—according to all the birds." Chico batted his eyes outrageously, stealing another kiss from his lover. Sid tasted of good whisky and crisps, the salt and vinegar flavour. Chico's favourite.
"You think highly of yourself," Sid said with the dry humour he was known for.
"Yeah, old man, someone 'as to." Chico cast his eyes around and spied the bag of crisps on an ottoman next to a book on Kharistan. Ah, so Sid had been reading up on their newest client. Wouldn't he be chuffed with what Chico had learned. "You ready to listen to what I've been up to now, or d'you need to burn off a lit'le more adrenalin? We could spar—I've had my gi on all day now."
Sid raised his hands in surrender and sat on the couch. "Why, may I ask, are you wearing your gi five hours after the tournament ended?"
"Been to CI5, haven't I?" Chico said loftily, enjoying the play of emotions on Sid's often dour face.
"You get taken in by the nick?" Sid exclaimed.
"You do think 'ighly of me, don't you?" Chico stuffed a handful of crisps into his mouth, which tasted great but now he needed something to drink. He rummaged in the drinks cabinet, looking for a Coke or ginger beer. He wasn't quite ready for a lager just yet. "No, I did not get nicked," he said over his shoulder, pushing aside bottles. Lots of whisky, courtesy of Sid's ex-father-in-law, Sir Charles, and some expensive French wines. He spotted a bottle of shandy behind the wine and flipped off the top. The first swig was heaven. "A trio of Kharistanis tried to grab a kid from me mate Doyle's dojo. Had to accompany him to…"
"Kharistanis?" Sid sat up straighter.
Chico laughed, swinging his bottle at Sid. "Yeah, see, I know something you don't. And…" He shook a triumphant finger at Sid while taking a long swallow of shandy. "I know who our next client is, don't I?"
"How do you know?"
"Met him. Karim Khorsandi." Very pleased with himself, Chico sprawled on the sofa, pressing his left thigh up against Sid's. Sid did not move his leg away, even better. "His boy was the one these bounders went after. But Farook's a good fighter, earned his brown belt."
"Khorsandi told me he had to pick up his son for a competition. He cut short our meeting," Sid said in surprise. "I would never connected him with your karate meet. Who is this Doyle?"
"Just about to get to 'im. CI5—when he's not teaching katas to little ones."
"They similar to MI6?"
"Judging from Doyle's partner Bodie's response, not bloody likely. I think they're some kind of rivals—not sure of the hierarchy involved." Chico finished the last of the crisps, his stomach rumbling loudly. "Anything else to eat?"
"Tornadoes of beef marinating and jacket potatoes already in the oven," Sid said placidly. "What did you learn about Khorsandi?"
Chico filled him in on aborted kidnapping, Cowley questioning Khorsandi and the invitation to watch Aladdin's Treasure from Khorsandi's box on Sunday. "But then I 'eard you'd taken 'im on as a client, so we'd have been there at any rate."
"Yeah. The horse is worth a million, at least, possibly more if he continues to race as well as he has and then add in stud fees, if Khorsandi wants to produce more in his line."
"That all you think about, sex, sex, sex?" Chico grinned wolfishly, sliding his eyes sideways to admire Sid's consternation. He spread his legs a little wider to press their thighs together good and proper.
"About half the time, there's hardly sex involved in breeding stallions to mares, you randy git."
Sid's throaty purr did such interesting things to Chico's libido. He'd have willingly put dinner off for an hour or so to have Sid underneath him, skin against skin… He coughed, shoving such thoughts aside. "Gone with you to watch the vets extract the semen from the 'orses, haven't I, squire?" Chico groaned. A very dangerous operation, it was, too, with the vet so near the one tonne of sharp horse's hooves. He'd never do that kind of thing in a million years. "You're a mood killer, you are. Where'd you get the book on Kharistan?"
"WH Smiths," Sid said with tongue firmly in cheek. "I understand, young lad, all that sport you had in school, karate and football, didn't leave you enough time to pursue the finer things in life like reading."
"Yeah, 'eard it before. What's it all about then?" He picked up the book, opening to the centre section with the pictures. Not exactly typical of what he expected for a Middle-Eastern country, more Mediterranean looking. Low rolling hills dotted with palms and olive trees, a few camels and the obligatory oil derrick. One black and white photo showed hundreds of oil derricks all pumping the crude the rest of the world cherished to run their cars and lorries. Images of open markets showed mounds of fruit and crates of chickens next to transistor radios and cassettes of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
The women wore long billowy coats, most completely black, but a few that Chico supposed were younger women had on light coloured coats with elaborate embroidery at the hem. They also had scarves covering their hair and foreheads with a smaller, lighter weight veil over the nose and mouth. A thin cord connected the face veil to the piece over the forehead, leaving dark eyes free to see the world. Many of the men in the pictures wore much more western dress, as Khorsandi and his son did, but a few sported long shirts that reached their knees and wide legged trousers beneath.
"The young king Amahl Abdullah has been on the throne for less than ten years." Sid flipped a few pages to show a handsome, dark haired man, his veiled wife and two young boys, one a babe in arms, the other possibly under the age of two. "He's popular and interested in all things western, which of course has stirred up the old guard."
"Always does, Tories and Labour party mixing it up, no matter what country it is," Chico said cynically.
"Unfortunately, there is quite an opposition against King Amahl's desire to bring in British and American money, and to sell their oil. And the Kharistani press has had a field day drubbing UK policies and our decadent lifestyles. Up until recently, Kharistan has kept the oil they drill in the area, sold only to other Middle-Eastern nations." He let the book settle onto his lap, leaning back to lecture on his subject. "Next to, say Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, Kharistan really has a small production," Sid explained. "Khorsandi is a rich man in his own country and stands to make another fortune, for his own bank account, as well as the Kharistan's coffers with this partnership with Albion Oil."
"That's not even counting the winnings on Aladdin's Treasure and his stud fees," Chico surmised.
"Spot on," Sid murmured just as a timer went off in the kitchen. "Which means the man has any number of enemies." He padded into the kitchen to peer at the potatoes and put the meat on to cook. "Make a salad."
"Do I have to?" Chico asked, just to get on Sid's wick.
His partner gave him a look and handed over a lettuce. "The question is—which of these enemies has the wherewithal to mount such an attack on Khorsandi's son?"
"And his wife, and it ain't the first time," Chico said, attacking the lettuce. He thought about doing something showy like using the side of his hand to cut it in two, but Sid wasn't paying any attention to him, so what was the point? He dropped the lettuce leaves into bowls and added some small tomatoes. "Which leads to Aladdin's Treasure. 'E thinks the 'orse could be in danger."
"Understandable." Sid nodded, getting out butter and chives for the potatoes. "Back to the basics for you and me, guarding the horse from stable to course and then to his home paddock."
"All in a day's work." Chico sighed.
"All in a day's work," Sid agreed, setting the ingredients on the table. He tugged on the black belt surrounding Chico's slim waist. "You planning on wearing this kit all night?"
"I'd slip it off, but we were about to eat." Chico laughed. This was more like it.
"Slip it off now. We'll still be able to eat," Sid said softly into his ear.
Bodie and Doyle left questioning the two Mohammeds to McCabe, Jax and a Farsi interpreter. When Cowley wasn't looking, they got out of headquarters as quickly as humanly possible. Too primed to even suggest takeaway Chinese food for dinner, Bodie followed Doyle's luscious arse into the Capri.
"My place, James," Bodie said officiously, feeling like Richard Bellamy from Upstairs, Downstairs eyeing the delectable new chauffeur.
Doyle gave him an inquisitive glance, but was apparently willing to play along. He glanced downward, his lashes covering mischievous eyes. "Gov'nor, this is my first time." He started the car and drove out onto the nearly deserted street.
His Cockney was atrocious, but maybe he'd meant it to be. Bodie grinned with anticipation, watching shadows from the streetlights they passed play interesting games with Doyle's face. Bars of light striped his cheeks and chin, then slid away, only to limn his nose and throat as the car passed the next street lamp. "Then you're out of luck, boy, because I don't plan to be gentle."
Doyle sucked in an audible breath and exhaled. "Understood, gov." One side of his mouth tilted upwards, wrinkling the skin around his eyes.
No other warning was necessary—they both knew the rules, both had played the game before. No holds barred, rough and sexy.
"Looks like you're out of uniform, James," Bodie said, warming to his character. This was far, far better than brooding about what was going on with Farook and his father, which Doyle might have done if left to his own devices. Doyle was like a bulldog with a bone, never let up until he had the answers—and so far, there were none. No clear instigator in who had hired the two Mohammeds.
"Couldn't be helped." Doyle heaved a dramatic sigh. "The upstairs ladies' maid's gone and taken me livery."
"Sarah? What cheek!" Bodie pretended outrage.
"Sarah's the parlour maid, Maud is…" Doyle started, proving that he'd watched even more Upstairs, Downstairs than Bodie had. He chuckled, pulling the car alongside the kerb just opposite Bodie's flat.
"I don't care who the bloody hell does what," Bodie exclaimed. He grabbed Doyle by the scruff of his neck and pulled him over the gear lever. "I want you, inside right now, not another word." He kissed Doyle hard and fast, his fingers tight on his partner's throat. He could feel Doyle's pulse speed up under the tips of his fingers. "Get undressed and don't…" He touched his mouth to Doyle's, felt lips part to allow his tongue entrance. He plunged in, regardless that they were parked on a public street where anyone could walk by. Made the fantasy that much sweeter. "Don't resist," Bodie finished against Doyle's lips, catching his eyes and holding them. In the darkened interior of the car, all he could really see were Doyle's dilated pupils drinking him in.
Reaching past his captive, Bodie unlocked the car door. "Out, now."
For one second, Doyle stiffened as if he wasn't going to obey. Then he bowed his head, his long curls brushing Bodie's cheeks and got out, walking across the road and into the brick building.
Bodie waited two long minutes, sitting in the silent car, prolonging the agony—he wasn't sure whose--his or Doyle's, before he locked the Capri and walked slowly to the front door. His whole body vibrated with the need to do what he'd started so long ago this morning, mount Doyle and dominate him.
The door to his flat was unlatched. He touched the knob and the door swung open easily, revealing a naked Doyle sitting in an overstuffed chair, his eyes cast downward, long lashes dark against his paler cheeks. The bruise just under his right eye was already a deep purple. He looked oddly vulnerable there, solitary and waiting for whatever Bodie had in store. When Bodie growled slightly under his breath, Doyle started to grin and then caught himself, sucking in his smile like the Cheshire cat.
That tiny expression of excitement turned Bodie on almost as much as the sight of Doyle's stiff cock standing between his thighs.
"My night, my rules," he said, unbuttoning the shirt he was wearing.
"Yeah," Doyle responded with just enough sarcasm to warrant reprisal.
"Oh, you really didn't want to do that," Bodie warned, using his fingers to tilt Doyle's chin up until those incredible eyes stared back at him.
Doyle bit his bottom lip but the grin escaped, unrepentant.
"What do you choose?" Bodie said, heat suffusing his being. God, he loved this. Loved playing with Doyle. Loved knowing they had nothing to hide, that they could do anything, be anything, and the other always knew exactly who he was. Partners in all things, even when it was more than a little naughty. "Food now, or after play?"
Doyle inhaled sharply, his ribcage rising and falling, and Bodie could see the pulse fluttering in his neck on the spot where his fingers had pressed in the car. He was almost sure he could actually discern the marks he'd made.
"Whatever you have planned, gov," he whispered.
"Then get up, Raymond." Bodie took a single step back, just enough for Doyle to stand, but so close that Doyle had to press against him or sit back down.
Bodie took another step back to make room to do what he'd started on the floor of the gymnasium. He pinched both of Doyle's nipples, digging his nails in enough to make Doyle yelp. He smiled at the abrupt cry, at the sight of Doyle's face, expectant and aroused. "This is all mine, yeah?"
"Yeah." Doyle sighed, tension draining out of him, his cock poking Bodie's trouser clad leg as if begging for attention.
Bodie pressed down more firmly, watching Doyle take the pain, his own desire spiralling through him like a tropical storm. After the first yelp, Doyle didn't make another sound, just breathed through the increasing discomfort. Nipples were funny things, very tiny—almost an afterthought on a man, but the right pressure was astonishingly erotic.
"In the kitchen, there are some clothes pegs," Bodie said very softly, watching Doyle's mouth, taking in the way he licked his bottom lip, the way he shuddered very slightly with each breath, proving how turned on he was. "Go get them, as well as a bottle of cooking oil, an apple,…" he paused as if he had not thought this out in advance, "the jagger wheel, string and two tea towels."
Doyle hissed when Bodie released his nipples, his fingers twitching as if he wanted to reach up and rub the sore nubs, but he didn't. "Are we going to be making apple pie?" he asked over his shoulder, walking across the carpet to the linoleum.
"Not according to my schedule," Bodie said, his eyes on that naked arse. "But I do need to eat before the rest of the agenda."
"You always want to eat."
Doyle gathered the necessary items and placed them on the small kitchen table whilst Bodie toasted bread and warmed a tin of beans. His job took longer than Doyle's which gave him ample time to watch Doyle try to figure out what he planned to do with the ordinary implements. Bodie was caught between wanting to laugh with delight at the game and wanting to shove Doyle onto the bed and ravage him right now.
Dishing up the beans on toast, he set one plate directly beside the clothes pegs. "Before you eat, place one each on your nipples."
Doyle's eyebrows shot up. "By myself?" he asked casually. Not refusing, just curious.
"I want to watch," Bodie admitted, his swollen cock pounding in time with his heart. Damn, this was fun. "Watch the way you take the pain."
Doyle gave a mirthless laugh and picked up a peg, clipping it onto his left nipple. Immediately, the muscles in his jaw twitched but there was no other tell.
Bodie nodded, waiting, that fizzy rush of intoxicating joy tingling under his breastbone. There was probably no-one else on earth that Doyle would submit to but him. It left him humble and feeling like Superman at the same time.
Doyle selected a second peg, turning it around and then upside down--examining the workmanship perhaps-- and popped it onto his other nipple. The breath he took made the pegs tremble and must have increased the amazing pain ten fold.
Bodie knew that pain, had tried the pegs on himself before ever using them on Doyle. The sharp sting spread across the chest in an instant and seemed to pull the whole flesh of the torso up before levelling off to a steady burn. That is, until they were plucked off and the blood returned in a throbbing, tingling rush.
He wasn't planning on letting Doyle take them off for a while.
"Eat up," Bodie said cheerfully, taking a bite of his favourite meal from childhood.
"No veg?" Doyle picked up his fork cautiously to avoid bumping his arm on the pegs and manoeuvered it into his mouth. On the second forkful of beans, he jostled the peg accidentally and stiffened, internalising the renewed sensation.
"Just energy food, doesn't have to be healthy," Bodie scoffed, unable to take his eyes off the pegs bouncing with every movement Doyle made. "So you don't keel over in a swoon during the action."
"Not bloody likely." Doyle grinned at him, apparently adjusting to the insidious pinch of the pegs.
"That you'll swoon from my amorous advances or are you going on about something else?" Bodie asked. Doyle hadn't eaten his last morsel of toast, so Bodie nicked it and popped it in his mouth.
"I'm able to juggle more than one…" Doyle asked, glancing down at the pegs attached to his chest, bemusement in the quirk of his mouth, "agenda at a time. You reckon that Khorsandi's brother—forget his name—hired the Mohammeds?"
"No CI5 business!" Bodie put the plates into the sink with a stern look at his unrepentant partner. He'd have to up the ante here or Doyle would continue in this vein for the rest of the evening. It certainly did nothing to boost a bloke's ego when his bottom couldn't keep his mind on the action. "Had enough of the bloody Duck cousins for one day. We'll put our heads together with Khorsandi tomorrow at the horse race."
Bodie grinned to himself, eyeing the items on the table. Which to use first with the most efficiency?
"Makes sense, don't you think?" Doyle pressed on. "He has motive, could easily be privy to his brother's appointments, and possibly…"
Bodie shoved the apple between Doyle's teeth, stopping his chatter mid-sentence. Doyle gulped, trying to accommodate the apple's girth without biting it in two.
"This isn't a veg." Bodie put his hands on his hips, very satisfied with his solution. "But it's healthy. And remember, an apple a day keeps the doctor away. Stand up."
Doyle nodded, his jaw stretched around the apple, his eyes wide and as green as the fruit. He got to his feet slowly, gaze locked on Bodie.
"You've done this before, angelfish," Bodie continued, low and sensual, gauging Ray's body language at every turn. Doyle had been startled, but so far, there was nothing he couldn't handle. "Perch on the edge of the counter, arms over your head."
Hitching one hip onto the tiled counter, Doyle stretched his arms up, his rib cage flaring as he exhaled. He was wide in the shoulder and upper body with a narrow, almost fragile waist and hips. Incongruous in a man, almost the curvy form of a woman. Almost, but most definitely not. Bodie let himself take in the magnificent sight without saying anything else. This was definitely a moment worth savouring.
Doyle had known exactly where to place his hands. There was an innocuous hook imbedded in the ceiling. Its original purpose was unknown since it was a daft place to hang a potted plant, directly in front of a cupboard, but it was absolutely perfect for Bodie's needs.
"Do you need to be tied?" Bodie held up the length of string, but he already knew the answer. It was the one part of the play that Doyle found hard to endure—the repercussions of their line of work. Tied up too many times when it was not fun and games.
Doyle shook his head, wrapping his fingers tightly around the hook, resolute. Apple juice dripped slowly over his bottom lip onto his chin.
Bodie leaned forward to lick up the sweet juice and nibble at his captive's jaw and neck. All succulent fruit, his for the plucking. His own cock throbbed inside his trousers every time his groin bumped against Doyle's hairy abdomen—and Doyle's erect cock. Bodie luxuriated in the erotic friction for just long enough to bring them both to a boil and then backed off again.
Doyle's eyes flashed fire and he flexed his fingers on the hook, but didn't move.
Reaching into his pants, Bodie pinched down on the base of his willy to prolong his staying power. It was like trying to extinguish dynamite, but once he'd acclimated, he had more time to torment Doyle. As long as he made sure that he didn't brush up against that tempting target, Doyle would be on edge until Bodie let him orgasm.
Bodie took his time, establishing a layer of passion to balance out the pain of the pegs and the stretched position. Doyle hitched his breath, shuddering when Bodie sucked on an ear lobe. Bodie bit down almost hard enough to put his teeth through the soft, yielding flesh. A gold ring, winking in Doyle's ear would be just the ticket. Bodie wished he'd thought of it earlier, he could have bought a needle. Even sticking the needle through the lobe would be sexy, like those punk rockers who hung out in Bromley. He could easily take it out afterward and the tiny wound would heal quickly.
Something for another day. But there were other irritants that would just prick the skin without piercing. Bodie ran his forefinger down his captive's throat to his nipples once more and gave the right peg a twist.
Doyle nearly jumped out of his skin, a jumble of sounds like half protestations and half begging for more coming from around the apple. Especially when Bodie held up the small tool his gran had always used to put a fluted edge on a pie. Just one of the many things she thought he'd need in the big city, but he'd never used until one day he'd discovered a novel and very erotic use.
Doyle mangled, "Bodie!" from around his gag, his belly rippling as if Bodie had already rolled the jagged wheel over his abdomen. He planted his feet firmly, ankles pressed against Bodie's, straddling Bodie's legs.
"One of your favourites, ain't it, angel?" Bodie taunted. They'd used it on each other in the past, the sensation both painful and titillating at the same time. The metal lip was sharp but not enough to break the skin. It certainly felt like it did, though.
Bodie pressed the jagger wheel into Doyle's chest, rolling it around each pegged nipple, sure he could feel the spiky bite of the metal on his own flesh. Doyle gasped, his head falling back until it rested on the cabinet. He moaned when Bodie navigated the wheel down the bumpy landscape of Doyle's rib cage, tracing the outline of each rib until he met the flatter surface of the belly. Bypassing the thick, throbbing roadblock perched upright on his abdomen, Bodie went around each hip bone. The jagger left a faint red line across Doyle's torso like a map of their play leading straight down to the hairy patch surrounding Doyle's rigid cock.
It was the single swipe up the underside, just to the right of the prominent vein that sent Doyle skyrocketing. He howled, dropping the apple in the process.
The fruit hit Bodie on the chest, but he laughed, tossing it aside. He had others. Anchoring both hands around Doyle's waist, Bodie shared his partner's orgasm, the trembles and shudders telegraphing through the slender body only intensifying Bodie's own needs.
Still clinging to the hook, Doyle leaned heavily against Bodie, sweat beading his forehead. He grinned beatifically, debauched and completely unashamed to be naked and splattered with semen and apple juice. There was quite a bit of semen on Bodie, too.
"I take it we should keep the jagger in our repertoire?" Bodie asked, amused, wiping at his jumper. He'd planned on doing the laundry soon in any event.
"As long as you don't use it to make a pasty," Doyle said with a raunchy smirk. "You'd have me coming in me trousers in the rest room."
"Wouldn't want that at all." Bodie rolled his eyes. "What would Murphy think of you, 4.5?" He reached across to the bowl of apples on the counter by the sink. "You've got a choice this time—" He pointed to a small reddish green one. "A Pippin, all the way from the Isle of Wight, according to Mr. Patel, the greengrocer, or a Hoary Morning…"
"Pull the other one, that's just a plain apple from Marks and Sparks." Doyle massaged his jaw with one hand but didn't touch his pegged nipples which, from Bodie's experience must be sore as a smashed toe by now.
"Au contraire, Raymond." Bodie waggled a finger under Doyle's nose and then let it drop onto the Pippin. "You've influenced me to seek out more…shall we say…esoteric comestibles. These are the prime of British heritage, available in tempting varieties at Mr. Patel's shop just down the road." He held it up so that the firm, green-red skin of the fruit touched Doyle's top lip. "Bite, but not too hard until I've come."
"You're having far too much fun." Doyle bared his teeth in a growl before opening wide to admit the apple, his eyes twinkling.
Bodie had made sure that it was a smaller one this time; he didn't want to break Doyle's jaw. "Packed with vitamins…just the thing for a virile young lad."
Doyle keened when Bodie plucked off the first of the pegs, a thin, high sound that spiralled around Bodie's arousal until he could barely think. Bodie kissed the red, swollen nipple, leaving the other one clamped for a little while longer. He kissed Doyle's armpit, nuzzling and sniffing the heady aroma of testosterone and male sweat.
"Going to raise you up," Bodie whispered against Doyle's right temple, bestowing a last kiss there, Doyle's curls tickling his cheek. "Wrap your legs around my waist."
This was the tricky part. No matter how erotic it was, they had to distribute the weight just right to avoid straining Doyle's arms, Bodie's back and the hook in the ceiling. As luck would have it, the hook apparently could support three hundred pounds or thereabouts. Not so Doyle or Bodie, although both could bench press their own weights under Macklin's eagle eye.
Bodie unzipped his trousers, freeing his pulsing cock, but didn't strip completely. More of his Richard Bellamy mentality. The help went naked, but the upper crust had clothing for every event, even buggering the chauffeur.
The last preparation was the coating of oil from the bottle on the table. Bodie poured a little of the fragrant olive oil onto his hand and slid it along his sensitive length. Damn! He was so ready that even his own touch was too much. He grit his teeth to resist the urge to wank himself off then and there. He had a far better place to sheath his cock.
Doyle watched him hungrily, but trying to keep his jaw open enough to hold the apple was obviously becoming a strain. His teeth were sinking into the peel and his chin was now covered in apple flavoured drool.
"You ready?" Bodie cupped Doyle's arse, lifting it off the counter to give Doyle leverage to raise his legs up.
It was a move worthy of an acrobat, one that impressed Bodie time and time again. Doyle bent his elbows to pull himself up by his hands and hooked both legs around Bodie's hips. Panting around the apple, Doyle dropped his head back, the picture of vulnerability and strength. His neck was long and bare, the one remaining peg quivering with every beat of his heart.
They'd worked the angles out on earlier forays, so Bodie didn't even have to aim to breech Doyle's puckered anus. One push that didn't force, waiting for Doyle to yield to his invasion. It felt like an eternity, that waiting, Bodie's whole being thrumming with the need to push inward. But he could be patient because this was Doyle, and Doyle was worth waiting for.
A second push as Doyle welcomed him in, and then he found his sanctuary, his special place where all things were possible and he was bound by his lover. Bodie thrust now, jamming Doyle up against the counter, losing all rational ability to hold back. He felt Doyle's legs tighten in response and let go entirely, vibrating with the power of his orgasm.
His heart pounding, Bodie came, a perfect climax for the end of the long day. It was almost too much work to prise his hands off Doyle's arse—he was sure he'd left bruises—so that Doyle could stand on legs as wobbly as a colt's.
"You look wrung dry, my son," Bodie said, as weak as his partner. He wanted to go to sleep right then, in his semen splattered jumper and trousers.
Doyle nodded, weary amusement evident in his eyes. He glanced up at his white knuckled fingers clamped onto the hook and knocked the apple out of his mouth with his tongue. The bite marks all the way around were almost deep enough to cut the fruit in two. "May never look at an apple the same again." His voice was rough with fatigue.
Very gently, Bodie reached up to loosen Doyle's fingers, and help him bend his arms.
"Shite." Doyle grimaced, hunching his strained shoulders. "Feels good in the moment, until…"
"You pull the other peg off?" Bodie asked innocently, releasing the small wooden clip.
"Sodding hell, Bodie!" Doyle exploded, slugging him just once in the arm before curving inward to rub his swollen tit. "Warn a person, would you?" He huffed noisily, pressing on his chest until the pain abated.
"What would be the fun of that?" Bodie put both thumbs up under Doyle's ears in that smooth, soft hollow, rubbing small circles. He knew exactly what would bring Doyle back down and into sleep. Like rubbing a cat behind its ears, he made Doyle purr and stretch languidly.
"Fun has nothing t'do…" Doyle arched his neck back with a smile of pure bliss. "Next time, then…warn me, yeah?"
"Next time?" Bodie indulged a victorious smile--had him again—and widened his circles to massage Doyle's neck.
"To the right, there…" Doyle groaned with pleasure. "Yeah, next time, you randy git."
Race day dawned gloriously sunny, the epitome of a British day in April. There were fluffy white clouds in the air and a feeling that all was right with the world. Nothing bad could happen when yellow daffodils were poking their blossoms through the grass towards the sun and lambs gamboled on every hillside.
Doyle yawned, having been up far too early after his energetic evening. Not that he was complaining, at all, except that his arse would ache and bruises twinge at the most inopportune times, reminding him all over again what he'd done in the kitchen of Bodie's flat.
He and Bodie had scrambled out of bed in the morning and thrown on clothes to get to Khorsandi's elegant Kensington abode in time to relieve Murphy. Luckily, it had been an uneventful night, but 6.2 was yawning widely when he and his partner went out the door to their car. Their only report was that they'd swept the flat for listening devices and came up with nowt. Breakfast was a rushed affair with Farook for companionship whilst his father made a series of phone calls to business colleagues all over the world.
"You like the races, Farook?" Bodie asked, tucking into eggs and sausage provided by a demure—and veiled—cook.
"I wanted to be a jockey!" Farook shovelled eggs into his mouth with lightning speed. "Father won't let me, not for people of our stature, he says. But I've ridden in fox hunts, and how different could it be to race 'round a course and jump a few hurdles?"
"Not as easy as it looks," Doyle put in. The eggs were tasty, but he eschewed the sausage, flat bread and jam. A bowl of early strawberries was just his style and they were easy to chew. His jaw ached more than he expected. The Persian style tea, strong, cinnamon flavoured chai with thick milk and lots of honey was an unexpected treat.
"But it's…" Farook paused, his dark eyes wide and excited. "Like flying, just brilliant!"
"First karate and then horse racing. Takes after you and me, Ray," Bodie said laconically as he speared the last sausage. "Thrill seeker. Thrives on adrenalin."
"Speak for yourself." Doyle smiled, content to banter with them all morning and sod going off to Sandown. "I prefer a sedentary life of inner reflection and scholarly pursuits." He made a soft fist, cupping it in his left hand and bowed in the proper style as if ready to begin a morning kata.
"Don't believe him for an instant." Bodie winked at the boy. "Doyle doesn't go a single day without some kind of outburst, and as for scholarly…"
"I'd far rather play cricket than read a book!" Farook drank deeply from his glass of chai.
Doyle eyed the woman putting the dishes in a top of the line dishwasher, her old fashioned black burka an abrupt contrast to the modern, stainless steel fridge, expensive cooker and fancy espresso machine on the spotless marble countertop. He realised he'd never seen Farook's mum, not even when he was picked up from karate lessons. "Is she your mother?" he asked at last, knowing better than to try and introduce himself to a veiled woman.
"That's Auntie Sharma." Farook shook his head, crunching on naan spread with crumbly feta cheese and jam. "She hardly ever talks to anyone but my parents, but she's a fantastic cook. Makes the best khoresh, lamb stew served on pollo, rice."
"I've had that." Bodie waved his fork in the general direction of the cooker as if there was some khoresh already simmering in a big pot. "More than once. Wouldn't pass by more!"
"There isn't much food you'd pass by," Doyle said dryly. "Where's your mum, then, Farook?"
"She doesn't like London. Said there's only so many times she can go to Harrods to buy clothing, so she's gone up to the house my uncle keeps in Newmarket with my younger brother and sisters."
"How many have you got?" Bodie asked, copying Farook's technique with feta and quince jam.
"Four sisters." Farook made a face, showing his opinion of the fairer sex. "And a little brother. He's only two."
"The chauffeur is waiting," Khorsandi said impatiently from the kitchen door.
Bodie burst out laughing, earning curious looks from the cook and Farook. Doyle wanted to punch him, and was wholly embarrassed when he felt a flush rise up his cheeks. Insufferable berk! He glared at his infantile partner. Chauffeur indeed.
"I want to arrive before Aladdin's Treasure is saddled," Khorsandi continued, obviously paying no attention to the ruckus his announcement had caused. "Ah, Farook, you are wearing the jockey's colours!"
Farook held out his arms to show off his purple and gold striped shirt. "Our horse has to win!"
"Aladdin and Dominic, his jockey, will both appreciate your support, my son." He planted a kiss on the boy's head and headed to the front door without checking to see that his bodyguards were following.
"I'll be following behind the Bentley in our car." Bodie smirked, taking Doyle's ill humour in stride. He grabbed some fruit from a bowl on the counter on the way out, juggling the orange and red spheres with surprising skill.
"You're really good!" Farook made a grab for one and Bodie tossed him a Satsuma.
"Ray, do you want an apple in case you get peckish later?" Bodie asked so innocently that butter wouldn't have melted in his mouth, tossing the two remaining ones like a circus performer.
Doyle snatched the apple out of the air, growling under his breath. Damn Bodie all to hell! He was going to milk this situation all day long when Doyle was in no position to retaliate. They had to focus on the perceived threat and keep watch over Khorsandi and Farook on a crowded race course.
"I've gone off apples." Doyle bared his teeth at his partner, watching Bodie's eyes grow wary. With a flick of wrist, Doyle lobbed the fruit back quickly enough that it hit Bodie square on the chest. "Sorry, mate…" Doyle shrugged, going after Farook triumphantly.
"Low blow, Raymond." Bodie chuckled, bringing up the rear. "Low blow!"
"Decent bit of 'orse flesh." Chico stayed far back from Aladdin's Treasure's legs, leaning against the door of the stall. Ever since hooligans had poured whisky down his throat and tossed him into the stable of a freaked out horse who'd nearly trampled him to death, he'd had a healthy respect for wickedly sharp hooves and iron horse shoes. "Think he looks a winner?"
"Spot on." Sid ran his right hand down Aladdin's sleek withers with naked longing in his eyes. "He's in prime condition and eager to race. Ran like a Grand Nationals champion this morning on the gallop."
"A real treat to have you here, Mr Halley." Dominic Albergheti stared up at his idol with stars in his eyes. Spare, black haired and dark eyed, he looked as Italian as his name implied, except for the purely Brummie accent. "Me dad used to talk about you all the time! Shame about you--"
"Your dad was a great jockey." Sid cut him off abruptly before he could finish the usual condolences.
Chico kept his mouth shut. There was a time when he might have interrupted, reminded the lad that Sid's amputation had been over two years ago and didn't need to be discussed further, but he'd learned not to fight Sid's battles. Sid was, for the most part, a solitary man who kept his emotions private. He simply no longer tolerated sympathy or pity.
"We raced beside each other many a cold, spitting morning. I expect you and Aladdin to win." Sid smiled affectionately when Aladdin nuzzled the back of his hand with velvety lips. "Make your father proud. Is he here?"
"Couldn't make it, but he'll be watching on the telly," Dominic said, giving Aladdin a pat. "Al's a runner, he'll do all the work. Putting down a wager?"
"I might, at that," Chico agreed. It wasn't often that he felt tall. Albergheti had to be nearly two inches shorter than he and Sid. Made him want to stretch up on his toes to increase the difference and have the heady feeling of looking down on another man. Idiot, he chided himself. "You guarantee I'll get a return on my quid?"
Dominic laid a finger alongside his nose and grinned. "Need to weigh in for my next race, riding Charlemagne." He sauntered off whistling a tune.
Inspecting the saddle and bridle for tampering or damage, Sid glanced over at Chico with exasperation. "Give my regards to Tomaso, Dominic."
"Who'd name a horse after the man who tried to conquer 'alf the world?" Chico mused idly, already bored. He preferred prowling the seating area, keeping watch for danger. Standing around guarding horses just left him feeling squirrelly. More Sid's side of the job, really.
"Did you duck out during your history lessons?" Sid rolled his eyes. "He wasn't exactly conquering the world, he was forcing Christianity on the so-called infidels."
"Much like the nuns did to me." Chico nodded. Abandoned at one week old on the doorstep of a convent on Barnes Road, he hadn't had Christianity shoved down his throat so much as had it instilled into his pores for the first sixteen years of his life. "What's the schedule for today, squire?"
"Keeping this expensive horse safe from all threats." Sid brushed off his hands, closing the door to the stall. "Mr Khorsandi should be arriving very soon. I expect those two you met yesterday…"
"Doyle and Bodie from CI5," Chico supplied.
"Are charged with keeping Khorsandi safe." Sid glanced across the stable yard to the far end of the racetrack. The first steeplechase of the day was just ending with a flurry of applause as six horses thundered over the finish line in quick succession. "Once Aladdin makes it to the starting gate unharmed and finishes the race, we're to ferry him back to Carson and Son Stables ourselves. His lad—" He used the term loosely since a pretty girl with wide hips and ginger curls attended to Aladdin's every need. "Kath will be staying with someone for the night instead of going back with the horse. I'll drive Aladdin in the van and you follow in my car on a circuitous route, hopefully throwing off the scent."
"And we'll stay in some out of the way B and B?" Chico asked casually. He liked the end of a job best of all, when they'd been paid and felt like they could splurge just a little. Sid might have a hefty bank account but he didn't throw his guineas around either.
Sid laughed out loud, pulling a packet of cigarettes out of his suit coat pocket with his false hand. "Chico, my son, your mind is in the gutter."
"Yeah, well, Sid-boy, yours must not be any better if you knew what I was thinking!" Chico bumped his hip against Sid's, the closest they came to intimacy when out in public. The smell of the spicy tobacco wafted past his nose when Sid took a drag on his cigarette.
"The steward has announced that the winners of the 3.2 meter race are as follows," a voice on the loudspeaker proclaimed to the crowd in the bandstand, "Tartle in first place, with Demelza's Rose in second and Skylark Fancy coming in third."
"Aw, better luck next time." Chico fished the betting slip for Demelza to win out of his green corduroy jacket pocket and ripped it in half, tossing the pieces in the dustbin. "Not paying a round at the local with that one."
"Save your money for Aladdin." Sid held the butt of his cig with thumb and forefinger, squinting wistfully through the smoke at the horses coming past the winner's circle. "Got good odds, but he's not the favourite, even after the win last week."
Checking out the bookmakers' boards, Chico assessed the 7 to 4 odds on Aladdin. He could make a tidy sum if he put fifty quid on the horse. He wasn't at all interested in Teacup Lady, who was winning races all over the country. Too predictable, sort of like wagering that the Queen Mum would wear an upturned hat with netting to Ascot.
"I'll take a quick butchers 'round the grandstand," Chico said. "Watch Charlemagne run down the infidels."
"We don't even know who to look out for," Sid complained, snuffing out his cig on the ground with the toe of one shoe.
"I know it ain't the trio CI5 took into custody." Chico shrugged cheerfully. "Cuts down the list of suspects by three."
"Optimism will get you far in life," Sid said, a slight smile playing on his lips. "But it doesn't win horse races."
"Ye of lit'le faith." Chico waved over his shoulder. "Meet you when it's time for Aladdin to go onto the course."
Brightly coloured buntings were flapping in a soft breeze above the grandstand and the crowd was festive at Sandown. The results of the second race were being announced as Bodie and Doyle accompanied Khorsandi and his son into the stable yard.
"Charlemagne wins by a nose!" the amplified voice from the loudspeaker proclaimed. "Results have been verified by the steward, all wagers may be paid out as follows: Charlemagne first place, Millstone second and Mouse Queen third."
"I read about that Charlemagne," Bodie said, craning his neck toward the flurry of activity as the horses came off the track. "Should have put a fiver on him."
"How long until the Francis Silver Cup race?" Doyle asked, alert for anything out of the ordinary or suspicious. He felt uneasy here. It had been a long time since he'd spent any time at all around horses, but the mingled scents of hay, manure and sweaty horse brought back memories of the summer he was fifteen.
"One hour," Khorsandi said, one hand on his son's shoulder. "Farook, look how magnificent Aladdin looks. He has the strength of a lion, the heart of a champion."
Doyle turned to see a small woman with masses of ginger curls leading a splendid chestnut horse out of a stall. Aladdin was a classic thoroughbred, with long, narrow legs that seemed far too spindly to hold up that much animal, but obviously built for speed. There was power in that proud chest and determination in the horse's dark eyes. He tossed his head, feeling the bit as if ready to race even before he'd been led into the starting gate.
"What a beauty." Doyle whistled softly, drawn to the animal. "May I touch him?"
"Stay away from the teeth, mate, looks like he could bite," Bodie said, his eyes always roving, alert for possible menace.
"Of course, Mr Doyle." Khorsandi smiled benevolently when Doyle ran his palm down the horse's warm flanks. "He is the best horse I've ever owned. Intelligent and as fast as the wind."
Aladdin blew out his nose, giving Doyle a look that said, "back off, I'm primed to race now." Doyle laughed, stroking the horse's neck one last time, almost wishing he could put a leg up and take a trot around the track. Memories from 1960 flooded him, the escape from the disharmony of his teen years into the tranquility of horses and a day spent mucking out stalls. It had been decent money and he'd learned quickly that he wasn't anywhere near good enough to be a jockey.
"Al's smashing!" Farook exclaimed. "May I feed him an apple, Father?"
"Not until afterward, my son. The stewards keep strict eye on his weight." Khorsandi crossed his arms, walking critically around the stallion. "How has he been eating, Kath? How was the morning work-out?"
"I rode him myself," said a small, spare man, as he came out of the stable. Fairly unremarkable looking, he wore a gray suit with a blue tie and a trilby hat, and was smoking a cigarette. His left hand was tucked out of sight in his jacket pocket.
Kath ducked her head against Aladdin. "Looked a treat in the gallop. Mr 'Alley knows just how to keep him in line."
Doyle had seen a photograph of the famous jockey. In colourful silks, astride one of the Queen's favourites, he'd been determined and focused. Dressed like any other race-goer in a grey suit and trilby hat, he seemed mild and unassuming. Which was probably his most valuable asset. He could blend into a crowd.
"That's marvelous, Mr Halley." Khorsandi beamed, beckoning him forward. "These gentlemen are Bodie and Doyle from CI5, sent to keep us from harm. I feel safe as…what is it you British say…as a home?"
"Safe as houses," Bodie said with a smirk. "Which may not exactly be apropos on a racecourse, but nobody'll get past us."
"Horses for courses a better proverb when out of your element?" Halley smiled benignly, snuffing out his cigarette.
Aladdin neighed loudly, as if protesting the smoke, and Kath walked him around the yard on a lead.
"Nasty habit, I should give it up," Sid said, his dark eyes sizing up Bodie and Doyle. "Chico said you two gave as good as you got yesterday."
"Some hooligans came after the boy." Bodie was doing an equal job of measuring Sid's worth. "Didn't take much to dust the floor with them. Your little Barnes has a good right on him."
Like a couple of dogs sniffing each others' arses. Doyle leaned against the fence with forced casualness, letting them get out their macho posturing. There'd be enough to go around. "Halley, have you heard any specific threats against the horse?"
"Nothing at all," Halley said seriously.
"Father, will you buy me an ice cream?" Farook asked, already bored with the adult talk. He pointed back toward the grandstand where the food sellers had set up small stalls.
Doyle was beginning to think they should have brought reinforcements. Even counting Halley and Barnes, four people to guard against an unknown foe in a place this size was madness. Sandown was packed with people. Knots of men and women crowded the entire length of the pavement between the grandstand and the track where the third race was just getting under way. Bookies took last minute bets, race fans pushed up to the fence to get a good look at their favourites and hundreds of holidaymakers had just come out for a fun day of sun and horses.
"In a short while, my heart," Khorsandi said. "I want to be thorough with the preparations for the race."
"I'd be 'appy to nip over for some cold refreshment." Chico appeared out of the crowd, his usual happy-go-lucky smile as good a façade as his partner's ability to blend in. He threw a friendly arm around Farook. "Although, Sid'll 'ave to show us Lady Godiva first." He held out his palm, wiggling his fingers.
"Who's she?" Farook asked.
Bodie laughed, humming the old pop song by Peter and Gordon until Doyle glared him to silence. He winked cheekily, taking a casual stroll past the famous horse to eye the crowds.
"My hand is never out of my pocket," Sid groused, pulling out a fiver. "Mr Khorsandi's got a box upstairs, do you want us to watch the race from there?" He glanced over at Kharistani man.
"Yes, exactly, that would be best for all, I suspect." Khorsandi waved a hand at the expensive, private boxes on the top of the grandstand. "We'll have lunch served there, Farook. Don't eat too much ice cream."
"Should I say the same to you?" Sid smiled at Chico.
Doyle caught the fondness in that smile. He suspected strongly that Halley and Barnes were as close as he and Bodie were. He hadn't met too many other partners that he suspected of being—well, partners—but society was slowly advancing out of the dark ages where buggery was punishable by death. He doubted, however, that a man like Khorsandi, even with all his enlightened views of the west, would condone such behaviour. Kharistan most definitely had stricter laws about such things than England, where homosexuality had been legal since the late '60s. Which meant that Doyle and Bodie would keep mum on their private affairs, as they'd always done.
With his butt and nipples still smarting from the activities the night before, Doyle was having a hard time keeping his mind on the here and now. He very much wanted more of the night's pleasures, but he and Bodie were going to curtail their play for the rest of the week until Khorsandi and his horse were out of danger. He didn't even care to dwell on what Sid and Chico might do in their off-time, and whether it involved taking off Halley's prosthetic arm?
Doyle shook himself sharply to rid himself of such thoughts and realised that he was staring at the lump in Halley's left jacket pocket. He cleared his throat, annoyed at the woolgathering.
Seeing Bodie talking quietly with Khorsandi and Halley, Doyle joined Kath walking the horse in a circle. "I spent some time around a stable, wanted to be a stable boy for a bit," he said. "Do you travel everywhere with him, do all his care?"
"Yeah," she said, revealing a Northern accent. "Only not this evenin'. Mr. 'Alley's going to drive the van back, whilst I spend some time with me boyfriend."
Her, as well. Love was most definitely in the air. At least Kath's romance was recognised by society. "Who's the lucky gent, then?" Doyle asked, laughing when Aladdin nudged his shoulder and bumped his nose against Doyle's arm as if looking for something.
"His name's Sam," she said, a pink tinge brightening her cheeks and clashing with her hair. "He's a student at university. We don't get 'alf enough time together, so I'm chuffed. Mr Khorsandi's paying for dinner and everything." Kath playfully swatted Aladdin. "Get off, you cart horse. 'E's got nothing for you."
"Fine way to treat a winning thoroughbred." Doyle scratched the soft place around Aladdin's ears. It was almost comical to see a horse as large as Aladdin practically purr with contentment.
"Al wants apples. He can't get enough." Kath glanced over at the far end of the racecourse.
Five horses thundered down the straightway, went over the hurdle one after the other like so many ripples on a snake's back, and raced for the next jump. A roar of approval went up from the audience in the grandstand as the odds on favourite, Sixpenny Sal, flew over the shrubbery obstacle ahead of the pack and stretched out for the final lap to the finish line.
"Oi!" Doyle stifled a groan. Even the horse was in on Bodie's joke. "I had an apple earlier, he must smell it on me. Did you meet your Sam at uni?"
"I 'aven't got the smarts like him." She smiled indulgently, pushing her red curls off her forehead. "I know about 'orses, that's all. Sam, he's got his maths, all sorts of difficult classes. We met at a party for Aladdin. He was one of the guests, a friend of a friend, I think."
"Miss Devlin!" Khorsandi called. "Time to take Aladdin into the saddling enclosure."
"Got to work, see you later." Kath waved. She led the big horse away, joining the queue of horses entered in the Richard Francis Silver Cup race.
Since this was the big draw of the day, newspaper reporters and photographers pressed in close to get shots of the thoroughbreds and their jockeys. In the midst of rainbow-bright jockey shirts, Doyle could just make out a small dark haired man wearing purple and gold silks—Khorsandi's colors—and carrying a brown saddle. He placed it over Aladdin's withers, bending down to secure the straps with Kath's help. It all looked on the up and up.
"Chatting up the young ladies, I see," Bodie said from behind.
"What's it to you?" Doyle smiled at the possessiveness in Bodie's tone. Few others would hear it, but he did, and it caused all sorts of funny things to happen in his chest.
"Not a tuppence, Raymond." Bodie elbowed him in the ribs, his eyes glittering with mischief. "Glad to see you making new friends. We're all up to Khorsandi's private box to watch Aladdin run and then eat lunch." He started ahead, to catch up with Halley and Khorsandi. Farook and Chico joined the other men, both licking their ice creams.
"Hard to see anyone in particular in this crowd," Doyle commented, taking in the milling throngs of people between races. "Especially when we haven't a clue who to look for." A swirl of wind brought with it the scents of warm, sweaty horseflesh and a hint of Guinness from the bar they were passing.
"I've been giving a bit of thought to that. What stands out in your mind about the two Mohammeds and Hamidi?" Bodie asked over his shoulder, although his eyes were on Khorsandi.
"Without reading the transcripts of the interrogation?" Doyle tried to filter out all the distractions of the race goers, focusing his mind on the Duck cousins. "All under twenty- five at a guess, possibly not as trained or organised as we'd assumed, but surprisingly knowledgeable about Khorsandi's personal schedule."
"You just might make an operative yet, my lad." Bodie waggled a finger at him, holding open the door to the staircase that led to the upper viewing boxes. The others were already clomping up the steps, chattering about the race.
"Every single incident when someone was endangered, including an assault on Mrs Khorsandi and both threats to Farook were—" Doyle paused, not sure how to phrase it so that it didn’t sound like he was making specious connections. "Although all three were in public, only one was planned in advance. The incident outside Harrods seemed almost spur of the moment."
Bodie frowned. "What are you talking about?"
"The reason Mrs K took off north rather than spend her days perusing gold fabric at Harrods," Doyle said. "Khorsandi mentioned it in Cowley's office." He was surprised to see his partner's face go slack for a moment before Bodie grimaced. "A couple of cretins accosted her as she was going into the store, tried to grab her. We might have someone show Mrs K pictures of the Mohammeds to see if it was them. One of the green coat security blokes stopped it almost before it started."
"Damn," Bodie said faintly, going up the stairs. "I'd forgotten that."
Doyle almost got the impression that Bodie hadn't even known but he refrained from saying so.
"Excuse me?" A small, stout woman with skin like chocolate milk stopped in the hallway across from the door to the Khorsandi box, one hand on a cart laden with serving trays. "May I? I've got the starters."
"Don't mind if I do." Bodie grinned wolfishly at her, taking a cheese puff from the top tray. He popped it in his mouth.
"Leave off!" she said sharply, looking like she wanted to smack his hand. "That's for them that pays the bills."
"And I don't, my lady?" Bodie bowed as if in the presence of royalty and pushed the door open for her. "We're the security detail."
"Ignore him, my darling, he was obviously brought up in a stable." Doyle shuffled aside to give her room. The cheese puffs looked delicious, as well as the slices of cucumber topped with smoked salmon.
"May I have s'mmore?" Bodie widened his eyes and cupped his hands like Oliver requesting seconds on gruel.
Sid Halley glanced their way before he went over to the large window that stretched the whole length of the gallery.
"Don't know where you put it." Doyle preceded Bodie into the suddenly crowded room. There were more people inside than he'd expected, not counting the serving girl with the cart and a black-coated head waiter. Khorsandi was hugging a bearded younger man who shared Farook's glossy black hair and skin tone. A relative?
"Wish we'd actually had time to read up on his family and employees?" Bodie breathed against his ear, stripping away all Doyle's defenses. "Makes me feel like we didn't do our homework."
"Cowley will rap your knuckles with a ruler," Doyle said, battening down his arousal. Bloody damned time for it to come roaring to the forefront. "Wager a guess he's the younger brother from Oxford?"
"Can't." Bodie mimed pulling out empty pockets. "Put down a wad on Aladdin while you were chatting up Kath. There's a dinner in it for you if I win." He winked lecherously, which did nothing for the state of Doyle's mounting desire.
"Talk to me when you have actual portraits of the Queen." Doyle turned deliberately away from his too inviting partner and held out a hand to the newcomer. "Your brother, Mr Khorsandi?" he said over the babble of voices in the room.
"Yes, yes! Ramen has surprised me this morning!" Khorsandi broke into a huge grin. "I didn't expect him, but the more the merrier. We have plenty for lunch."
"And as an impoverished student, I am always hungry." Ramen's smile seemed forced next to his brother's expansive one.
This is Mr Doyle and Mr Bodie," Khorsandi continued, stroking his beard. "As well as Mr Sid Halley, who once won the Grand National, and his associate Mr Barnes, to watch Aladdin's Treasure."
There were handshakes and greetings all around.
"You've got minders now, Karim?" Ramen commented, speculation in his eyes. He nodded genially. Whereas Khorsandi was always dressed to the nines in western suits and ties, Ramen seemed to be making a statement with his loose pale blue Kharistani-style tunic and cotton trousers. He sported a small crocheted cap on the back of his head. "Ex-jockeys for the horse are one thing but I didn't realise my older brother rated so highly in Her Majesty's secret service."
How did he know? Doyle claimed a chair at the table, silently inspecting the location for vulnerabilities and access points. There was only one main door, a huge bank of windows overlooking the racetrack and a small alcove for the bar and food prep. Actually, one of the easier rooms to defend he'd worked in a long time. Unless a sniper had a really long range rifle scope, it would be impossible to shoot through the large windows, and with only one way out, it was child's play to monitor who was coming and going. He only hoped the meal hadn't been poisoned.
"Not quite in the league of Reilly, ace of spies," Bodie said lightly. "We're just civil servants doin' our job. This does rate above the usual dross, going to the races and hobnobbing with the hoi polloi."
"What does that mean?" Farook bounced on the balls of his feet, peering out the large plate glass window overlooking the entire racecourse.
"Rich and snobby." Chico grinned, leaning against the window so that he was in easy reach of the cheese puffs and drinks being set up at a small bar. He snatched a few morsels from the tray and tossed one of them at Halley who caught it deftly in his right hand. Chico popped another into his mouth. "Not the likes of us, mate!"
Farook laughed. "Not Uncle Ramen, either. He's always doing his figures and nothing much else."
Khorsandi clucked his tongue, a mild scolding. "Farook, respect your elders." He sat down at the head of the table, a proud man sharing his abundance.
Doyle found that contrary to what he'd expected, he was liking Khorsandi more and more. This was a man who wanted to get on with life. Not be challenged by thugs who got in his way and ruined his plans for his family and the future.
"But what's this all about?" Ramen persisted. "Why is your lot interested in the affairs of a man from Kharistan who owns a race horse?"
"Ramen, not now," the older man chided. Something dark and angry crossed his face for a moment but he shook it off. "There were some difficulties yesterday, but they were dealt with."
Farook opened his mouth to say something and Chico stuffed a cheese puff in, to the boy's surprise.
"Let your da have his day," Chico murmured with a sweet smile.
"This is a party, not an inquisition," Khorsandi continued, smacking the table a bit too forcefully. The cutlery clattered against the china. "We're here to celebrate Aladdin. Business is for next week." He took a cucumber slice from the serving dish and held it up. "You see, delicious food, good company and a good race."
Ramen held up his hands in amused surrender. "I only wanted to spend time with family, not start a revolution."
Below them, the jockeys were mounting their horses, the splashes of color from their shirts like so many flowers strewn across the jewel green lawn bordering the course.
"There's Aladdin!" Farook practically plastered himself to the glass.
Bodie took sentry duty on the other side of the tray of starters, pinching a glass of sparkling wine before the sommelier had emptied the bottle into the other glasses. The chocolate skinned waitress gave him a withering glare, whisking the tray of wine glasses around to the other guests.
"What do you study?" Sid Halley accepted a glass of wine using his prosthesis, holding the elegant stemware carefully between two blunt plastic fingers.
It was the first time Doyle had actually seen Halley's false hand, and he found himself wanting to ask all sorts of probing questions. Which was probably exactly why the ex-jockey chose to do it in a room full of people; got it out in the open, questions over with all in one go. He undoubtedly found it a tiresome chore to be constantly badgered about the injury that had ended his career.
"Economics, finance, that sort of thing," Ramen answered politely, waving the waitress with her wine glasses away with a moue of distaste.
"I've had some modest successes with stocks. I'd be interested to hear your views on the market." Halley sipped his wine with appreciation.
Despite the young man's friendliness, there was something off about him that Doyle couldn't put his finger on. Possibly just that Ramen seemed rankled by his brother's bonhomie and western ways.
"Champagne, Karim?" Ramen asked in a withering tone. "Not within the tenets of the Koran."
That single comment silenced the excited pre-race chatter in the room. Ramen didn't look the least bit embarrassed with all of them staring at him.
"I keep my own counsel with Allah," Khorsandi replied, but his dark eyes were stormy. "There is sparkling water for those who do not wish to imbibe. Miss, please bring my brother a bottle of Perrier."
"Yes, sir!" The waitress bobbed a curtsey and hurried off to fetch the drink.
Bodie glanced over at Doyle, the speculation in his lifted brows easily read. Was Ramen simply an arsehole or was there something more to his stirring the pot?
"Look, Father!" Farook was so close to the window that he steamed up the glass. "The race is about to begin!"
The rest of them crowded around the boy, the better to see the six horses lined up in the starting gate. A man in a tall black hat nodded solemnly from the sidelines and raised his starting gun in the air. The retort was muted inside their skybox. The horses surged ahead en mass. Aladdin broke away from the pack within seconds, gaining and keeping the lead as if it was his God-given right. None of the other horses had the wherewithal to take it from him, although several tried. He seemed to fly down the turf, his hooves barely touching the ground. With Dominic Albergheti crouched like a purple and gold beetle on his back, Aladdin launched himself effortlessly into the air, floating above the open ditch, and down on the other side as lightly as a feather. The horses trailing behind were an afterthought, hardly worthy of thought except to those unlucky race goers who had bet on one of them.
Bodie pounded Doyle on the back as if his enthusiasm could influence the outcome of the race. Doyle laughed, caught up in the excitement. He hadn't bet a farthing, but that wouldn't make Aladdin's victory any less sweet.
"C'mon!" Chico shouted, pumping a fist. "Aladdin!"
Sid Halley leaned forward, nearly as close to the glass as Farook and his father were, both of his hands raised like he was holding the reins in his left with a short quirt in his right. "Over you go…" he murmured.
"You are my prize, Aladdin, win this!" Khorsandi whispered.
Teacup Lady, lately the favourite, nipped once or twice at Aladdin's heels, but she didn't have his astonishing power. He was a length in front of her over the next hurdle, although she gained a few strides when he faltered in an awkward landing beyond the water obstacle. Teacup's little gain didn't help in the end. Aladdin plowed over the finish line, his long sleek body stretched taut as a bowstring, nostrils wide as if the scent of victory urged him onward.
"Aladdin's Treasure wins the Richard Francis Silver Cup!" the announcer declared over the loudspeaker, almost drowned out by the shouts of joy in Khorsandi's box.
"We won!" Farook gleefully leapt onto the table, and no-one had the heart to contain his joy. "We won! Father, are we rich now?" He did a little jig, overturning a few salt and pepper shakers.
"Twenty thousand pounds richer, at any rate." Chico raised a glass of champagne above his head. "Here's to Aladdin!"
"Three cheers!" the rest of party cried out.
Farook threw his arms around his father, laughing with delight. Khorsandi grabbed a bottle from the bar, splashing Cuvee Paradis into glasses with abandon. Even the waiter and waitress got their share. The names of the horses coming in second and third were completely ignored in the celebration.
"Albergheti and Aladdin made it look bloody easy," Halley said, downing his wine. "An' that course isn't a walk in the park."
"You win 'ere, did you?" Chico winked at his partner, with an easy camaraderie that bespoke of an old joke between friends.
"Before you were in long pants, unrepentant git." Halley smiled.
Doyle sipped his champers, glancing over at Ramen as he clinked his bottle of fizzy water against his older brother's glass. "Did you put down a bet, Ramen?"
"I prefer to limit my investments to more weightier concerns than common wagering," Ramen replied, sipping his water. "It's a drug for the masses."
"An offshoot of his studies." Khorsandi patted Ramen's arm. "He doesn't fit in time for play. Come, my son," he said to Farook. "We'll go greet Aladdin and Dominic in the winner's enclosure."
"And get our pictures taken?" Farook asked excitedly.
Doyle glued himself to Khorsandi's hip, expecting any threat to come in this most public setting, when the man—and the horse—would be on display. Bodie and Chico collected their winnings, holding up the rear guard, and Halley stayed next to Aladdin as the steward placed a hoop of silvery violet roses around Aladdin's neck. There were photographs, many hands to shake, and a quiet interview with a racing commentator for the BBC, but very quickly, it was on to the next race. The Khorsandis returned to the box for the post-race meal.
Doyle was beginning to wonder if they'd overestimated the danger to Aladdin and his owner. This all seemed entirely too easy.
The lamb was cooked to pink perfection, the new carrots accented with ginger, and the cheese course delightful. The Stilton and double Gloustershire were tributes to the British dairy industry.
Bodie placed another bit of cheese on a piece of crunchy French bread and poured himself more of the heavenly after-dinner claret. He contemplated a second slice of the gateau chocolat but he'd already eaten far too much. And possibly drunk more than optimal for being on duty—but then, again, he'd only downed three glasses of wine, plus a few celebratory sips of champagne. Hardly worth worrying about, especially when the day had gone so splendidly. There was a thick roll of notes in his pocket and a sort of decadent lassitude in his limbs.
Having decided to wait until the bulk of the racing public had vacated the stands and most of the other horses had left the stable yard, Khorsandi's party lingered at the table. Sid Halley and Ramen were engaged in an intense discussion of the European commodities market, primarily the price of bacon, which went completely over Bodie's head. Barnes had taken his turn guarding Aladdin in his stable while the other horses were loaded into their horse trailers. Bodie gave half an ear to Ramen's disgust with the state of British economics, dividing his time between joking with Farook and admiring Doyle.
Slouched against the bar, running his finger absently around the rim of his empty glass, Doyle was beautiful. He was listening to Khorsandi's point by point recap of the race with a lazy smile, the curve of his cheekbone enticing in the late afternoon light, shafts of sun dancing in his riotous curls. Bodie kept picturing his captive in the kitchen, arms pinioned over his head, eyes closed in blissful submission. He wanted so much more of that. Not just because he relished the feel of Doyle's naked skin under his hands, but because being with Doyle made him supremely happy.
"The distribution of wealth in a capitalistic society is—and always will be—an inverted pyramid," Ramen said, rapping his fingers on the table. There was an almost fanatical fire in him, driven to deliver the message. "Unless money is divided more equally among the masses, the division between rich and poor gives an unfair advantage to those in power."
"But you just said yourself that the stock exchange is available to all." Halley sat back in his chair, outwardly calm, unruffled by Ramen's intensity. "You can't have it both ways, Ramen. Either there are those who handle the finances and those who are employed by them, or we have basically a communist government. And I have to say that I never thought it worked all that well for Russia and China."
Doyle stood up straighter, obviously catching the tail end of the conversation. "Are you proposing a classless society with material wealth distributed based on need?" he asked with interest.
"I'm not a philosopher to bandy about abstract ideologies." Ramen frowned, his brow furrowed. "It's time the existing governments reassessed their policies."
"So where do you take a stand? Classical Marxist?" Doyle glanced over at Bodie with a fiendish glee. "Or a more socialist system?"
Daft sod, he did enjoy this kind of baiting. Bodie crossed his arms, only able to avoid grinning by biting the inside of his cheeks.
"Smorgasbord approach," Halley said with a sly smile. "A little bit of all to spice the pot."
"Your partner was very pleased with this assignment, was he not?" Ramen asked Doyle coldly. "All this conspicuous consumption? Twenty thousand pounds simply because a horse won a race."
"Ramen, remember where you are!" Khorsandi grunted, displeasure thickening his accent. He launched into Farsi with a scolding tone.
Since the older man never used any of the five phrases Bodie had by memory, he couldn't decipher one word in ten, but it was quite apparent that Ramen was getting the equivalent of "you eat my food, don't complain about how much it cost." Farook had been asleep with his head pillowed on a pile of napkins. He woke up during his father's tirade and listened sleepily, sucking on his bottom lip.
"I'd better be on my way," Ramen said, glancing at his watch.
"No mocking intended," Halley spoke up. "I quite relish a chance to dig into the finer points of financial politics."
"I have classes in the morning," Ramen said stiffly, resentment stiffening his spine. "I cannot graduate if I don't attend class."
"A true scholar." Khorsandi waved a hand at his brother proudly. "Have you called our mother lately? Spoken to her?"
"I intend to, but the price of a call to Kharistan is astronomical…" Ramen sighed.
"A little consideration to your mother." He pulled out some money, pressing several notes into his brother's hand. "Call her."
"Of course." Ramen gave him a slightly mocking bow and pushed out of the door.
The boy was lacking in social skills, that was for certain. But why exactly show up unannounced? Simply to spend time with family, as he'd claimed? He'd been quite hostile for someone visiting a brother. Bodie made a mental note to check up on Ramen's classes, as well as Khorsandi's secretary, and any other person with access to Khorsandi's life. Doyle was right, whoever was waiting for the opportunity to disrupt the merger with Albion Oil must be watching the family closely.
"My turn, as well." Sid Halley stood, snuffing out the butt of his cigarette. "Looks like most of the cars have left the car park, and there's less chance of a covert attack with fewer people around. I'll rendezvous with Chico, and he'll be following the horse van in his car down to the stables."
"You'll be taking a circuitous route?" Bodie asked.
"Yeah, yeah." Halley smiled benignly. He pulled a folded paper out of his jacket pocket. "S'ppose it doesn't hurt to show the two of you the directions."
"Take you about two hours?" Doyle asked after perusing the map. He glanced over his shoulder at Bodie, tracing his finger along the M25 motorway to a much smaller dual carriageway. "Looks like you have a couple of roads to chose, should things get dicey."
"The trip is longer, but without unwanted interference." Halley tucked his false hand into his jacket pocket once again, reaching out to shake his employer's hand. "I'll get your horse to his evening oats, sir."
"You must call me when you arrive so that I know Aladdin is safe." Khorsandi shook Halley's hand gratefully. "Come, Farook, I know you were bored with the adult conversation. It is time to depart. I've had the Bentley called to meet us at the entrance."
"Will we have class this Tuesday evening, Sensei?" Farook bounced to his feet, nearly knocking over the bottle of Coca-cola he'd been drinking.
"Unless he has to work late," Bodie put in. Or I have other plans for the lad, he thought privately. In all likelihood, they'd be caught up in the last minute preparations for the meeting between Khorsandi and Albion Oil on Wednesday morning.
Doyle's eyes cut over to Bodie as if he knew exactly what Bodie had in mind. "If I have to beg off, Farook, Arthur is usually able to pitch in."
"Arthur doesn't let us spar the way you do!" Farook took a proper stance, fists cocked, the right one held palm up, the left palm down, ready to take on all comers.
"You'll be awarded your brown," Doyle reminded, bowing in the Japanese style. "You'll outrank nearly all the boys in our dojo."
"Well done! Chico could use the practice, you should challenge him." Halley patted Farook on the shoulder as he went out the door.
Sid Halley had always felt the most comfortable around horses—and by extension, racetracks. He'd ridden at Sandown many, many times in his years as a jockey, so walking through the nearly empty concourse brought back fond memories. He kept his eyes open, glad of the familiar faces of lingering jockeys and trainers. He knew these people. They didn't look out of place or likely to come after Aladdin.
He never second guessed a client, certainly not one who had had the troubles that Karim Khorsandi did, but he was beginning to doubt any threat to Aladdin. The day had been fun and uneventful. He smiled in anticipation of an evening spent in the bed and breakfast with Chico. Maybe a nice dinner at an upscale pub, as well. Although, after the excellent lunch Khorsandi had served, he doubted there were many places in Epsom that would top the perfectly prepared lamb and outstanding wines. He'd have to remember to tell his ex-father-in-law about the '67 Chateau Crane Noir they'd drunk with the cheese. Charles never could pass up a chance to buy a superb wine, and he was wealthy enough to purchase an entire case.
Sid could see out into the middle of the racetrack, where just a few cars were left in the car park. He picked out the brown Cortina Estate with a wide yellow stripe along the side that he and Chico shared. A few lanes away, Ramen Khorsandi was standing next to an unremarkable black Volkswagen, talking to a man in a flat checked cap. Kath, Aladdin's groom, stood nearby beside a small blue Vauxhall. Her distinctive hair was blowing back like a flame in the later afternoon wind. Interesting. He hadn't realised Ramen knew anyone in the racing business.
Sid turned at the sound of Chico's voice, walking swiftly past the jockey's weighing-in room to the stable yard. A young lad with a pockmarked face crossed in front of him, leading a sorrel mare up a ramp into one of three horse vans parked beyond the building.
Chico sucked in a lungful of smoke, cupping his palm around his cig in the habit of someone accustomed to hiding the lit end from prying eyes. The smoke curled above his head in a cheerful spiral as he peeled himself off the side wall of the stable. "Beginning to think you'd forgotten all about me and the sheik."
"The sheik?" Sid plucked the butt from Chico and inhaled the last pungent burst of tobacco. The nicotine went straight to his head, and so did the thought that Chico's lips had just touched the same cigarette.
"Hey! Pinched me last one, you did." Chico made a swipe for it before Sid snuffed the fag out in a bucket of sand. "And if you must know, Sheik, Aladdin, kind of a thousand and one nights connection."
"You must think you're clever," Sid deadpanned, trying to hide the smile he got whenever he was with his partner. He knew he could be a morose bastard on his own. A tendency to dwell on the negative combined with a job that frequently brought to light what should have stayed hidden under a rock had provided many a depressing evening snuggled up to a bottle of whisky. But Chico made him happy—it was as simple as that. Even if they'd never come together as lovers, he would have had reason to thank Chico Barnes from the bottom of his heart.
Life after his accident, when he'd gone head first over his mount's ears, hitting the ground just as several tonnes of horseflesh came over the hurdle and landed squarely on his hand, had been hell. He hadn't wanted to face life without racing, couldn't even conceive of the notion. He'd seen an advert for a karate class pinned up outside the office where he had physiotherapy—and with some unacknowledged sense that he needed to get out of himself--gone to the class.
Sid would never be much more than a lowly yellow belt at his best, but he found a life-long friend in the teacher: optimistic, ever-genial Chico. Who came with a skill set not limited to katas and zanshin. Chico knew his way around a lock pick and the seamier side of town far better than someone raised in a convent should. Which had proved quite useful once they launched Trackdown.
"The horse van's out there just past the end of the stable. It's the one…"
"With the blue trim and the number plate GP87 ZJK?" Sid finished with a smirk, walking into the darkened stable to unhook Aladdin's lead rope from the wall. "I know, I know. Get on your bike, Chico, and keep peddling. We'll meet up at the junction to the M25. Keep right behind me when you can, but I don't anticipate any difficulties."
Chico reared back, his mouth in a comical O, eyes so wide Sid could see the white all the around the blue. "You've nearly given me an 'eart attack!" he exclaimed, clutching his chest like a panto actor. "Sid 'Alley lookin' on the bright side? Pigs must be flapping their tiny wings in space."
"You do go on." Sid snorted inelegantly, leading the chestnut horse out of the stall. Aladdin whinnied softly, bumping his head against Sid's shoulder and then his pocket obviously searching for something.
Laughing, Sid brought out the apple he'd filched from the fruit plate. "Kath told me about you." He held out the fruit to let Aladdin crunch it from the flat of his hand.
"Treats for the 'orse but not for me?" Chico groused. "Stingy bastard."
"Think I'd forget you?" Sid lobbed the second apple over his shoulder, confident that Chico would catch anything he'd thrown.
"Got a tenner for petrol as well?" Chico called as Sid walked Aladdin towards the horse vans.
"You backed a winning horse, you must have a few quid in your trousers," Sid responded, looking back just as Chico, munching his apple, disappeared in the direction of the car park.
It would have been more fun to have Chico along for the ride to keep him company. But as often happened with a two man job, one had to hang back to provide coverage for the other.
Aladdin nudged Sid's left arm hard enough to jar his heavy prosthesis out of his pocket, blowing air through his nostrils.
"No, I don't have anything more for you." Sid smiled fondly, stroking the big animal's warm flank. He gripped the horse's rope with his artificial hand to unlatch the gate on the van, hoping that Aladdin wasn't one of those horses who balked at climbing in and out. He didn't recall Kath or Khorsandi saying anything about that, but there was always the unknown quantity—that having a stranger load him in would be too unsettling.
Aladdin tossed his head when presented with the loading ramp and nickered in annoyance, but after the token protest, clomped up the incline docilely enough. Sid sighed with relief, pleased when he easily unclamped his false hand from the rope. There had been a time when he was sure he'd never master the supposedly easy integration of mind and muscles to control what Chico called his bionic arm. He no longer had to concentrate on the mechanisms involved and had accepted the metal and plastic as part of himself.
Giving Aladdin a last pat, Sid stepped off the edge of the horse van. Something solid slammed into his head and he went face first onto the gravelly ground, stunned. Shockwaves of pain swamped him, shards of red and purple wavering in his vision. He squinted, getting partial glimpses of black jumpers and caps. Gathering his shredded senses, Sid swung out with his left arm. Although an awkward angle with the bulk of the van to his back and the ramp to his right, he felt the impact up to his shoulder as the metal limb smacked against something soft and yielding.
A yelp of pain and a garbled growl of rage followed, not quite British, but in English. Booted feet tromped around him, tossing away the ramp with a clang that reverberated in his ears, drowning out what little of their words he could make out.
Where was Chico? Had he gotten away?
Lashing out, Sid tried to clamp his metal hand onto a leg or an arm, but rough hands shoved him brutally into the rock-strewn roadway, grinding him down. He heard Aladdin's shrill scream of alarm just before a kick to his ribs knocked the breath out of him. He collapsed, fighting unconsciousness.
Head swimming, Sid lurched to his knees just as the van's engine roared to life with a blast of heat against the skin of his face from the exhaust. Sod the buggers! They were stealing the horse!
He wavered, senses in a jumble, the stink of burnt petrol cramping his already tight chest. The van accelerated quickly, spewing gravel into his open mouth as he fell.
Chico had an unsettled nerviness in his belly. Even from this distance, the Cortina looked all wrong, alone in the car park. It was sitting far too low. Didn't take a garage mechanic to see that at least two of the tyres were soft.
Acid rushing up his throat, Chico reversed direction, sprinting up the passageway to cross over into the grandstand area again. Sid!
A rash of delays slowed their departure until Doyle thought he'd have to put his foot down and insist Khorsandi get a move on. First there had been the doling out of tips to the wait staff, followed by a gob fest with a couple of track stewards and then a statement to a patient reporter from the Sporting News. Lastly, Farook would start begging for another ice cream.
"Khorsandi's car ready?" Doyle asked sotto-voce when Bodie came back from fetching the Capri. The afternoon sun was low in the sky, clouds scudding past quickly in the brisk wind, threatening a return of the rain. He didn't really want to be out on a wet evening yet again. Plus, he could feel something was off, something that niggled at the back of his brain.
"Yeah, chauffeur's awake and happy with his packet of winnings. Got the engine running. Why the aggro?"
"Got a itch I can't scratch." Doyle shook himself and saw the figure down the concourse in the direction of the stables. "There's Chico!" Sure that something was seriously wrong from Barnes' speed, Doyle took off after him. "Stay with Khorsandi!" he yelled, seeing Bodie shove the Kharistani man back toward the building.
Legs churning, Doyle couldn't ignore the random thoughts tumbling through his brain. Where was Halley? Maybe Chico forgot something? Would he and Bodie have been able to hear a gunshot all the way over in the stewards' offices where Khorsandi had been talking to the reporter?
The stable yards looked nearly deserted, except for an old gent shovelling manure out of an empty stall. Doyle pursued Chico past the buildings and skidded to a halt as Barnes dropped to his knees next to Halley's body. There was blood on one side of his face. Was Halley dead?
Operative instincts kicking in, Doyle pulled his gun, doing a quick one-eighty of the area. No lurking thugs, not a soul in sight. He let out a pent-up breath, consciously slowing his pounding heart. "Chico?"
Barnes was pale, but he valiantly tried a lop-sided smile. "Got a pulse. 'E'll be right as rain soon enough, Sid's…used to being knocked in the 'ead, occupational 'azard. Looks to be concussed." He shook his head. "Bloody van's gone, and Aladdin with it."
"Drove off on his own, did he?" Doyle asked dryly, wanting to blame someone, anyone for their failures. They'd all been lured into a false sense of security after the tranquility of the afternoon. Halley and Barnes had a good reputation, were used to dealing with horses, and the horse had still been snatched from under their noses. "I'll call the ambulance, get back-up."
"I'mallright," Sid muttered on a rough breath. He coughed raggedly, shifting over on his left side with a groan of pain.
"Oh, yeah, I can see that!" Chico snapped, breathing through his nose like a winded racehorse. "Ready for Ascot, are you? Blood all over…"
"Chico." Just his name, somehow soothing and exasperated at the same time, silenced Barnes.
"Just like a jockey," Chico scoffed. He carefully probed his partner's chest, checking for broken ribs before helping Halley into a sitting position with an empathetic wince.
Digging his r/t out of his pocket, Doyle gave up thanks for all the times Cowley had drummed into their heads the importance of carrying the bloody heavy things. Even to a day at the races. "Bodie! 3.7," he added belatedly, knowing he should observe protocol over the airwaves.
"What's going on?" Bodie replied, not going for procedure himself.
He came on so quickly he must have had the r/t out and ready even before Doyle hailed him. "We need an ambulance next to the stables. Halley's been attacked and the van's gone missing."
"How long?" Bodie responded. "I'm leaving the Khorsandis with track security, be there in a tick."
Doyle nodded, well aware that Bodie couldn't see him and clicked off. He didn't relish informing Cowley of their fiasco, which meant he needed to be doing something worthwhile instead of standing around cack-handed.
"How long since they drove off?" he echoed Bodie's question, examining the tyre tracks in the gravel. The van had obviously fishtailed slightly before getting traction and driving away. Probably going far too fast.
Sid rubbed his head, his face gray and pinched. "It's all a muddle."
"Not five minutes, total. I went to the car park," Chico put in. "Tyres all soft, probably slashed."
"To prevent you from following the van." Sid closed his eyes as if surrendering to the inevitable.
"But not us," Doyle said fiercely, pointing to the little gold car coming toward them. As he'd expected, Bodie had driven over in the Capri, stopping abruptly a few meters away.
"Security's calling the police, what's the registration on the van?" Bodie shouted from the open window.
"GP87 ZJK!" Chico answered. "I'll watch the old man and Farook. Go after them!"
"D'you know how to use this?" Doyle dropped the r/t in Chico's hand. "Bodie has the other half."
"Seen you, haven't I?" He nodded, clicking the talk button on and off with one thumb.
Doyle dashed for the car, the ululation of approaching sirens in his ears. He barely had time to brace himself against the dash as Bodie jammed his foot down hard on the accelerator, going from five to sixty far quicker than the engine was designed to do.
Bodie gunned the car past the Sandown signs, taking the turn onto Portsmouth Road on two tyres.
"Which way? A307 or the M25?" Bodie fought to keep the steering wheel steady, racing around a startled motorist who protested with a bright bleep of his horn. "Decide quickly, mate, we haven't got much time to choose."
Doyle nearly ripped Sid's map, pulling it from his jacket pocket. "Sid was for the M25, so my vote's the other."
Tossing his r/t at Doyle, Bodie said, "get track security on the line, we need to coordinate some kind of…roadblock, or something." Bodie laid on his horn to get a slow moving Land Rover out of the way and rocketed onto the motorway. "How many horse vans can there be around here this late? Aladdin was the last horse to leave."
"There was one van left in the yard and that doesn't factor in any other horse transports on a Sunday afternoon." Doyle scanned the road, barely allowing himself to blink lest he miss the vehicle in question. He quickly radioed the track with the pertinent information, fully aware that a roadblock would be akin to locking the hen house door after the fox had already paid a visit.
"Pessimist," Bodie muttered, changing lanes with a lurch. "Is that one up ahead, near the billboard?"
Shifting slightly to peer northward, Doyle shook his head, frustration swirling acid in his guts. "A panel van." He focused on the road paralleling the dual carriageway, especially the area just past an upcoming exit. "Take that turning, there!" he directed, his heart accelerating. Some sort of white and blue van was partially hidden behind a small copse of trees, the number plate obscured by leaves. He had a very bad feeling that the horsenappers had changed vehicles.
Bodie bumped the Capri off the A307 and onto narrow road edged by trees on the right side. Less than fifty metres from the road junction was the horse van in question. Correct number plate, no Aladdin.
"Damn," Bodie said succinctly. "We've lost him."
"They can't be that far away!" Doyle insisted, reversing his previous conviction that they'd never catch up to the thieves.
"Do you see them anywhere?" Agitated, Bodie waved his hand in all four directions. A small white Ford was pulling into the Little Chef on the corner and just up ahead, the junction to the A307 had only sparse traffic. Anything big enough to transport a horse would have been plainly visible. "Unless they've gone underground like stoats, they've scarpered, Ray."
"Hold on," Bodie placated. He crept the car slowly forward until the front end almost tapped the rear of the horse van, and got out. "Let's take a gander, see if anything turns up."
Doyle walked up to the van grimly, suddenly worried that the fools might have just killed Aladdin and left the carcass. Although, what good would that have done? For that matter, what use was kidnapping the horse? Would Khorsandi really stall the oil agreement over a racehorse?
He inspected the ground around the vehicle, careful not to step too close in case there were footprints. With the rain on Saturday, the dirt under the trees was still slightly muddy and he could see the impression of a shoe with a large square heel. The front part of the print wasn't as visible. "There's a print here," he called out, measuring it next to his own Fry boots. Quite a bit larger than his foot.
"Oi," Bodie said loudly. "Found a fag—or at least, evidence that someone was smoking when driving."
Peering in from the passenger side, Doyle could see where Bodie was pointing. There was ash all over the seat and a squashed butt half hidden underneath. "Halley smokes, could it be his?"
"We'll find out. Call out the lab boys to go over this thing for clues," Bodie said with a sigh.
It was a sombre group who met up in CI5 headquarters two hours later.
"This is impossible!" Khorsandi said for the third time by Bodie's count. His suit was rumpled, his tie askew and shirt sweat stained. He was a completely different man than the jubilant owner of a winning horse who'd poured champagne for the party. "How could they have disappeared so quickly? Where could they have taken my horse?" Wringing his hands, he paced back and forth in Cowley's office, alternating between anger and grief.
"The only indications we have are most likely north," Bodie answered. "The police will keep the road blocks up until at least midnight and are questioning the drivers of any horse carriers, as well as the patrons of the Little Chef, in case one of the diners saw anything."
"You haven't had any word from the horsenappers yet?" Doyle asked.
"I've called home, but my—uh…" Khorsandi paused, as if unable to string two sentences together any longer. "My sister-in-law, Sharma, said that reporters have called." He yanked a folded copy of the World of the News from his jacket pocket. "Every newspaper is demanding a statement about my precious horse. But I cannot." There were tears in his voice. "No one has called with a ransom demand."
"We've sent the new bloke—" Bodie couldn't remember the kid's name. Shock of reddish hair, shiny as a copper penny. Just showed how tired he was, too. Probably should not have had such a strenuous evening with Doyle the night before. Twenty-twenty hindsight, that was. He looked ruefully at his partner for help.
"Cougan," Doyle supplied.
"Cougan, the ginger haired bloke, on ahead to install a recording device on your phone so we can monitor your calls, and hopefully get a trace as well." Bodie rubbed his forehead. There wasn't quite a full blown headache, but he could feel the pressure mounting as every hour went by since the horse was grabbed.
"Mr Khorsandi," Cowley said gravely, "the wee laddie is worn out." He nodded at Farook who lay with his head pillowed on the desk blotter. "Murphy is bringing round a car to take you back to your flat. We will keep you apprised of every aspect of the hunt for Aladdin but I don't think it's necessary for you to stay."
"I will pay any amount to get Aladdin back! They must understand this!" Khorsandi shouted.
Farook woke with a jerk, his eyes wild. "Father?"
His face softening, Khorsandi gathered the boy into a hug. "It is all right, my heart. We will go home, to wait by the phone for news."
"I would have defended Aladdin," Farook said fiercely. He took a horse stance, solidly placed and ready to fight. "And Mr Halley, too. If I'd have been there."
There was a rough edge to Doyle's voice as if he wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry. "You're strong and capable, Farook, but these were bad men. Even Halley couldn't hold his own. You and I will have time to spar in the next few days, I'll warrant."
Farook punched the air with his right and then bowed carefully, left hand covering his right fist. "Thank you, Sensei."
"These good gentlemen will be with us until Wednesday," Khorsandi said tiredly. "Mr Cowley, I have faith…" His shoulders were slumped with the weight of his fears. "That I will see my horse. If he is not found, I am not sure that I can fulfill my obligations with Albion Oil." He and Farook went out the door.
Bodie picked up the forgotten newspaper, gut twisting at the headline. Aladdin's Treasure Snatched was in bold type. Underneath, "Ex-jockey Sid Halley Injured" added detail to the article.
"Och, you've mucked up this one, lads!" Cowley said harshly, glaring at them. He'd been summoned from an afternoon at his club and clearly would have preferred to stay there.
Bodie didn't dare interject that they hadn't done a bloody thing, although he wasn't about to lay this at Halley and Barnes' feet either. They'd all been broadsided.
"What can you tell me that would put this right before Mr Khorsandi bows out of the Albion Oil deal and I have the Minister of Foreign Affairs, not to mention several other Governmental Secretaries breathing down my neck," Cowley growled, sitting behind his desk with his arms crossed.
Doyle narrowed his eyes and straightened out of his slouch against the bookcase as if facing a firing squad. Bodie had to give the idiot credit for taking the initiative. Doyle must have a death wish.
"Spoke to Barnes after Halley arrived at hospital," Doyle said. "Halley's had a bad blow to the head and is in hospital for the night. He recollects possibly two or three attackers wearing black jumpers and knitted caps, exactly like the blokes who tried to grab Farook."
"Well, man, they're obviously not the same ones since we've got those three in custody." Cowley thumped his desk impatiently.
"Yes, but they're probably taking orders from the same person, organisation." Bodie took a furtive glance at the whisky on Cowley's drinks cart. He would have given quite a lot for a quick swallow of the stuff. Dutch courage, perhaps. "Similar operations, go in fast, snatch the target and get out in with a minimum of fuss. Took less than five minutes total, and they obviously had other transport at the ready. We're not sure how the thieves got into the stable yard because there were no unaccounted vehicles around, but they knew which car Halley and Barnes arrived in."
"All four tyres were slashed." Doyle picked up the narrative. "Track security didn't notice anything amiss until after they were alerted. There had been little trouble all day during the races, certainly nothing to suggest horsenappers waiting in the shadows for the right opportunity."
"So again, we are thwarted by persons unknown who seem very familiar with all aspects of Khorsandi's life, including who he'd hired to guard Aladdin's Treasure." Cowley tapped a finger on his blotter speculatively. "I've put in a call to the woman who keeps Khorsandi's appointment schedule, this Miss Eliza Jennings, and Sally has gone to fetch her. A glance at her CV shows an impressive lineage—she's Sir Reginald's niece, so I doubt she'd have any part in a scheme to undermine this lucrative venture."
"Relatives are not always in agreement." Bodie thought back to his questions about Ramen Khorsandi. "Younger brothers, for instance."
"You have suspicions about this laddie who showed up at the luncheon?" Cowley leaned forward expectantly.
"Hard to put a finger on it," Doyle said, after casting an eye at Bodie.
Bodie could easily read his partner's concerns. They were undoubtedly the same as his own. "Ramen hasn't got the social niceties of a Bolshevik, but does share their politics enough to get him an invite to the Kremlin. He's still at university, apparently without a sous. Tried to get a few quid off his brother before he left."
"Still, a good lead." Cowley wrote the name down on his pad. "I'll send two men down to – Oxford, is it?" He glanced up, his blue eyes bright now that he had a goal
"Yeah." Doyle rubbed the back of his neck. "Hamidi said he was hired by Ansar to grab Farook. Did you suss out who hired the two Mohammeds?"
"Good thinking, 4.5." Cowley put on his glasses to ferret through the files piled on his desk until he unearthed a typed page. "Our lads spent a long time with the bullyboys. However, McCabe said they could not get the names of their employer out of them."
"No names were ever exchanged?" Doyle asked.
Cowley gave a brusque nod of agreement. "Mr Ansar, but not apparently Mr Mohammed, spends his time at a restaurant off Leicester Square, where he was contacted for the job by another Kharistani man. Shaparak on Irving Street."
"Butterfly…" The meaning of the word popped into Bodie's head with sudden clarity. "That'd be just beyond the half price kiosk." He visualised the popular square with the statue of Shakespeare in the centre. "Didn't Barnes say he'd eaten at a Kharistani restaurant near there?"
"Assumably the same place. There canna be that many Kharistani restaurants," Cowley said dryly. "Perhaps you and Doyle fancy some authentic cuisine for your dinner this evening?"
"I've heard the Khoresh is quite good, if prepared correctly," Doyle said with a quirk of a smile at his partner.
The promise of that smile turned up the heat in Bodie's groin. He'd been lamenting the previous night's exertions and now he was wishing they had the time for another session… This back and forth wasn't doing anything good for his headache.
All three turned at a knock on the door, and Betty poked her head in. "Sir, Mr Khorsandi and his son have gone back to Kensington with 6.2, and Miss Jennings is here to speak with you."
"Send her in, send her in." Cowley limped around the desk, favouring his gammy leg.
He gave Bodie a stern look that had him out of the chair just as the woman in question walked in.
"Thank you for coming at such short notice, Miss Jennings." Cowley shook her hand with a formal nod. "George Cowley, and these two work with me—Bodie and Doyle."
Doyle greeted her politely but kept his distance, assessing her with a cool stare.
"Mr Khorsandi phoned me that CI5 had tucked him under its wing." She smiled graciously, rose lipstick accenting her lips to perfection. Smooth blond hair was cut in a fashionable but businesslike bob, her elegant pale blue suit tailored to fit a stunning figure. Miss Jennings was a thinking man's Princess Diana with a posh girl's school detachment. She looked like very little ruffled her feathers. In heels, she was eye to eye with Bodie when he put out his hand to shake hers.
"Happy to meet you," Bodie said smoothly, waving her to the empty chair.
"Thank you," she murmured.
When she sat, he could see the long, smooth curve of her thigh as the slit in her skirt parted. He quite enjoyed the view. His interest in Doyle had in no way evaporated his appreciation of a gorgeous woman.
"Since you have spoken to Mr Khorsandi, we can get right to the nitty-gritty," Cowley said without preamble. "Who knew the details for the karate tournament and the afternoon at the races?"
She pursed her rosebud lips, looking around at the three of them. "For the latter, the press, the racing world. It was no secret…"
"Yes, but when he was scheduled to arrive, who would be with him, that sort of thing?" Cowley persisted. "You keep his appointments?"
She raised a skeptical blond eyebrow. "If you are inferring that I have done something untoward, I assure you…"
"Of course not, Miss Jennings," Doyle said flatly with a hint of sarcasm that proved he was annoyed with the lot of them and wanted answers immediately. "You've got bonfides from on high, but somebody is getting to Khorsandi wherever he goes, and we need to keep him safe until the meeting with good old Uncle Reg."
Bodie struggled to keep a straight face. Leave it to Ray to poke pins at their best connection. "And there were no bugs in the flat, so where is the leak coming from?"
Glacier blue eyes regarded them coolly, but there was a flare of heat under her composure. "I've worked for Mr Khorsandi for the last two months, not only keeping his daily schedule, but aiding with myriad forms, visas, applications, red tape…the paperwork has been endless to bring this merger with Albion to fruition. In all that time, he has been beset by personal and familial troubles, but in no way was I at fault."
"What about Ramen Khorsandi?" Cowley perched on the edge of his desk, watching her intently.
Her cheeks flushed and she smoothed her tight skirt. "We are friends."
"And now we get to the heart of the matter," Doyle muttered, shoving his hands in his trouser pockets.
"You speak with him regularly?" Bodie enquired, trying to imagine the dark, small boned Ramen with tall, gazelle-like Eliza.
"By phone, a few times a week. Mostly family business. The Khorsandi family has a great deal of money through many holdings, trusts, that sort of thing. They have a business manager in Kharistan, lawyers in several countries. It is extremely complicated."
"So Ramen isn't wanting for pocket money?" Doyle asked casually.
"Certainly not. He can draw from the family accounts any time he needs to," she answered tartly.
Doyle sent Bodie a speculative smirk that said "so why did he beg a few quid from his brother?"
"But none of that is your main concern?" Cowley braced himself on one hand to stand up again. "You only deal with things on British soil?"
"Yes, exactly," Miss Jennings touched her smooth blonde hair, but there wasn't a lock out of place.
Uncomfortable with the questions? Bodie mused to himself.
"Which is where Ramen resides—in Oxford. How often do you visit him?" Cowley pressed.
Her poker face was decent, but Bodie saw the minute widening of her eyes, the way she shifted her gaze to the left as if trying to come up with an answer that didn't incriminate herself. She inhaled very slowly, finally meeting Cowley's eyes.
"We are not condemning any type of…" Cowley took a step closer to her like a shark cornering its prey, "personal relationship unless you have discussed subjects that should have been kept secret until next week."
"We haven't had…what you imply!" She gripped the arms of the chair, poised to bolt, elegant lips drawn back in a sneer. "There were a few luncheons, nothing more. I do not and never have divulged secrets! Of course Ramen knew about the merger because he had discussed it with his brother. And of course he was included in an afternoon at the races, as well as invited to watch his nephew in a tournament." Eliza Jennings jumped up angrily. "I'm insulted at these accusations, and embarrassed for Ramen." She was at the door in two long strides that strained the material of her pencil skirt.
"Wait, Miss Jennings." Bodie had only to take one step back to come between her and the door. He didn't even look over at Doyle, simply knew his partner had already put one hand firmly on the wooden panel to keep it closed. He could feel Doyle's heat now that they were so close together. Eliza Jennings scowled at them. "Did you ever meet Ramen at a restaurant called Shaparak on Irving Street?"
"Of course, he knows the owner," she said, obviously still irritated.
"And it comes full circle." Doyle turned the knob to let Miss Jennings out. "Good evening, my darling."
The glare she gave him would have melted a lesser man.
"Miss Jennings, we'll be in touch." Bodie gave her a comic bow. "I'd advise you not to leave London for the next few days."
She turned her back, marching past Betty's desk.
"Hmm, well." Cowley ran a hand through his hair in disgust. "There never was a leak of any sort—Ramen is our man." He pressed a button on his intercom. "Betty? Have an operative tail Miss Jennings and report on her whereabouts. We don't want Ramen Khorsandi to have any contact with her."
"Or we'd better hear about it quick if he does," Doyle added.
"Yes, sir," she replied through the machine.
"Now we just have to prove his involvement," Bodie said. "What about the smoke in the horse transport? It didn't look like a British brand. The shoe print? Any answers there?"
"Och, man, give the lab crew some time," Cowley sighed, shaking his head. "But as of now, Ramen Khorsandi is our main suspect. We'll need a photo of him to show our prisoners, and I want a team down at Oxford with all speed to pick the boy up."
Doyle levered himself from his slouch against the door frame, clearly assuming they'd been drafted. He glanced at Bodie, transmitting a silent "meet you at the car."
"No, not the two of you. You're still on Khorsandi's daytime detail," Cowley said gruffly. "Go order a meal at this Shaparak, keep your eyes open and mouths shut. Don't let on that we suspect them. And then go talk to Halley, find out if he remembers any other details. We're going in blind and I, for one, don't like it!"
The sign over the front door of Shaparak featured a painting of a butterfly in flight. The top of the wings were speckled black and brown with a soft green underneath, not a butterfly Bodie had ever seen in the UK.
"Beautiful," Doyle said. "I'm peckish. Got any of that rusty Farsi you can dazzle the waiters with? Without suggesting rude sexual partners for their mums."
"You have so little faith in my abilities." Bodie pretended to be offended, even when Doyle made him laugh. The rain had finally started, just a spitting drizzle, but Doyle's curls were hung with tiny droplets of water that glinted in the light over the restaurant sign. Highly distracting. "Told you I have four other phrases that are right useful—for ordering food and finding a loo."
"Oh, yeah. I've got that in French and Italian myself." Doyle nodded with a flash of a grin.
"Un croissant et deux café aux lait, s'il vous plais," Bodie said with a terrible accent just to wind Doyle up.
"You going to share that croissant?" Doyle whispered, his mouth so close Bodie could have kissed him.
Not on the street. Instead, he pushed through the entryway. "Looks respectable enough."
There were twelve or so tables spread out across a rectangular shaped room, with an alcove on the right that suggested a corridor to offices or private meeting rooms. Four of the tables were filled with diners eating tantalising meals. The air was scented with curry, saffron and cinnamon.
Bodie's stomach rumbled and Doyle elbowed him in the ribs with a chuckle.
A stout man wearing the same sort of pale blue tunic, loose white slacks and crocheted skull cap that Ramen had on at the races shuffled up carrying menus. "Salam! Welcome, please sit down. Do you want a table near the front window or in the centre?"
"Against that wall?" Doyle pointed to the far corner.
Typical paranoid operative, Bodie reflected, walking over to the selected table. Doyle had picked the best vantage point in the place to see every person coming or going from the front door, kitchen and back corridor.
"We have two specials today, and a fine selection of teas. May I offer you any, or would you like to choose from the menu?" the little man said when they'd seated themselves. "My name is Mahmood."
"Ta, Mahmood." Bodie flipped open a menu. "A friend of mine, called Ramen Khorsandi, recommended this place. He been by lately?"
"Mr Khorsandi is a friend of the owner, Behrouz Jalil, but I have not seen him recently."
His Kharistani accent was even heavier than Karim Khorsandi's and Bodie had to concentrate to understand him.
"I am happy that he sees fit to endorse our fine establishment. We are the only Kharistani restaurant in all of London," Mahmood continued proudly.
"Smells great in here," Doyle said, glancing around at the other diners. He indicated a selection on the menu. "Khoresh Pollo. Have you got one with just veg?"
"Certainly, sir, our chef makes the finest in the UK!" Mahmood gave a formal little bow. "And some chai?"
"I'll have some with lamb." Bodie handed over his menu, his mouth watering. "You serve any beer?"
"We have Tekel Birasi from Turkey as well as Guinness and Fosters," Mahmood rattled off.
"Tekel, then." Bodie looked over just as four men, all similarly Kharistani in appearance although wearing jeans, t-shirts and trainers, walked in and went straight to the passageway in the back. "Do you rent out for private parties?"
"Of course, weddings, birthday celebrations." Mahmood waved a hand at the men. "They are a community group who meet Sunday evening. You see? There are announcements on the wall near the cash desk." He bustled off. "I will bring your drinks momentarily."
Bodie peered at the flyers pinned up on a corkboard. "Think I'll go over and take a look who uses the back rooms—and use the gents."
Doyle smirked at him. "Haven't even had the beer yet and you've got to take a piss?"
"Wash me hands, love." Bodie held up both, wiggling his fingers. "Cleanliness is next to godliness, don't you know?"
"What do they say about a filthy mind?" Doyle lowered his eyelids to half-mast, his green eyes doing amazing things to Bodie's groin.
"Pure thoughts, pure thoughts!" Bodie shook his forefinger and walked away before he wanked off right in front of Mahmood. He took good look around the room to get his mind off other more arousing matters.
As Barnes had said, there was a large map of Kharistan on one wall, the city of Qwll'ran marked by a yellow star. The national flag, a blue banner with an eagle in flight hung next to the map. Paintings and photographs of veiled women, mosques and other sites in Kharistan decorated the other three walls.
A glowing review of Shaparak by the food critic at the London Gazette, a paper Bodie had never heard of, was featured on the bulletin board. Two other flyers announced the Kharistani Freedom Fighters meetings on Sunday evenings, presumably the four men who had walked into the back, and a lunch group for local Middle-Eastern business owners on alternate Thursdays. There was also the usual adverts for tutors and English teachers, but Bodie was most interested in the Freedom Fighters.
Who exactly were they fighting against, or for? From what he understood, the young King Amahl was well liked and somewhat liberal—certainly compared to Khomeini in Iran. And how did Ramen Khorsandi fit in?
Doyle was sipping his spiced tea when Bodie got back to the table, and there was a suspicious wet spot on the rim of Bodie's glass of beer.
"Did you drink some?" Bodie asked, holding up the glass, pretending to search for fingerprints.
"Had to make sure the brew was up to snuff," Doyle said, unrepentant. "Quite good, I may order some." He dipped a triangle of pitta bread into a small bowl of hummus. "This is nice, too."
"Takes me back, this does." Bodie purposely put his lips over the place where Doyle had drunk and then helped himself to the starters. He'd always liked hummus.
"When exactly were you in Kharistan?" Doyle asked, leaning back in his chair just as Mahmood arrived with their meals.
"Berma'id, enjoy!" Mahmood said heartily.
Bodie waited until their host had arranged the plates, wondering how much to tell his partner. Doyle rarely asked much about Bodie's mercenary past, probably because when they had first met, Bodie had made it clear he didn't talk about those days. Over the years, however, he'd let a few stories out—not just his time with Krivas and that lot.
"Early on, Kharistan was one of the first countries I ever spent much time in. That's why I took the time to learn the language." He grinned with a wink, mocking his own lack of fluency.
"Not a NATO sanctioned billet, I suspect?" Doyle dug into his khoresh, obviously intrigued with the story.
"When were any of them?" Bodie countered lightly. "Private skirmishes on the border with Turkey, some kind of territorial dispute that I never quite understood." He ate a few bites of his lamb and rice. It was excellent. "The current King Amahl's father was on the throne back then. Old bugger ruled for decades and then keeled over recently, from what I understand."
"You've been reading up?" Doyle asked in surprise.
"No, was listening to the news and recognised Kharistan. Must have been more'n a year ago…" Bodie trailed off, realising when it had been. He didn't turn on the telly very often except for football and cricket matches because he got his fill of current politics on the job. But at the hospital, waiting for Doyle to recover from being shot in the chest, the television had been one of the few diversions they could both enjoy. "You must have taken a kip," Bodie explained. "It was nearly Christmas time, in '80."
"Oh," Doyle said softly. He ate a forkful of rice as if stalling for time.
Unsettled at where the conversation had meandered to, Bodie concentrated on his own food. If he disliked re-examining his old mercenary pursuits, he detested thinking back on those days when Doyle lay nearly dead in hospital. He cleared his throat and swallowed about half of the dark beer. "Kharistan's a nice place, though. Good food, friendly people…"
"Khorsandi's a right decent bloke," Doyle said, obviously eager to get off the other subject. "Farook used to talk about his father all the time, before I'd met him properly."
"You ever sense anything dangerous going on with him, before yesterday?"
"Not a hint. Khorsandi'd just drop him off for class and then fetch him after. Never stayed to watch." Doyle frowned, swirling his glass of tea around before finishing the dregs. "Farook didn't even mention his mother getting accosted at Harrods. Mind you, he has mostly sisters, I think he prefers spending time with his da."
"Not something either of us can relate to." Bodie winced, how did they end up going over such morose history this evening?
"My dad had many a fine quality!" Doyle said hotly, glaring at Bodie.
"You just didn't see them very often between pints?" Bodie poked just a little deeper, even knowing that he'd end up sleeping alone on the couch at this rate. He wasn't gratified to see Doyle flush with anger.
"That's enough, Bodie. You didn't know Liam Doyle, so don't…"
Bodie held up his hands in surrender, willing to concede. "I barely knew my own father, there's a single picture of us together before he died. I'm just saying that we'd both have liked a father like Khorsandi, which makes this case all the more difficult."
"Dealing with family issues is always like walking on a field strewn with bombs." Doyle unbent with a mulish expression. "At fifteen, I didn't run as far from mine as you did. Just as far as the nearest stable, but muking stalls wasn't my life's work."
"I don't know—we seem to shovel shit a great deal of the time."
Doyle bit his bottom lip, clamping down on a lurking smile. "If I recall correctly, you won a packet on Aladdin's Treasure and promised me dinner."
"I'm paying?" Bodie splayed his fingers across his shirt, basking in Doyle's renewed good humour.
"You volunteered for that mission, mate." Doyle's eyes suddenly slid away, tracking someone walking behind Bodie.
Not wanting to appear obvious, Bodie didn't turn around, just watched Doyle watching until Mahmood came up to the table with a genial smile.
"May I interest you fine sirs with a dessert? We have doogh, which is yogurt mixed with fizzy water and mint, as well as ice cream with rosewater and saffron, and Bamiah—my favourite…"
Doyle swivelled back to look at Mahmood. "Sorry, we're not much for sweets. Just the bill, thanks."
Mahmood bounced slightly on his feet, obviously disapproving of anyone who didn't finish a meal properly. "Some coffee, then? It is very rich and dark…"
"How much will it be, then?" Bodie asked, pulling out the satisfyingly thick wad of notes he'd been carrying since the win at the track. He settled with Mahmood, adding a nice gratuity, and ambled out of the restaurant in Doyle's wake.
"So, what did you see, M'sieur Poirot?" Bodie asked once they were walking back to Leicester Square in the drizzle. The moon was trying valiantly to peek out from the clouds but not succeeding very well.
"Bloke dressed exactly like some we've seen recently going down the corridor to that meeting." Doyle frowned, casting an eye at Shakespeare leaning moodily on his plinth surrounded by squiggly fish.
"Ah, the Kharistani Freedom Fighters." Bodie glanced at a bench to sit on but it was too wet from all the rain.
"The what?" Doyle left off peering at the Bard.
"Didn't I say? The group meeting in the back there. Not sure what they're fighting against, but at least we've got a name to run down. Why'd this freedom fighter catch your eye?"
"Had on a black jumper and watch cap, no balaclava, or I'd have nicked him then and there. He could have been the brother or twin to one of the Mohammeds, but damned if I can remember which."
"Mohammed Ansar or Anwar Mohammed," Bodie said just to get up his nose. "We'll have to find out which one has a sibling."
"All comes 'round to family in the end." Doyle sounded gloomy.
"We've all got 'em." Bodie looped an arm around Doyle's shoulder. It was only a mild risk, there were few people in the square on such a damp evening. "Come on, let's get out of this wet and into…"
"Have to check on Halley and Barnes, remember?"
"Duty calls, eh?" Bodie glanced over at the cinema on his right. He hadn't seen 'E.T.' yet.
"What'd you get on your tray?" Chico asked with forced cheer. Having to jolly Sid through yet another hospital stay was harder than it used to be. Sid hated being poked and prodded by the doctors, and the ignominy of having failed at his duty had put him in a foul mood. They'd heard little from CI5 or Khorsandi, which only added to Sid's depression. There was a time when the lure of the next race kept him focused and eager to recover swiftly, but he no longer had that draw.
"Fish fingers and pud, as if I'm six bloody years old," Sid growled, shoving away the offending meal. He lay back on the pillows, the white bandage on the crown of his head almost the same shade as his face. Too pale by half.
"Got mushy peas and undoubtedly lumpy mash. You like that," Chico said, taking a fish finger for himself. He wasn't likely to let food go to waste. Sid had lived for too long trying to manage his weight for steeplechase racing. He didn't eat fried food on any occasion.
"I'm not hungry, Chico," Sid said through gritted teeth, with his eyes closed. "I'd prefer to be in my own bed…"
"Wouldn't we both, but you've been concussed, and that calls for 'ospital treatment. The nurse waking you up at odd hours asking about Queen and country." Chico ate the other fish finger, resisting the urge to fork up some peas and slide them through Sid's mouth as if he really were six. "Don't you go wallowin' in guilt, John Sidney 'Alley."
Whether the use of his full name or the accusation of wallowing, one of them caused Sid to open his eyes wearily. "I'm not…I should have been on the alert. The party, maybe it was the wine…"
"A single glass? Not bloody likely, squire."
"I have no excuse for such poor performance. Aladdin is gone, and there's no clue who took him." Sid regarded his food with pinched lips which told Chico that along with a headache, he had nausea, too.
"You want me to call the nurse, get you some of that stuff to settle your Aunt Nellie?"
Sid started to shake his head and stopped with a groan, one hand against his mouth. "I'll eat the peas, but if I…"
"Yeah, know me own job description, don't I?" Chico grinned, not expecting the controlled Sid to vomit. Pleased at this minor victory, he waited until Sid had carefully taken two mouthfuls of peas and drunk about half his cup of milky tea. "It's been a few hours, time for all the jarred bits of your memory to slip back into place."
"I remember very little, the one who smelled like smoke was…"
"Oi!" Chico cried triumphantly, jumping to his feet.
"Chico!" Sid pressed a palm against his forehead as if he wanted to shove his brains back an inch or so. "Lower the volume."
"But you've remembered," Chico whispered, sure they were on the verge of something important.
In the process of scooping up a forkful of mashed potatoes, Sid stared at him in confusion. "I did?"
"He's remembering?" Bodie briefly knocked on the open door before walking in, Doyle bringing up the rear. "Bought you some grapes in exchange for any information." He dropped a plastic bag full of deep purple grapes on the table next to the offending tray of food.
"He likes his fruit, he does." Chico dipped a hand into the bag for some grapes. "Ta."
"I'd rather have a glass of fermented grape," Sid said sourly, his dark eyelashes a sooty contrast to his pale complexion.
"Couldn't find a decent vintage at the pub. Will this do?" Doyle grinned impishly, pulling a bottle of whisky out from under his jacket.
"Just the medicine I need. Don't let the Nursing Sister see you with that." Sid brightened. "Chico, are there any drinking glasses?"
"I'm designated as the fetch and carry boy, is that it?" Chico gave a mock pout, happy that CI5 had come to them and that they were still part of the investigation.
"On your way." Bodie shooed. "The grown-ups need to talk."
"You forget that I'm a black belt." Chico sliced a stiffened hand through the air, stopping just short of Bodie's mid-section.
"You forget I'm taller."
Bodie clamped onto Chico's wrist and swivelled him around faster than Chico expected. That showed him for assuming that the operative was not a karate expert. Chico glanced up at Sid and Doyle. Both were watching gleefully. Chico gently put an elbow into Bodie's side, raising his knee up at the same time. He purposefully missed bringing his heel into Bodie's goolies by a fraction of an inch.
"Didn't forget." Chico winked, twisting out of Bodie's grasp with a chuckle.
"He's a slippery little devil," Sid said with a grin.
Bodie waggled a finger at Chico, laughing. "The investigation is moving forward, but slowly. We're focusing on Ramen as a suspect in all the threats against his brother."
"Nasty business." Chico shoved his hands in his pockets. "Not too keen on the capitalistic bureaucracy, is he? Probably voted Socialist in the last election."
"Any word on Aladdin that the papers weren't given?" Sid asked. "I called Carson and Sons, the trainers. They've had the police round but don't know a bleeding thing."
"Nothing much, except we found a cigarette and some dabs in the horse transport. Unidentified, as yet," Doyle said, eating a few grapes.
Chico was in luck. He'd only taken one step into the corridor when he saw a nurse setting a stack of paper cups next to the ice machine in the hallway. "Give us four of those, love?" he asked.
The young woman eyed him with a dimpled smile, obviously approving of what he might be offering. Little did she know. But Chico wasn't above flirting to get what he needed, and she was just the sort he used to go for, curvy and cute with a mass of dark hair pulled back into a chignon under her cap. He grinned back, full wattage.
"You're with Mr Halley in room 243?" she asked coquettishly, handing over the cups. "My sister used to go on and on 'bout him when he raced. She won a bit, too. Such a shame…"
Suddenly glad she wasn't Sid's nurse, Chico bobbed his head in what he hoped was a charming fashion. "He's thirsty, so I'll just get this back to 'im…"
"Of course. I'm Sheryl," she supplied hopefully. "I'm off at midnight."
"Unfortunately, I'm not. Work all hours." He shrugged, taking the cups back into the room to escape her clutches. Bodie had been easier to fend off than she was!
"Making a conquest?" Sid asked, amusement crinkling the corners of his eyes. He didn't look worried about his place in Chico's life.
"Now I need a drink!" Chico grabbed the bottle to screw off the top. He poured fingerfuls all around.
"Sid's just said he does not smoke a Middle-Eastern brand of tobacco, which puts the cig we found squarely in the Kharistani camp," Bodie explained.
"He's always been a Players man." Chico swallowed the smoky whisky, taking a moment to savour the burn down his throat. Lovely stuff. "And he said one of the babbling brooks smelled of smoke."
"Barnes, by the way, we've just been to Shaparak," Bodie said. "According to Hamidi, that's where the thugs who went after Farook were hired."
"Weren't on the menu the day I ate there." Chico sipped more whisky. "Takeaway saffron rice and kabobs, with a couple of bullyboys on the side."
Doyle settled in the bedside chair. "What about just before you got hit, Sid?"
"That's the part that's the fuzziest," Sid said ruefully. The alcohol had put a bit of colour into his wan cheeks. "Doctor calls it retrograde amnesia, and since this isn't the first concussion I've had, apparently that can make it worse."
"Experienced that on more than one occasion myself," Bodie agreed, looking down at his empty cup. He poured more all around. The pungent aroma of decent whisky filled the air.
"But I have this niggling memory…" Sid paused, thinking hard. He stared at his hand, pursing his fingers like he was holding a cigarette. "I walked over to Chico and took his fag…"
"Yeah, you did. Had to buy a new pack when I got to 'ospital," Chico said. "Wot're you on about?"
"I saw…Ramen Khorsandi talking to someone…" Sid squeezed his eyes shut as if he needed darkness to concentrate. "The girl who cares for Aladdin's Treasure…"
"Kath," Doyle put in. "She was off to an evening with her boyfriend because you were driving the van back to Epsom."
"Kathleen Devlin." Sid snapped his fingers. "Ramen was talking to a bloke in a flat cap, possibly light brown hair…" Sid opened his eyes, looking speculatively at the three men in the room. "Taller than Ramen—and Chico, for that matter."
"And you," Chico put in sotto-voce, just to give him aggro.
"But I'd say shorter than Bodie," Sid went on, casting a gimlet eye at Chico.
"And Kath was there?" Bodie asked, leaning forward, his glass dangling forgotten from one hand.
"She was waiting next to a blue Vauxhall, with…a registration code for Anglia." He pressed both hands on his forehead, grimacing in pain. "It's all jumbled. I got the impression she was ready to be off, with this friend of Ramen's."
Chico pushed a pillow behind Sid, easing him back. Enough brain work for the day for someone with a concussion, by his way of thinking.
"Must be the illusive Sam." Doyle frowned, reclining against the chair with his ankles crossed. "Kath told me she'd been going with him for a short while and that she'd met him at a party for the horse. A friend of a friend, she called Sam. Was quite proud that he goes to university."
"The plot thickens." Chico perched on the side of the bed, inwardly pleased when Sid settled against him without protest. Sid was usually against any obvious displays of affection. "He's a—what do they call them on American telly? A person of interest?"
"Both of them, now. We need the particulars on young Sam," Bodie said with a grim twist of his mouth. "Did you get any numbers on the registration plate?"
"Saw it for a fraction of a second." Sid started to shake his head against the pillow, but stopped with a sigh.
"Looks like our Ramen has been a naughty little brother," Bodie said. "And guess what, or should I say who, lives in Anglia?"
"Nazir Khorsandi. In Newmarket." Chico remembered the conversation with Karim Khorsandi in Cowley's office with a jolt. Twisted family.
"Spot on," Doyle said. "We'll make an operative out of you at this rate."
"And cost me my partner?" Sid parried.
Chico grinned, an agreeable warmth spreading through his belly from Sid's words. Or it could be from the drink.
"But I know Nazir," Sid went on. "That's why Karim hired me. He has the racehorses, Nazir does fox hunting. I rode out with his club a year or so ago."
"That's right!" Chico tapped Sid's left arm, just above where the prosthesis joined. "You were the celebrity guest."
"Such as it was." Sid shrugged modestly. "He's a decent man, not as gregarious as Karim, certainly not as confrontational as Ramen. Knee deep in cash, not wanting in the least."
"This is fantastic." Bodie nodded, looking quite satisfied. He eyed the bottle of whisky but apparently decided against one for the road. "You certainly earned the grapes and grain—we'll get this back to the Cow straightaway. Thanks, both of you."
"Sid," Doyle asked suddenly, snapping his fingers. "You know where Nazir's house is?"
"Yeah, Baldry House. Went there for the hunt. It's just outside of Newmarket, on the road to Bury St. Edmunds."
"That's where Khorsandi's wife is staying," Doyle explained, standing.
"Might be worth a visit to the manse, eh, gov?" Chico asked. "All roads lead to, as they say?"
"It's the last place Ramen would go," Sid mused. "He wouldn't risk being anywhere near the family plot."
"I agree, he'd be more likely to hole up with his mates. I'm more for poking around Oxford." Bodie paused at the door. "Putting a surname on Sam and how he knows Ramen."
"When do you get discharged?" Doyle stretched when he stood, long and lean as a whippet.
Chico had to admit he didn't mind looking in Doyle's direction, but ducked his eyes, meeting Sid's with a disarming grin. Or what he hoped was one.
"Mr Halley, visiting time is over." A tall, austere nurse glided in with her thermometer and blood pressure cuff.
"I'll ring you in the morning," Sid called after Bodie and Doyle. "Keep us apprised."
"No worries," Bodie said in parting. "You're part of the team."
Doyle had hoped for at least a cup of tea and some toast after his shower on Monday morning, but the telephone rang just as he was reaching for a towel. Bodie grabbed the towel Doyle had wanted and scampered out of the shower starkers, dripping all over the rug in the hallway.
"'Lo?" he answered, briskly rubbing a towel over his wet hair. "Yes, sir, we were on our way over to the Khorsandi flat by half past seven."
Cowley, Doyle surmised. Meant that the investigation was moving faster than they were. He allowed himself an indulgent look at damp, naked Bodie for a moment longer before toweling off and going in search of his clothes.
"We can meet you there instead." He cradled the phone to his ear, denying Doyle his view when Bodie applied the towel to his nether regions.
"We've got a different assignment this morning?" Doyle asked, skinning into his tightest jeans. He was going to have to avoid the gateau chocolat and chai for a few days, he could barely do up the zip.
Bodie was watching with a hungry look in his blue eyes. "How do you stay so…slim? I want to rip those jeans right off and use 'em to bind your…and you've worn the ones with the patch. It may be a good thing that Cowley wants us on separate duty today." He heaved a regretful sigh, hand over his heart.
Just about to pose like an outrageous rentboy, Doyle froze. "Separate? What are we doing now?"
"What we talked about last night with Halley and Barnes, oddly enough." Bodie ran his hand along Doyle's bare back as he walked past to the bedroom.
Doyle hitched a breath, the delicate caress had raised goosebumps down both his arms. He could so easily picture being restrained with his own jeans, and the idea warmed his cock considerably. Not the bloody right time.
Picking up his polo neck, Bodie slipped it over his head. "A ransom demand was made half an hour ago."
"Did we get a recording?"
"Finest CI5 equipment. Apparently it's in Farsi, though," Bodie continued, pulling on a pair of dark trousers. "The gist—don't go through with the Albion Oil merger. Khorsandi fears for the safety of his son and the rest of the family now."
Doyle didn't have to be bashed over the head to figure out what came next. "So one of us is off to Newmarket to guard the wife and children."
"That'd be you, mate, since you were so keen to go." Bodie pointed at Doyle's chest. "I do think it'd be best if you put some clothes on. I suspect Mrs Khorsandi is a modest sort."
Doyle grinned fiendishly, his guts tightening for reasons he couldn't put his finger on. "Too cold in April to lay out in the back garden sunbathing anyway."
The flat in Kensington was in uproar when Bodie and Doyle arrived. Cowley was sitting on the gold brocade sofa drinking rich, aromatic coffee, conferring with Murphy, Cougan and a dark eyed man wearing a small kufi prayer cap.
Khorsandi had an air of barely concealed panic. He was huddled at the dining room table with Eliza Jennings going over some paperwork. Farook sat hunched in front of the telly watching an old clip of Lena Zavaroni singing the dreadful, "Mama, He's Making Eyes At Me."
Bodie grimaced, hoping the damned song didn't worm its way into his brain for the rest of the day.
"4.5, 3.7, you took your sweet time," Cowley growled. He looked impeccable in a gray pinstripe suit, despite the early hour.
Bodie bit down on the excuse of traffic, glancing at Doyle. He'd donned a poker face with his striped shirt and was humming the inane tune. "May we hear the recording of the ransom demand, sir?" Bodie nodded absently at Murphy and Cougan, getting acknowledging head bobs in return.
"This is Yusef Saleh." Cowley indicated the man next to him. "He's our Farsi interpreter."
"Good morning," Saleh said. He had no trace of an accent, in fact sounded a bit like a BBC News presenter. "The voice on the tape is distorted with some sort of electronic device to sound like one of those robots in a science fiction film, but I still can discern that his accent is not quite Kharistani. Possibly from some other country that speaks Farsi, but it's too distorted to make out."
"Shall I?" Cougan flicked on the small cassette recorder sitting on a coffee table amid scattered cups and the remains of pastries.
A stilted, heavily filtered voice came through the speakers, drowning out 'Why Don't You?' on the telly. He spoke for less than a minute, but the demanding tone was unmistakable. Bodie picked out the words for kill and oil from the roil of harsh consonants and vowels.
"I've heard that too many times to count now," Khorsandi said, standing up, his tie askew. He looked like he'd been continuously running his fingers through his black hair and beard. "It still frightens me. My poor Aladdin. I cannot have my son exposed to any more of this violence. I must take Farook to his maman immediately…"
"Been like this since the phone call came through," Murphy said in a low voice, sitting down in an overstuffed chair that matched the gold sofa.
Farook hunched his shoulders, but didn't comment, obviously pretending he was watching the programme and not listening to the adults in the room.
"As if they're any safer in Newmarket," Doyle said under his breath, just loud enough for Bodie to hear because they were standing so close together.
"Mr Khorsandi, as I said earlier, one of my men will drive your son north," Cowley said evenly. "We can provide you with even more stringent round the clock protection, but your presence is required here in London so that once the horse is recovered, you can meet with Sir Reginald at the appointed time."
"Karim, there's still two days to find Aladdin," Eliza Jennings spoke up, clipping a sheath of papers together.
The older man huffed a breath, caught between barely controlled fear and anger. "These infidels threaten me and you don't allow me to do anything! They didn't even give a location to leave the money."
"They will be contacting you again by tomorrow morning," Murphy said. "With instructions, which is why you need to stay here, by the blower."
"I can monitor the calls," Eliza said, touching her precisely styled blond hair. "That is my job."
"Should she still be working with him?" Bodie asked with a raised eyebrow.
Eliza glared at him, two bright red spots on her high cheekbones. "I don't even know where Ramen is!"
"I wish I did," Khorsandi moaned, tugging on his beard. "We should band together in times of stress."
"She's being monitored, as well," Cowley said to just his agents. "But her knowledge of his business was impossible to duplicate at this late date."
Khorsandi obviously wasn't aware who had moved to the top of the suspect list, Bodie noted.
Aunt Sharma bustled out carrying a tray with a cup of coffee for Bodie and chai for Doyle. Doyle started to refuse the tempting treat but when she scolded him in Farsi, he accepted gracefully, taking a long drink.
After half a cup of the strong Kharistani coffee, Bodie felt instantly energized. The whole cup would probably keep him awake for an entire day.
"My wife lives in fear of attack, even with the guards who stay with her constantly." Khorsandi paced the room, never taking his eyes off the phone as if he could compel it to ring. He stopped next to Farook, one hand ruffling the boy's hair. "She can't rest and fears sending the children outside."
"Doyle here will drive Farook," Cowley explained. "As soon as we discuss some specifics of the case. Forewarned is forearmed."
"Here's a transcript of the caller's demands." Saleh handed out typewritten sheets.
Bodie wondered when he'd had time to get it typed—and then realised the usefulness of Miss Jennings for menial jobs. There were only three copies, so Murphy and Cougan shared one. Doyle peered over Bodie's shoulder at the paper, his breath scented with cinnamon.
Saleh adjusted his glasses, as if he found the Queen's English more difficult to decipher than Farsi. "The caller wants one hundred thousand pounds for Aladdin's Treasure and a cessation of the merger with Albion Oil. All Kharistan oil to stay in Kharistan. As Mr Murphy mentioned, the caller will contact Mr Khorsandi within the next 24 hours with the location for the money exchange."
"Any mention of Kharistani Freedom Fighters?" Doyle asked, putting his empty cup on an end table.
Saleh was shaking his head when Khorsandi looked up sharply. "Those fools?" he snarled, his anger finding a outlet. "Railing against King Amahl, and for what? A restrictive government where the pride of Kharistan would bury its head in the ground like an ostrich, hiding from the rest of the world simply to keep our resources inside our borders."
"I have to ask this." Bodie looked squarely at the man, not sure which side Khorsandi would come down on, the truth or protection of his own family. "Judging from what Ramen was spouting at the races, is your brother a member of the Freedom Fighters?"
"Ramen is a boy, focused on his maths." Khorsandi brushed the implications aside with a wave of his hand. "He has no time for such utter nonsense. Besides, why would those xenophobic dilettantes be spreading their filth in this country? They claim they want to ban foreign money, support and trade, so why come here?" He gave a dismissive snort. "It will ruin the economics of our beloved country!" Khorsandi shook his head. "Why would Ramen, studying business finance, be involved with them?"
"I'd be verra interested to burrow down into just who finances that group," Cowley murmured, nose tucked into his cup of coffee.
"If you uncover any of their group manifesto or policies, I would be glad to translate," Saleh said. "But I must be going. I am teaching a class on Persian history at Hammersmith and West London College in less than an hour."
"Thank you again for coming on such short notice." Cowley removed his glasses and stowed them in his jacket pocket before shaking Selah's hand
Sharma glided from the kitchen to see him out, presenting him with a bag of pastries.
"The group meets at Shaparak," Doyle said, taking Selah's vacant seat on the sofa. "We saw a few wandering in, but if five is the entire membership, they're not much of a threat."
"I've no time to consider them further." Khorsandi set to pacing again. "I've already consulted my lawyer—Eliza called him first thing this morning, to dissolve some assets so that the bank notes will be ready to deliver to the kidnappers."
"Mr Khorsandi," Cowley sighed, raising a placating hand. "We've discussed this, it's best not to…"
"I must, I tell you! I must!" Khorsandi shouted, obviously at the end of his rope.
Eliza gave a little gasp, sinking back into her chair.
"Father!" Farook jumped up, grabbing his father's arm, his cheeks streaked with tears. "I can help you, please don't send me to maman. I want to be here when Aladdin comes back."
"My heart," Khorsandi choked. He inhaled, regaining a sort of composure. "You must protect your mother, with your brown belt in karate. Keep her safe. Once Aladdin is returned to us, we will all be reunited and a family once again." He caught sight of Sharma coming back in from the foyer. "You, too. You must go be with your sister at a time like this."
Sharma stiffened indignantly, and Bodie wished he could see her face. Although the black garment she wore covered her nose and mouth, her dark brown eyes flashed with angry fire. She lit into Khorsandi with a barrage of Farsi, ending with "I will stay to cook!" in halting English.
He had enough humour left to take his sister-in-law's tirade. "I would be happy to have your company, Sharma, although my wife will miss her older sister."
Farook seemed to wilt under this betrayal and heaved a sigh. "What about school?"
"I will call your headmaster and explain the situation," Eliza said kindly.
"You see, my heart?" Khorsandi pulled his son close with a wan smile. "Your maman will help you with lessons."
Farook nodded grimly, suddenly old beyond his years.
"Farook?" Doyle stood up decisively. "We should be on our way, then. We can arrive before lunch if we hurry."
"I pack food!" Sharma declared, scurrying into the kitchen.
The boy stared up at his father, his lower lip quivering, but just as he had done when faced with three hulking brutes, he squared his shoulders and nodded like a good soldier. "I will make you proud."
"You always do." Khorsandi kissed him on the top of his shining black hair. "Let's go get your case and some flowers from the rose bush on the balcony for your mother." Eliza followed them out as if uncomfortable being in the same room with the CI5 operatives.
Bodie glanced at Doyle, aware of his duty, but wary of letting his partner out of his sight. It was irrational at best, Doyle was a trained agent. At worst, it was maudlin and sentimental, and he liked to believe he was better than that. He forced a cocky grin. "When you stop for ice cream, get one for me."
"We'll call in at regular intervals," Doyle said stiffly. "Murph, keep Bodie out of trouble. He's been stroppy of late."
Murphy grinned, nudging Cougan. "You'll find Bodie's got a temper."
"That's spreading it on a bit thick!" Bodie protested, knowing what Doyle was doing. Distracting him—and the damned lyrics to the song came back to him when Doyle raised his head and caught him with those gorgeous green cat's eyes. "Mama, he's making eyes at me. Mama, he's awfully nice to me. Mama, he's almost breakin' my heart…"
Maybe it wasn't such a bad song after all.
Sid hated head injuries. To be specific, he hated being tucked up in hospital. Utterly boring.
Steeplechase riding had been a violent sport. He'd spent far too many evenings after a race waiting for some fresh-out-of-medical-school doctor to examine him, tut over x-rays that revealed just how many bones he'd broken in life, and commit him for a twenty-four hour watch. He'd hoped that private investigation would put an end to that sort of nonsense, but so far, it hadn't. Maybe he should change careers once again—racecar driving sounded safer.
He glanced up at the telly with the volume turned down. A news reader was silently summarizing the key points of Aladdin's disappearance. The words 'Ransom of one hundred thousand pounds' scrolled under a photograph of the horse winning the Richard Francis Cup.
Sid had no love for any person who stooped to abusing horses and small children. A deep rage burned in his belly that he hadn't been able to stop the crime.
His head ached so badly he had an urge to smack himself against a wall just to see if the old movie adage that a second crack on the head fixed the first one was really true. He knew it wasn't. He'd had two concussions in less than a week once. The first when he'd fallen off his horse during a race on a Monday and slept overnight in hospital, and the second when he raced again on Friday, just to get knocked off his ride by a rival jockey.
He'd managed the aftereffects of a concussion so much better when he was young and fit. Ten years since he'd trotted out on his first professional race. Five since he'd won the Grand National. Three since Genie's Lantern landed on his hand, the special horseracing shoes slicing through his tendons and muscle, smashing delicate bone, obliterating nerves. Just over two years since the hand was amputated. He would never have survived if not for a push into investigating by his ex-father in law Charles and Chico's effervescent charm and good spirits beside him all the way. Nothing to be done then, but ignore the pain and persevere.
Thinking was torture, but he did it anyway. Wouldn't be the first time he'd been labeled a masochist—his ex-wife had frequently called him one.
What could he recall, exactly?
Ramen had met with this Sam, Kath Devlin's beau in the car park at Sandown. Could the three of them have slashed the tyres on the Cortina? If so, was Kath in on the scheme?
Picking up the bedside phone, Sid dialed the number for Carson and Sons Stables in Epsom from memory.
Old Carson, who was upwards of ninety, answered. His voice might quaver, but his brain still worked far better than most. "Halley! This business with Aladdin is abysmal. Do you have any news from his owner?"
"No, Robert, I was hoping you'd heard something." The phone clamped in his steel and rubber hand, Sid pressed his free hand against his forehead. The pressure helped alleviate the headache enough to speak.
"Young Robbie spoke with Mr Khorsandi by phone late Sunday, but the police were here and we didn't have time to get a full account," Carson said slowly. Young Robbie, Robert's grandson, was his son Robert Two's boy. "We were horrified, but we never…"
"No one's suspecting you at all, never you mind," Sid assured, looking away from a weather map on the telly to the hospital room door as Chico breezed in carrying a bag from Marks and Spencers. Good! That meant he could probably break out of this place very soon. "I was wondering if Kath had returned from her evening with the young man."
"No, and our Margaret's that concerned." Our Margaret was his wife. She was in her eighties and considered all the 'lads' her extended family. "Kath should have come home already—"
"Do you know where she went with Sam?"
"To a bed and breakfast in Bedford, on the A6, I don't know the place…" He trailed off as if the implications had just come to him. "Kath is a good girl!"
"I'm sure she is, Robert," Sid agreed, watching Chico unpack scones and steaming cups of coffee. Despite the headache, he was hungrier than he realized. Maybe food would help both his stomach and his head. "It's more Sam I'm wondering about."
"That Sam's a smart one, goes to university. I wondered what a man like that would want with Kath—she's only interested in horses, you see. Never cracks a book. She's a simple girl, our Kath. Knows how to talk to the horses and…" His voice quavered more than usual. "Do you think she's in trouble?"
Gratefully accepting the polystyrene cup of coffee from his partner, Sid took a slow breath. If Kath hadn't returned home by—he gestured for Chico to hold up the wrist with a watch on it—nine thirty am, was it because she was scared with the horsenapping all over the news or because she wasn't physically able to get home? Would Sam force her to care for the horse under threat of bodily harm? Or possibly worse, kill her for what she might or might not know? "We're working with the authorities, CI5. We need to know as much as possible. What's Sam's last name?"
Sid heard Robert inhale noisily through the phone line and start to say something. "Would you like that? I don't ken the lad's name. Isn't that strange?"
Sid really didn't think so. Sam was, in his estimation, some sort of con man.
Chico was stuffing a scone into his mouth, butter dripping down the side of his hand with his eyes fixed on Sid as if he was trying to decipher the other half of the conversation.
Sid covered the receiver with his flesh and bone hand. "Robert Carson doesn't know Sam's name."
"Wot a surprise, that," Chico said, heavy on the sarcasm. He licked the butter off his hand. "Wot about Robert Two or Young Robbie? Or any of the other 'And Sons'?"
"Could you ask around, Robert? Surely someone gleaned the name?" Sid asked into the phone.
"The little 'un's just come in, he's nearly of an age with Sam and Kath," Robert relayed. "Just a mo, Halley."
Assuming the 'little 'un' was Young Robbie's youngest boy, Conal, who was nineteen and going to Cambridge to study, Sid waited and sipped his coffee. Blessed stuff. Almost immediately the fog in his brain lifted and he was perishing for the scone. He ate it without butter, still unable to completely convince himself that he didn't need to stay underweight to qualify for racing. It had been so long since he'd eaten butter, he'd lost a taste for it anyway.
"This bloke's slipperier than an electric eel," Chico commented, starting in on his second scone. That one had jam.
Sid liked jam. He waggled his prosthetic fingers at Chico, holding the phone between his shoulder and chin.
Grinning, Chico passed over a miniature pot of strawberry preserves. Sid nodded his thanks, spreading the sweet on top of a second scone.
"I'm beginning to dislike this Sam very much indeed," Sid said around his breakfast.
"Halley!" Robert came back on the phone breathless. "Conal says his name is Sam Penberthy. Will that help you?"
"Very much! Thank you." Sid hung up with a feeling of triumph that completely eclipsed the pain in his skull. "We have a name. One Sam Penberthy was supposed to take Kath to spend the night in Bedford." He waited for Chico to get the connection.
Chico had a quick brain under all those golden curls. It only took him a moment, "Oh, yeah…" he drawled. "On the way to Newmarket, isn't it? Do you think they made it?"
"I knew there was a reason I kept you on." Sid flipped his eyes down to Chico's groin packed very tightly into a pair of track suit bottoms.
"You are feeling chipper this morning." Chico batted his baby blues flirtatiously. "You mean other than my superior karate abilities, my judo skills and my prowess under the sheets of your…" He snaked a slender hand under the linens toward Sid's leg.
"None of that here, cretin!" Sid shoved the hand out again. "How did you get on this morning?"
"Rang a towing service to pick up the car at Sandown and had it brought to the garage. All four tyres, Sid! D'you know how much that set us back?" Chico licked his fingers free of jam, fuming.
"We've got money in the coffers," Sid said mildly, glad to be mostly rid of the bleeding pounding in his head that he could even tolerate Chico's rant.
Chico tossed the empty cups in the rubbish bin with an extra vicious twist of his wrist as if he'd like to have a go with more than inanimate objects. "They'll be done in under an hour and will fetch us from hospital if you're ready to go?"
"Waiting for the doctor to sign the discharge." Sid wiggled out of the bed, standing up in his hospital gown. "We should tell Cowley, Bodie and Doyle what we've learned. Bring us a pair of trousers."
"Don't know about that." Chico gave him a long appraising look. "I'm keen to try an amputee with knobby knees." He spoiled his act by cracking himself up and tossed Sid's trousers out of the small carryall he'd brought.
"I still don't know why I had to go," Farook said petulantly for at least the fifth time in the last five kilometres. "He treats me like a child!" The last was spit out with vehemence. Farook crossed his arms defiantly, sunk into the seat of the car like an angry gargoyle.
Doyle had exhausted his off pat answer, 'your father loves you and wants to protect you' by the time they'd made it through mid-morning London traffic and merged onto the A6. He struggled to remain calm in the face of Farook's near tantrum and could easily imagine Bodie chuckling madly at Doyle's attempts to cool his own temper. Bodie always said he was too hot under the collar.
"Even Auntie got to stay and she's an old woman!" Farook continued, lower lip jutted out beyond his upper one.
Privately, Doyle thought it made him look like Winston Churchill about to deliver some bracing speech on the radio, which cheered his own outlook considerably. "You and your father spend a great deal of time together, don't you?"
Farook stared at him in surprise, obviously not expecting this change of subject. He narrowed his eyes, probably assuming he was being humoured. "I'm his eldest son. A few generations ago, in our country, I'd be considered a man on my thirteenth birthday, which is only three…" He reconsidered quickly and changed the number, "two and a bit years from now."
Which meant Farook was counting his eleventh birthday and that wasn't until May, but Doyle let that slide. "You want to be a man so badly, then behave like one. Sometimes, the best way to mount a defense is to retreat and plan properly." He should follow his own advice instead of doling it out to the boy.
"But that's not very brave!" Farook retorted, staring out the windscreen at the passing cars.
"So bravery is rushing headlong into a battle without a thought in your brain instead of taking time for strategy and observation?"
The boy turned his head reluctantly, chewing on that idea.
"What would Wellington, General Montgomery, Lawrence of Arabia or Mountbatten have done without battle plans?" Doyle thanked his early history teachers that a few important names surfaced in his brain.
"Lost?" Farook frowned and lapsed into a quiet contemplation. He took out a packet of chocolate biscuits Sharma had packed and munched for a few minutes. "My father took me fox hunting with Uncle Nazir once—last year. I thought it'd be grand, jumping the horses over hedges and racing after the fox."
"Wasn't it?" Doyle asked, trying to imagine ever going fox hunting with his da. Ever doing anything that he'd been interested in with his da.
"Yes, but it was bloody cold and really early, and after about half an hour of riding, my bottom was sore." Farook had the good grace to laugh at himself. "Then there was a lot of waiting around, adults talking about where to ride and which route was the best. It was boring. The best bit was when the dogs got the fox and we all went to a pub to celebrate. I had lemonade, and my father was really proud of me."
"Then show him that you're grown up enough to accept the decision to protect your mother and sisters—"
"And little Bahman." Farook pulled a face.
"While your father deals with this threat. He has a great many things on his mind and knowing that you are safe alleviates one of them."
"Do you think they've killed Al?" Farook asked, suddenly reverting to small, scared boy. He licked biscuit crumbs off his upper lip.
"There's no point to it," Doyle said with assurance, slowing the Capri to allow a large lorry to pull in front of him. "If the horsenappers want your father's cooperation, then it is in their best interest to keep Aladdin alive." Or so he fervently hoped.
Farook nodded solemnly, his dark eyes glistening with tears.
Doyle thought frantically for some topic that would stopper up the waterworks. "Karate, fox hunting, cricket—you and your father do quite a lot of sport?"
"And watch football on the telly. Kharistan played El Salvador last week." Farook kicked his foot at an imaginary ball, nearly smashing into the dashboard.
"That's right, I watched with Bodie." Well, the television had been on, but neither of them had actually paid very much attention to the score. Bodie had restrained Doyle with a broom handle threaded through the sleeves of his jumper and draped him over the sofa to bugger him thoroughly. One of Doyle's favourite nights of footie ever.
"We always watch the World Cup together," Farook said, swiping a hand across his eyes. "Kharistan hasn't got any great players this year, but someday they will go to the finals. And Papa says we can get front row seats, in whatever country the finals are played. Did you go to watch football with your father?"
"My da preferred going down to his local and listen on the radio," Doyle confessed, his belly tightening at the thought. Then coming home and thrashing any of his offspring daft enough to mouth off to a drunken man. Young Ray Doyle never could keep his mouth closed when provoked. He could still feel the sharp smack of his father's leather belt on his bare arse. He wasn't about to admit that to Farook—he'd never even told Bodie.
Doyle cleared his throat, surprised at how much the memory cost him. He'd very nearly forgotten that he was driving. Keeping his eyes firmly on the little Japanese import car in front of him, he forced those feelings of suppressed fury and helplessness away. He was a CI5 agent, able to take down an opponent in a variety of ways. He'd never let his father swat him now. "I played some football when I was in high school. But I was small and slight, and had to learn to defend myself against bullies, so I did karate and judo."
"No wonder you're so good!" Farook exclaimed. "Can we give a demonstration to my mother and sisters? They've never seen me do my katas."
"Sounds like a good idea." Doyle nodded, the pressure in his chest easing. Damn, he couldn't let those memories swamp him when he was on the look out for the enemy and had no back-up. "And you can show me the stables where your uncle keeps the hunters."
Bodie's r/t chimed as he was walking in the front door of CI5 headquarters. "3.7 here," he said, hoping for word from Doyle. He hated being separated from his partner for any length of time. With Jax and McCabe on guard duty at the Khorsandi flat, and Murphy and Cougan off-shift for twelve hours, he felt like the weight of the assignment had fallen on his shoulders. He wanted to re-interrogate the Duck cousins now that he had more background, and then drive down to Oxford to look for Sam.
"3.7," Betty's voice was chirpy on the transmitter. "I've had a call from Sid Halley. He wants you to ring him back."
"Just coming up the stairs," Bodie related with half a smile, glancing at an 'out of service' sign on the door of the lift. "The lift's not working."
"Yes, just exercises your thigh muscles that much more. Macklin's quite keen to leave the lift broken, but a repairman is coming later this morning."
Bodie took the steps two at a time and arrived in Betty's office as she finished speaking. Her brown eyes merry, she laughed with delight when he held up his r/t, mashed the button and said. "I'm here now."
"You're ridiculous," Betty scolded. "Mr Halley's left his number. It's a car phone, did you know?"
"I did not." Bodie gestured to the desks across the hall. "I'll ring him in there, shall I?"
"You shall." Betty winked with a come hither smile that Bodie pretended not to see.
He'd dabbled with her once upon a time, but never tarried. Doyle was the only one who really got him revved up now. The phone call with Halley was brief but informative—Sam had a surname and Kath had not surfaced. That did not bode well for her. Bodie walked down to the basement levels where CI5 was still housing the prisoners with a renewed determination to get to the truth.
Problem was, he'd never really sussed out which Mohammed was which. He chose Mohammed Ansar, who turned out to be the one Doyle had nicknamed Huey. The man was a mountain with skin so dark he could have been African or East Indian, beady black eyes and short inky black curls. No beard like many of the Kharistani men had.
His thick black eyebrows scrunched low over his eyes, Ansar regarded Bodie silently from a ladder-backed chair. Both wrists were secured with metal cuffs, but Bodie felt a definite aura of menace coming from the man. He was glad of the quiet support from his colleague, Charlie Smith, who had guard duty that morning. Charlie stood just inside the door, his craggy face revealing very little. He was a good man to have on hand, despite losing a portion of one lung in a shoot out some years back.
Bodie straddled a chair, staring at Ansar. "Me mates tell me you speak English, Ansar, so don't pretend you can't understand me."
Ansar grunted, sounding petulant, but finally said, "I understand." His accent was heavy and very similar to Khorsandi's.
"What's your favourite dish at Shaparak?" Bodie asked quickly. "The khoresh is fantastic, but I'm keen to try to joojeh. I like chicken."
Ansar's eyes widened, obviously surprised that Bodie knew the place.
"I'll wager you and your club of half-wits call yourself the Kharistani Freedom Fighters to pump up your egos, then order a round of kabobs and nosh in the rooms in the back without a word of political rhetoric."
"We are proud!" Ansar blurted before he realised he'd been had. He glowered, lapsing into silence.
"Not a fan of kabobs, then? The lamb in yoghurt looked delicious, too. Is this Behrouz Jalil a member, as well, or does he just finance the little coffee klatch?" Bodie stood up to put a bit of intimidation into his questions. He wanted results fast. It was so much easier with Doyle there to bounce off of.
"You know nothing of our struggles, Englishman!" The big man surged to his feet but Charlie Smith stepped forward, a Luger suddenly in his hand.
"Don't try it."
"Thanks," Bodie said casually, waving Charlie back. He'd never been overly concerned, especially after seeing how easily Doyle and his merry band of karate aficionados had taken Mohammed down. The man was enormous, but not a particularly good fighter. The adage about bringing Mohammed to the mountain flitted through his brain.
"Then tell me about your group," Bodie said firmly, staring at his foe until Ansar sat down again. "We've seen your brother go in Sunday night. Who hired you? Ramen Khorsandi?" He reeled off the questions without taking a breath between each one, watching Ansar for any small reaction. "Who's Sam Penberthy? Play nice with us or we may simply deport you and let the Kharistani police deal with you instead of a nice, civilised trial here in the UK." The Kharistan justice system still had hanging and stoning on the books, at least it did the last time Bodie had visited the country.
Bodie hadn't thought it was possible for a man so dark skinned to blanch, but he did turn a sickly ashy colour. "My brother is not involved," Ansar muttered, his jaw muscles twitching.
Bingo, Bodie thought triumphantly. A point for Doyle's powers of observation.
"Sayed has only been in this country a few months. He only goes to the meeting to make new friends."
"Some friends, plotting kidnappings and assault. Maybe he should have tried the Boy Scouts instead." Bodie leaned into Ansar's face, baring his teeth. "We'll pick him up quicker than you can whistle. He'd be an easy nut to crack. So what's Ramen's connection?"
Ansar had regained his angry composure at the threat of having his brother arrested. "Ramen Khorsandi is our leader," he sneered haughtily. "We will start a revolution in Kharistan, to sweep through the corrupt so-called democratic monarchy and seize control of our country's future!"
"Dream on, sunshine," Bodie snapped to get him to shut up. He glanced over at Charlie who just shrugged. "So Ramen Khorsandi hired the Kharistani Freedom Fighters to do his dirty work, threatening a woman at her shopping, kidnapping a young boy and then a horse. Bet you trip up old grannies on zebra crossings. Not what I'd call revolutionaries."
"We had nothing to do with the horse!" Ansar jerked his wrists in the restraints. "We were here…"
"Although Hamidi works in the stables, doesn't he?" Bodie put a few more pieces together, poking a finger at Ansar. He should have questioned Hamidi more on which stable he worked for in Epsom. "Maybe one near Carson and Sons, where Aladdin's Treasure was trained? He was supposed to help out, wasn't he, but we nicked him. Penberthy had to force his bird, Kath, in on the job."
Ansar froze, his mouth agape for a second before he closed it abruptly and refused to answer anything else.
That was all right, Bodie had gotten what he came for.
The car phone chirped while Chico was trying to manoeuver the Cortina through lunchtime traffic in Bedford High Street. Robert Carson had asked around his stables and come up with the name of the B&B where Kath and Sam were supposed to stay the night. Fools Rush Inn was on Merrithew Mews, but there must be some sort of accident because all the roads surrounding the area were jammed with cars.
"Sid Halley." Sid picked up the receiver from between the seats with a grimace, rubbing his forehead gingerly.
Chico stopped because he couldn't inch the car forward any more without hitting the bumper in front of him and glanced at his partner with concern. It had not been his idea to go traipsing off the moment Sid was released from hospital, but the idiot would have his way. He never let up until he'd achieved his objective, his health be damned. Chico drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, frustrated and antsy with the delay.
Sid's tight expression of pain softened into grief. "Oh, Robert, I'm sorry."
Up ahead, Chico could hear the familiar undulation of a police siren and his heart plummeted. This close to the location of the B and B, the presence of the authorities wasn't a good omen. He peered over the roofs of all the cars in front, trying to make out which turning was for Merrithew.
Sid replaced the phone with a deep sigh. "Kath is dead. The owner of the bed and breakfast found her this morning when she went up to clean. Neck snapped. A Mrs Gibbs found the address and phone number for Carson and Sons in Kath's handbag."
Chico gulped, sickened, even though he'd begun to suspect as much. "And no Sam, I take it."
"No Sam—from what Mrs Gibbs told Robert, she never heard him say his name. Kath registered under her name for the both of them. The owner hadn't seen Sam since the night before." Sid frowned, the guilt deepening the lines around his mouth and eyes. He looked exhausted.
"Sid…" Chico wanted to say something, do something that would take away some of the pressure Sid put on himself, but nothing seemed right against the death of the vibrant woman he'd talked to only yesterday.
"Don't, Chico!" Sid said sharply. "We get this bugger, that's the only thing that matters."
The congestion of cars was easing as vehicles took alternate routes away from the crime scene. Chico drove cautiously to Merrithew, slowing long enough to see a collection of panda cars parked haphazardly in front of a pretty white Victorian style house with a flowering cherry tree in the garden.
"We talk to the owner, or move along, lit'le doggies?" Chico gave the last a fillip of John Wayne. His American western accent was laced with Cockney, but the minor attempt at humour worked. A partial smile drifted over Sid's lips for half a second.
"I doubt we'd get past that phalanx of coppers." Sid shaded his eyes against the bright sun and dipped into a pocket for sunglasses. He came up with both sunglasses and a packet of cigarettes. Poking a fag between the stiffened fingers of his false hand, he donned the shades with the other. "I say let's go talk to the other lads at Carson's."
"I'll drive if you'll kip until we get there?" Chico bargained, waving away the smoke when Sid lit his cigarette. "You look like you've been trampled by an 'orse."
"I well know what that feels like, this is more crushed by a mountain…" Sid trailed off, the end of his cigarette glowing bright yellow as he inhaled. "Something we need to concentrate on, my son. Who exactly snatched Aladdin?"
Chico swung the steering wheel to go left on a roundabout, joining a stream of cars onto the main road out of Bedford. "If we knew their names, there'd be no case!"
"But we do have a few pieces of the puzzle." Sid switched the cigarette to his dominant hand to tap the ashes out the open window. "Sam can't have been the one to nick the horse because he took Kath on the romantic evening, and both were seen at the B and B...."
"Which means Kath probably weren't in on the heist," Chico put in. "Sam didn't want her to know they'd snatched Aladdin until it was all said and done."
"Exactly." Sid tossed his cigarette out the car window. "All these brutes were large, most likely foreign…"
"And 'ad to 'ave some ability with 'orses since they dealt with Aladdin in the transport with nary a sound." Chico caught on, jumping ahead of his partner. "Stable lads, imported from Kharistan or somewhere around that area. So—"
"What stable uses groomsmen and temporary workers from Kharistan?" Sid finished, leaning back as if satisfied with the decision. "Let's go talk to some lads. Carson and Sons employs quite a few."
Chico grinned. "And lads from other stables talk to each other."
Bodie got into Sam Penberthy's flat a few streets away from the Oxford University Maths building by picking the lock. As he worked the thin piece of metal into the simple lock, he flashed on Doyle kicking in the window glass to gain access to a house. This was at least slightly more discreet. Bodie might have held out his badge and gone in with official capacity, but the landlord to the less than desirable building was out, according to the young woman who let Bodie into the lobby. She'd been juggling a load of books and barely paid a moment's notice to him.
Bodie had the place to himself. As long as Penberthy didn't return unexpectedly.
And he was fairly certain that Penberthy would not. Bodie had already spoken with the dean of the college. Sam hadn't shown up for his morning classes and had missed an important tea for the students on Sunday. As had Ramen Khorsandi.
Because they'd been at Sandown, stealing a horse.
The dean had been the chatty sort, not in the least suspicious of Bodie's interest in two of his students. Ramen Khorsandi was a good scholar, not particularly keen on maths though. Dean Morris was counseling Ramen to change his studies to something in the humanities or social sciences.
Bodie knew exactly where Ramen had been on Sunday, but he didn't say a word. He also knew that when CI5 operatives came by Sunday night, Ramen hadn't been found at his college or in his flat. They'd found nothing incriminating in his home, but had taken away several boxes of papers and banking information. Bodie had seen the boxes in Betty's office. Where Ramen had gone was the big question.
Penberthy's flat was small: a main room containing a bed, small sofa and a bookcase, with a table covered in papers shoved under the only window, and a kitchenette in one corner. The loo and a wardrobe stuffed full of clothes completed the place. Could the lab team get fingerprints off the dusty surfaces?
He shook his head, examining the books piled willy-nilly on Penberthy's bookcase. Apparently, Sam shared Ramen's interest in Marx, Lenin and communism. Bodie was chuffed to find a student ID card tucked into a mathematics textbook. At last, a good likeness of Kath's beau. The photo on the front was in black and white, but Sam Penberthy looked to have sandy hair with a sharply pointed chin and nose.
Just to cap the connection to both Ramen and the horse world, there was a photograph of a younger Sam on the wall, wearing pinks and standing next to a group of similarly dressed riders. Fox hunting, anyone? Tally-ho.
Bodie poked around without much hope of finding out who Penberthy was or exactly where Aladdin might be. There were no obvious clues like a detailed list of plans to steal the horse or an invoice for hiring a horse transport. Despite the fact that Sam had apparently been seeing Kath for several months, there were no photographs of her or love letters. Very obviously, he hadn't cared overly much for the young woman.
Letting himself out of the flat, Bodie wandered down the street to a small café for some lunch. Eating a chicken sandwich and drinking a cup of tea gave him time to think. What was the next logical move? Would it be smarter to stick close to Khorsandi, join his partner at the family home, or continue to search for the perpetrators?
"Anything more, love?" The cashier girl was probably in her late teens, with safety pins in her earlobes, her blue dyed hair shaved into a mohawk and a ripped t-shirt with the legend "Sex Pistols, God Save the Queen," splashed across the front. "We've got fab strawberry tart and German Chocolate cake."
"Not another bite, petal." Bodie grinned at her. "Do you take classes at the university?"
"Cor." She rolled her eyes. "I'm not for books." She held out her arms, gesturing at her attire with a wry smile. "More of a music fan, yeah? Me name's Aspadril. Gonna have me own band some day. Got three chords on the guitar."
"That can't be the name your mother gave you," Bodie remarked, bemused. He'd refused to answer to William or Billy, the name his mother gave him, ever since she died. "I'm Bodie."
"That disaster's hidden away on me birth certificate." Aspadril's blue eyes twinkled merrily. "Pay for some cake, or be on your way, handsome man, I've got other customers. Got to earn an honest wage."
Bodie glanced around. Since it was late for lunch, there were only two other people in the place, both eating soup and reading textbooks. Not exactly bustling. "Students come in here from the University?"
She nodded noncommittally.
He'd have to do better than that to keep her interest. "I'll take the big chocolate biscuit, then." Bodie pointed to a glass jar on the counter filled with delectable home baked treats. "Do you know Sam Penberthy? He lives down the road."
"What's he look like when he's at home?" Aspadril used a paper napkin to extract a biscuit and slide it into a small bag. "That's fifty p."
Bodie thought back to Sid's description of the man, combined with the photos he'd seen, and bluffed just a little. "About my height, fair hair, light colored eyes, very beaky nose." He handed over five pounds for the biscuit. "Keep the change."
She pursed her cherry red lips, a dimple appearing in one cheek which was totally at odds with her artfully fierce appearance. "Wears a checked flat cap like he's someone's uncle? The shite." She curled her lip with a jut of her chin. "Him and his friend, a Middle-Eastern bloke, come in here regular, order a coffee—" She held up one finger, the nail lacquered black. "One, mind you, for the two of them, and talk for hours, scarin' off the paying customers, going on about common government and social reform. Right boring if you ask me."
Bodie did have a photo of Ramen Khorsandi. He placed it on the counter while Aspadril was pocketing the Queen's portrait.
"Yeah, that's the blighter. Real cheap wad, he was." She waved as a couple walked into the café. "Be with you in a tick, love."
Hers was good corroboration, but it didn't give Bodie any new facts. "When did you last see them?"
"Friday?" she answered after a moment. "Yeah, because I was waiting for the green grocer to deliver and he were late."
"Did you ever see him with anyone else?"
Aspadril ran a slender finger over her stiff brush of hair with an inward expression as if something pertinent had just occurred to her. "Stay just a mo until I give them the menu, such as it is." She trotted off to the table by the window, her itty-bitty blue skirt barely covering her black lace knickers.
Bodie sternly told himself he was far too old to be ogling a girl still in her teens. He could be her—older brother or possibly dirty-minded uncle. He sat down, intending to nibble on the biccie. It was delicious and he'd polished off the entire thing by the time Aspadril returned.
"Gemma!" she hollered to the cook in the back room. "Two cucumbers, with butter, no crust and rabbit food."
"Tea sandwiches and salad?" Bodie translated with a chuckle.
"You're quick, for a copper." Aspadril stood resolutely in front of him, fists planted on her black belt studded with silver spikes.
"Not a copper."
"Then why are you asking all the questions, hoping I'll answer if you tuck a few bob in me bra, Bodie-man?"
"Did I do that?" Bodie asked innocently, shifting his eyes up to her overly mascaraed ones. Because he was sitting and she was standing, her pert breasts were right in his face. Didn't help that Sex was emblazoned over the right one and Pistols over the left. To get his mind off the obvious, he pictured Doyle naked, going down on him.
"You wanted to." She dimpled again, too repressible to stay stern for long. "Listen—I only just thought of this when you showed me that photo. And it's not something you heard from me, yeah?"
"I was never even in this café." Bodie balled up the paper bag full of chocolate crumbs and pitched it into a rubbish bin. "No evidence to show for it."
"My uncle owns a lorry hire firm on the edge of the city, and he often rings up for a takeaway sarnie and some crisps after I close up at three, doesn't he?" Aspadril filled two glasses with water and hustled them over to the waiting customers. Coming back, she leaned against the counter as if more interested in the glass jar full of chocolate biscuits than Bodie, but he could tell she was simply uncomfortable talking all of a sudden. "I don't know why this gives me the heebie-jeebies." She shook her head, making the safety pins in her earlobes sway.
"Something bothered you about your uncle?" Bodie asked carefully, afraid to spook her.
"Nah, weren't Uncle Ewan. I went over to his office with his favourite, tomato, onion and cheese on white bread, salt and vinegar crisps. Always takes the same." She turned to face him, her blue eyes an almost perfect match to her hair. "Your Sam come in…"
"Not my Sam." Bodie gave her an encouraging smile.
"With another man, not that one." She flicked a black nail at Ramen's photo. "But quite like him. Big ox of a bloke, with dark hair and eyes, same sort of blue gown and small knit cap. Looked at me like he wouldn't have given me the time of day, said something tha'sounded right dirty in his twisty language…" There was a brief glint of tears in her bright eyes before her natural feisty edge resurfaced. "As if he had any call to be judging me, at what I care to put on in the morning!"
"You're marvellous, my girl!" Bodie clapped both hands on her bony shoulders and bussed her firmly on the forehead, feeling lecherous just the same. Her earthy sensuality and blunt humour would definitely be too overt for a man raised in Kharistan. "So those two came in to hire a lorry?"
Aspadril blushed, turning into the awkward teen she probably was under all the make-up and bluster. "No, a horse van."
"When?" Bodie asked with growing excitement.
"Aspadril! This is exactly what I needed." Bodie wanted to dance a little jig. He'd come in for lunch and got so much more. "How do I find this wonderful office?"
"Great large green sign, Rhys Lorries." She waved a hand to the left, grinning at his enthusiasm. "Out Watlington Road, past Cowley."
That gave him a mental chuckle. Winking, Bodie tucked another fiver under the strap of her black lace bra. "You're right, I was thinking about doing that."
"Randy git," Aspadril said with a dimpled smirk, plucking out the note. "I'd have to tell me boyfriend, if he was about."
He found Ewan Rhys' hire firm just where Aspadril had said it would be—and stared at the collection of vehicles behind the fence. There were large and small lorries, tractors, dinky little vans like milkmen used, and white horse boxes trimmed with green stripes. Two of them.
"Finally!" A brown-haired man with bright blue eyes exactly like his niece looked up from his typewriter when Bodie walked into the closet sized office. "You a copper come about the missing van?"
Intriguing. "Probably not in the way you expect." Bodie held out his CI5 identification—this was official business, not lunch. Cowley would want all the I's dotted and T's crossed. "Bodie from CI5, we're investigating the theft of a horse and got a tip that the suspects may have hired a horse van from you."
"What horse?" Rhys asked, glancing at the newspaper half buried under a pile of paperwork. The headline blared, "Lost Treasure!" "The one's been all over the news and telly? Aladdin's Treasure, won the silver cup yesterday?"
Bodie evaded the direct question by pulling out Ramen Khorsandi's photo. "Our intel said that a Sam Penberthy and a man who may look somewhat like this one came in Saturday afternoon to hire a van."
"And never turned it in! The bastard. I've been in a paddy all morning, and the phone number he left's been disconnected," Rhys said, his face bright red with indignation. "Rang up the coppers about the theft this morning, didn't I?"
"I can issue a report to the Oxford Police," Bodie said politely. "But right now, I need the name of the man—was it Sam Penberthy?"
"Nah, I'd ken a name like that one." Rhys held up the invoice from the top of a stack next to his left arm. "Phinn Samuels."
Which was an obvious reverse of Penberthy's actual name. "Did you get a driving licence with that?"
"Of course, wha'd you think, I don't know how to run me own business?" Rhys pointed to a line at the bottom of the invoice. "Tha's the number plate for the van, as well."
So Sam had ID in more than one name; that complicated matters. "It's urgent that we know as much as possible to get these two." Bodie copied down the information on a small notebook he had in his jacket pocket. "Did you get the name of the other man?"
"The Ayatollah's bodyguard?" Rhys quipped with a grimace. "No name. Stood in back with arms crossed over his chest like he were going to beat me face in. My niece was here. He scared the crap out of her."
"Your niece?" Bodie asked without giving anything away.
"Hermione. She dresses…" Rhys shrugged with a fondness that endeared him to Bodie. "Provocative—she's a good girl, just showing her spirit, and that Ayatollah, he…was a nasty piece of work. Lecherous, evil."
No wonder Aspadril had been so uncomfortable. Bodie was increasingly furious with Ramen, Sam and their cronies. These sods picked on the vulnerable and weak instead of people their own size.
"It's that Aladdin, innit?" Rhys asked solemnly, his ruddy skin now pale. "Samuels and Ayatollah stole the horse in my van."
"Quite possibly," Bodie admitted, flipping the cover closed on the notepad. "We'll contact you if the van is found. Is there a phone box nearby?"
"In the pub car park."
The Singing Hinny was directly across the road. Any other day, Bodie would have stopped in for a pint, but a sense of urgency was building in his chest. Ramen, Penberthy and company already had grievous bodily harm, thievery and horsenapping to their growing list of offences. These were dangerous men. One wrong move could prove fatal for the good guys. He didn't like the thought of Doyle all alone surrounded by women and children in Newmarket. He resolved to go up there, whether The Cow approved or not.
"Bodie," Cowley answered brusquely after a single ring. "Well past time to check in, 3.7. I hope you've got something useful."
"Number plate for the stolen horse van, an alias for Sam Penberthy—and the location of his flat," Bodie offered, looking up at the cloudy sky above. The morning had been clear but looked like rain was in the forecast again.
"Young Barnes called in the last hour, as well. The lass, Kath Devlin was found murdered in Bedford."
"Bloody hell," Bodie erupted, the knot in his chest tightening. This changed everything—which one had killed the poor girl? "I've talked to a man and his niece. Both said that there was a Middle-Eastern bloke with Penberthy, a cruel, nasty man."
"Capable of murder?" Cowley asked speculatively.
Bodie could imagine his superior toying with his spectacles, the gleam of investigation in his blue eyes. "Quite possibly," he commented, "but only conjecture since we don't know who the blighter is."
"Those Trackdown lads may have a lead on that, as well," Cowley continued. "They've proved their worth and they tracked down—" he cackled at his own joke, "a stable a few kilometres past Carson and Sons, which is where…"
"Aladdin was trained," Bodie finished. He shifted the phone to his other ear and leaned against the phone box.
"Arabian Farms, in West Ewell," Cowley said. "Owned by a Middle-Eastern consortium. We'll be digging deeper to find the parent company or financial backer with all speed. Manned entirely by youths on work visas from Kharistan, Saudi Arabian and Iran, to name a few."
"Hamidi's old employer, I presume." Bodie perked up. "Did Chico and Sid go over to the place?"
"Found it deserted, but with signs that a horse, or horses had been there recently. How quickly can you get over there?"
"I'm in Oxford still." He quickly calculated the distance to Epsom. "About an hour, sir?"
"Then be on your horse and gallop, 3.7!" Cowley commanded. "We're sending Malone's boys, you'll find Halley and Barnes."
"Have you any word from Doyle and the boy?" Bodie asked before ringing off.
"Will be arriving at the Khorsandi manor very soon," Cowley said swiftly. "Jax reported that there's been no more word from the horsenapper at the Khorsandi flat. We're on a deadline here, Bodie. Find that horse before the ransom is paid."
Nazir Khorsandi's home had once been a baronial estate. The guard at the gate had obviously been given orders to let them through because he gave the Capri a wave after a single glance at the passengers. Doyle drove down a long winding lane that passed under a stone arch, through rolling green pastures where yearling horses galloped and sheep grazed, up to a stone house that had probably been built in the mid Victorian era.
"Nice enough for some," Doyle said sarcastically under his breath. The massive stone building had to have twelve bedrooms, at least. How much was this Nazir worth? Khorsandi had said his brother was a millionaire.
He and Farook were climbing out of the car when the ornate wooden front door burst open, emitting a gaggle of women of all sizes, with a bodyguard wearing a suspicious scowl bringing up the rear. Two of the women were dressed identically to Sharma, swathed head to toe in black, the rest were stair-step, little girl versions of Farook. The family resemblance was striking: all strongly took after their father. Although Doyle had never seen Mrs Khorsandi, so how would he know which child favoured her?
There was much hugging and kissing of the prodigal son, which Farook endured with an embarrassed grin. He thrust the wilted bouquet of flowers Karim had sent at his mother and wiggled free of her embrace. "Maman, maman!" Farook bellowed, waving at Doyle. "This is Sensei Doyle, he teaches me karate and is helping Father."
"Thank you!" Transferring the roses to her left arm, Mrs Khorsandi shook Doyle's hand vigorously. "You gave him the ability to fight off those kidnappers."
At least he knew which of the two black robes she was, but not precisely what she looked like. Noor Khorsandi was fairly tall for a woman, and her dark brown eyes were nearly level with Doyle's. "My pleasure. It's been great getting to know your son better."
"Come in," Noor said, never taking her hand off Farook's arm. "We are just about to have lunch; we weren't sure if you would arrive in time." She gave Farook a final hug, murmuring, "Delam barat kheyli tang shodeh."
"I missed you, too, maman," he whispered into the black folds of her gown.
"Farook! Did you bring us anything?" The oldest of the little girls bounced on her toes, beaming. The other three ran around in circles as if they had far too much energy and needed to expend some.
"Parisa!" Noor chastised. "Help your grandmaman set two more places at the table and don't pester your brother." She gave a little shove to two younger ones to follow their veiled grandmother.
"Father did send some sweeties," Farook announced. "They're in my rucksack."
"Then you can dole them out after a proper lunch. All of you, into the house and wash your hands," Noor ordered like a general. The troops dashed down the main hall into the back of the house. Farook scooped up the tiniest girl and chased after his sisters, laughing.
"You must have attended a British school," Doyle commented when they were relatively alone. "Your accent is more posh than mine will ever be."
Noor laughed, her dark eyes amused. "Yes, I believe I've lived in this country longer than my own between boarding school, university and alternating between England and Kharistan with Karim. But I'm still a Kharistani girl at heart." She tapped her chest with a tilt of her head. "I know some think that wearing the chador is old-fashioned, but I like the old ways. I've decided to do it—Karim doesn't require that."
"You are not quite the stereotype of the submissive woman in a veil most British have," Doyle said, impressed.
"Stereotypes catalogue us, and…" She laughed with a slight shrug. "I refuse to be catalogued. Now I must get Bahman up from his nap before we eat. The dining room is down the corridor to the left."
Doyle stood in the entry hall for a moment to get his bearings, thinking about what she had said. He had to admit that he'd mentally stereotyped her when he heard she'd fled London for the quiet of the country, assuming a frightened little woman with no English. He chuckled to himself, glancing at the silent guard standing beside the archway into the dining room. He was smaller than any of the Duck cousins, but had the bearing of an ex-military man, strong jawed and solid. Doyle would have preferred Bodie at his back. He'd need to do a reccy of the grounds after lunch to establish perimeters and view the security measures for himself.
The girls were already seated at the table, with a miniature twin to Farook, little Bahman, scrambling into his chair when Doyle came in. "Smells delicious, what are we having?" he asked, sitting in the chair next to Farook.
"Falafel, my favourite!" Farook held up half a pitta stuffed with lettuce, small fried balls of chickpea and parsley, topped with creamy sauce.
"I've had this once. It is good," Doyle agreed, instantly recalling the takeaway meal in his flat. Bodie had brought in the bags of food, and after they ate, he'd poured the leftover yoghurt sauce on Doyle's abdomen to lick it off. Doyle bit into his pitta sandwich with a smile on his face.
Doyle rang Cowley after lunch to check in. The old man was out, but he got the latest from Betty. "Your friends, Barnes and Halley, discovered a place called Arabian Farms where the chap you arrested after the karate tournament worked," she said briskly. "Bodie's gone up there to take a look. I'll have him call you when he's free if they get anything new."
"Thanks," Doyle said, disappointed that his mate wasn't there. Not that he'd actually expected to talk to him in the middle of a case such as this one.
"Oh, and one more thing, 4.5," Betty added. "A woman was found dead this morning. Kath Devlin."
"Bloody hell." Doyle breathed out, feeling like he'd been slugged in the belly. "Any actual suspects?"
"Not at present, although this Sam Penberthy is on the list. And Ramen Khorsandi is still on the loose. No-one has seen him."
"Yeah." Doyle frowned, seeing Kath's froth of bright ginger hair glinting in the sun. "I'll call in about six this afternoon."
"Cheerio, then!" Betty hung up.
Doyle sat quite still in the little telephone nook. Was he of any use to CI5 way out here with the family? Or had he been given busy work while Bodie and the others went hunting? He felt like he had been banished to the back of beyond.
"Can we practice our katas?" Farook dashed down the hall, bursting with enthusiasm. "I want to show maman what we did to those men. You and Chico were brilliant!"
"In a bit, Farook. You waded in there like a pro yourself." Doyle stood up, ridding himself of the depressing thoughts. Each operative had their part in the game. It wasn't always obvious who would be the one to apprehend the criminal and bask in glory. He simply doubted it would be him, in this instance. "Show me the grounds. I'd like to see the horses." And the security measures, just in case.
"There are masses of horses!" Farook said with a nod. "You can't even see where the estate ends. Goes on for miles and miles."
That's what Doyle had been afraid of. Miles and miles of land he couldn't patrol.
The girls insisted on coming along with Farook and Doyle to view the stables. After much fuss about putting on wellies and light jackets, they started out of the back door. Memories of his own childhood, the youngest boy with four older sisters came on strong when surrounded by all the little girls. He had a odd pang of regret that he rarely thought about his siblings.
Doyle queued up the children, taking the time to familiarise himself with their names. Parisa was the oldest, eleven to Farook's ten. They were what Doyle's mother would have called Irish twins, much like himself and his sister Maeve, born less than a year apart. Then came eight year old Ara, six year old Darab, three year old Leilah and two year old Bahman—who stayed in the house with his grandmaman. The girls chattered constantly, going on about Cinderella, Grange Hill, the pros and cons of lollies versus wine gums, and whether stoats or hedgehogs would make a better pet.
"I'd prefer a new kitten!" Darab said, skipping backwards to talk and see them all at the same time.
"Maman won't have kittens in the house," Farook said loftily. "And the guards keep dogs at night. The barn cats stay far away from them."
"A kitten would chase the mice," Ara pointed out with a determined pout. "We could name a girl cat Cinderella, or p'haps Snow White."
"But Cinderella likes mice," Darab argued, narrowing her eyes at her older sister. "I don't think that's a good name for a cat."
"My sisters used to have cats when I was young," Doyle put in a comment just to prove he could keep up with the conversation. And then he recalled his father drowning a sackful in the Derwent River. Best he refrained from saying much more.
The area behind the house was divided into several sections. First was a large kitchen garden just beginning to show spring growth. Doyle sniffed appreciatively at the herbs. Two feral striped cats watched the group suspiciously from under a bench, streaking away when Darab came too close.
To the right of the house was a much more formal garden in the French style with rose bushes espaliered along a brick wall, a long perfectly mowed green lawn bordering a burbling fountain, and tall poplar trees swaying in the midday breeze. There had been a hint of rain down in London, but in Newmarket, the sky was blue with fluffy white clouds overhead.
The working part of the estate was down a path behind the kitchen garden. The creamery, smokehouse and laundry shed were no longer in use with all the modern cons in the kitchen.
Farook pointed each out. "My cousins Afra and Peyvand used that one as a playhouse, but they've gone off to boarding school, now."
"Do they live in England full time?" Doyle asked, looking around.
"Yeah, I think so, right, Parisa?" Farook paused, pushing the rickety door open to peer into the dim interior of the creamery. "Smells like rot."
"Maman wants me to go to Afra's school." Parisa nodded, turning away from the old building with ladylike dignity. "But I'd rather stay here. Maman's been tutoring me in maths and history."
"I've been at St. Andrew's in London," Farook commented, poking the toe of his trainer into what appeared to be a mole hole. "When I'm here, maman's a good teacher."
"But your Uncle Nazir went to Kharistan?" Doyle led the way down a slight incline, feeling like a father duck with his brood in tow.
"As well as Auntie Farrah," Ara said, running up to grab his hand. "Afra and Peyvand stay with grandmaman on their hols."
"Do you see your Uncle Ramen much?" Doyle looked down at her, smiling. Ara beamed up at him, all luminous brown eyes with a pair of dimples bracketing her mouth. She'd be a heartbreaker in about ten years. Of course, in her culture, she'd undoubtedly be veiled and married off to a man from a proper family by that time. Disconcerted by this notion, Doyle surveyed the stable yard and realised his heart had sped up. What had he been expecting? To find Aladdin's Treasure munching oats right out in the open? Not bloody likely.
The whitewashed stables were in a separate block of buildings, with a paddock for the horses beyond. In Doyle's estimation, this place would require an army to keep the inhabitants safe, not a couple of bodyguards and less than a dozen servants working in the house and gardens. He didn't relish the thought of an attack while he was out here on his own. It was over a mile from the turning onto the main road and farther than that to Bury St. Edmunds in one direction or Newmarket in the other. He shook those thoughts off. There was absolutely no reason to suspect that there might be any danger.
"Uncle Ramen was here last week," Parisa said over her shoulder as she ran to stroke the nose of a magnificent black horse in the first stall. "This is Beauty. She's named after the horse in the book!"
"Ramen was here?" Doyle stopped in his tracks, barely noticing when little Leilah ran into his legs. She toppled over onto her bottom and let out a squall of indignant anger.
"Shush, you cry-baby," Farook said irritably, hauling his sister onto his hip. Leilah snuffled against his shoulder and wiped her runny nose on his shirt. Farook grimaced with a sigh. "When did Uncle Ramen come, Par? We saw him at the races on Sunday."
"He brought us all Barbie dolls!" Ara said. "Mine's got blonde hair and a lovely green dress." She bent down to pull up some grass to feed the horses.
"Mine broke her leg," Darab put in.
"You bent it back and forth too many times," Parisa said dismissively, still stroking Beauty's nose. Several other horses were looking out of their stalls with interest. "He came on…" She frowned to herself thoughtfully, tucking a lock of jet black hair behind her ear. "Thursday? And left on Friday morning. Said he had to meet a friend in Oxford, where he goes to school."
"Does he come often?" Doyle held out a hand to a gray mare. She sniffed his fingers, blowing through her nose.
"Uncle Ramen doesn't get on with maman," Ara answered, pushing past him to feed the mare a bundle of grass. "This one's called Fog."
"Good name for her. Ramen argues with your mother?" Doyle asked.
"Maman argues with him!" Parisa laughed. "She tells him that she graduated with honours in history and philosophy and that he's got it wrong. But I'm not quite sure what he's got wrong."
Just about everything, Doyle thought privately. He could see another block of stalls some distance away, past a paddock and a large ring set up with jumping hurdles. There were two horse vans parked near the paddock. One was blue and white, the other green and white. Nothing unusual there. Of course Nazir would have horse vans to transport his horses. "What are those buildings over there, Farook?"
"You're heavy, Leilah," Farook said, putting her down. She plopped down on the grass and began pulling up the crocuses growing in a small plot just past the stables. "Uncle Nazir said this used to be a breeding stable."
"Where the horses had babies," Darab said with the authority of a six year old. "Cute little colts and foals, but we don't have any."
"So the stalls aren't in good repair any longer," Parisa added. "There are seven horses in this block, but none down there at all. We're not even supposed to play down there."
"Maman says it's too far from the house." Ara looked back the way they had come as if suddenly worried they were out of bounds.
"Shall we walk back then?" Doyle asked. There was no use taking the girls on an extended tramp about the place, and he doubted that he could cover the grounds by himself. Much better to make sure the house was safe and secure.
The placard for Arabian Farms featured a silhouette of a horse with an arched neck. Plastered over the bottom was a different notice, "For Sale—inquire at Rosslyn Estate Agents."
"What secrets do you hold?" Bodie asked aloud. He almost expected Doyle to make some response before he recalled that his partner wasn't there. He chuckled to himself and eased the car down the muddy road.
Bodie parked his Capri next to a brown Cortina with a yellow stripe down the side and climbed out of the car. He caught a glimpse of Chico's blond hair through the open door of a stall in a stable block with peeling paint and walked across a lane marked with crisscrossing tyre tracks. Stopping, Bodie peered down curiously. He should have paid more attention to the sort of tyres Rhys used on his horse vans.
"Oi, Bodie!" Chico came out of the stall and waved him over. "We've found something."
Trying to avoid the ruts filled with water from the recent rains, Bodie tramped down the lane into the stables. The smell hit him first. Whoever used to work here hadn't done very good upkeep—the odour of manure and rotting hay was overpowering.
"Like an abattoir in here," Bodie said, wrinkling his nose. Inside the building, it was dim and cool, and he recognised the smell of death. He tried breathing through his mouth.
"Good reason for it." Sid pointed grimly at an open plastic bin. He was sitting on an old wooden stool and looked knackered. "When we first arrived, we didn't find anyone about."
"Except a bit of fresh manure in one stall," Chico added with a rueful smirk. "But the smell, don't you know? Something other than those dead rats in the far corner. Ferreted out that bin."
"Unmistakable." Bodie nodded, peering into the bin which had probably once held horse feed. "Sam Penberthy, I presume?" He must have been twisted and broken to fit into the plastic coffin. Bodie could just make out a crop of fair hair and one bluish eye.
"We presume, as well." Sid replaced the lid he'd been holding in his false hand, hiding the grisly discovery. "I didn't get a good enough look at him in the car park, but the same flat cap's down there with him."
"We're just waitin' for your Mr. Cowley's men to arrive and tally up the evidence." Chico lounged against the central post in the stable, uncharacteristically somber. "Sid 'ere thinks Aladdin spent the night in that stall."
"You can tell that from the manure?" Bodie asked skeptically. "Rather you than me, mate."
Sid laughed abruptly. "There are good uses for a plastic hand with no sensation, but this time I didn't go digging through the muck. Those droppings aren't half a day old. Could be another horse stayed over, but I doubt it."
"Not 'xactly prime accommodations," Chico said, holding his nose.
"We may have missed him by only a few hours," Sid concluded.
"I spoke to a man called Ewan Rhys in Oxford who rented a horse box to a Phinn Samuels," Bodie explained.
"The ol' reverse the name trick," Chico drawled in what wasn't anything close to an American accent. "And would that van be white with green stripes, with Rhys Lorries printed on the side?"
"Where is it?" Bodie asked, galvanized. "I promised Rhys I'd return his van if I could."
"In the back." Sid stood slowly as if he hurt all over. He walked out the rear entrance, fishing a cigarette from his pocket. "Tyre tracks for a second transport lead out to the main road. The overnight rain was good for something."
"I saw them." Bodie circled the van, rather glad of Halley's aromatic tobacco smoke to drive the scent of death out of his nose. The number plate on the van matched the one Rhys had given him, there was no question.
"So the next question is 'oo drove an 'undred thousand pound 'orse out of 'ere?" Chico hunched his shoulders in his gray wool jacket. A cool wind blew through the trees surrounding the property.
"Rhys gave the description of a man who will sound quite familiar to you now—" Bodie began.
"Big, ugly, Middle-Eastern, most probably Kharistani?" Sid pursed his lips, releasing a cloud of cigarette smoke.
"Can't get much past you." Bodie smiled. He hadn't expected to like working with what he thought of privately as amateurs. Halley and Barnes got the job done and had very much added to the investigation. He'd almost opine that CI5 might not have found Arabian Farms this quickly without them. He'd still prefer to have Doyle by his side, but the Trackdown lads would do at a pinch. "We'd go a long way if we knew his name."
"Reckon these fellows are illegal, possibly under fake passports or something?" Chico asked, eying his partner critically. "Sid, siddown before you topple over. Told you you was doing too much after just gettin' out of hospital. You've gone all pale."
"VSOP." Halley took another drag on the cigarette and the corners of his lips twitched into half a smile.
"Talking dir'y won't get you nowhere today." Chico pointed to a low bench just outside the stables.
"He wants brandy," Bodie translated, amused by their banter. Made him long for Doyle all the more. "Very special old pale. That'd bring the colour back to his cheeks."
"Medicinal." Halley pressed his right hand against his head.
"We could stop at the nearest pub for a bracing drop," Bodie said, using his plumiest tones. "Or drive back to London to confer with Mr. Cowley. He only has whisky, but has been known to share some with itinerant private investigators on the odd occasion." On very odd occasion, which Bodie figured this might be one.
Sid turned around, peering through the open passageway in the stables to the lane beyond. A small Japanese import van was bumping into the drive, flanked by a panda car. "Looks like the lads from CI5 have arrived."
"That's Hassan Mahtob." Cowley stabbed a finger at the photograph of a thick-necked man with a smashed nose and small beady black eyes. "He already has a record with Interpol—assault and murder in the United States, France and now, we suspect, the UK. Interesting to note, not in his home country Saudi Arabia."
"Not Kharistani, then?" Chico commented.
"Good to put a name to the face," Bodie said dryly, not happy at all. The others had been amateurs next to Mahtob. He, Halley and Barnes had arrived back at CI5 headquarters just as Cowley received the report and photograph.
"His were the dabs on the horse van left by the road, that I was supposed to drive?" Halley asked, dark eyebrows bristling like thunderclouds. He was sitting bolt upright as if unwilling to succumb to his injuries.
"Th'one gave you a knock on th'ead," Chico said angrily, jumping up to pace the room as if he couldn't stay still another moment. "Could 'ave killed you, Sid!"
Cowley raised his tufted eyebrows, obviously surprised at Barnes' wrath.
Halley didn't say a word, just reached up to grab Chico's sleeve. That small connection was enough. Chico stilled with a grim expression.
"We can circulate the photograph around to the witnesses you found in Oxford, 3.7.," Cowley said, bringing them back to the investigation. "This Mahtob has a history of killing his victims by snapping their necks, which would jibe with the two murders thus far. I suspect we have found our man."
"Did you ever get any prints from Ramen Khorsandi?" Bodie asked.
"The men who searched his flat did take some impressions, but we have nothing so far to compare them with. There have been too many people in and out of Karim Khorsandi's home lately. Even if we printed those who live there, he conducts much of his business from the flat…"
"Dozens of prints to compare with Ramen's." Bodie nodded. He wanted more, faster. It was nearly six pm. There was about twelve hours until the horsenappers would call with location of the ransom exchange, and they still had no idea where to look for the horse.
"Any chance that neighbours saw an 'orse van driving out from Arabian Farms this morning?" Chico suggested. He looked down at Halley as if reluctant to take his eyes off him.
Missing Doyle, Bodie knew the feeling.
"Another thing to check up on," Cowley agreed. "But I doubt it will come to fruition. There are numerous stables and horses are transported along that route every single day. I expect the lab to bring back results of what they found there with all speed and then we'll know for certain that Mahtob is our man."
"I don't think there's any doubt," Bodie said.
The intercom on Cowley's desk buzzed and he pressed the talk button. "Yes, Betty?"
"4.5 is on the phone, sir."
Doyle! Bodie grinned in anticipation.
"Sounds like a James Bond film around 'ere." Chico perched on the arm of Halley's chair. "What number are you, squire?"
"Number one before you, pipsqueak," Sid replied with a smirk.
"Doyle." Cowley flipped the switch so that the entire room could listen in. "How are things in Newmarket?"
"Minding the children, sir," Doyle answered with a fillip of insolence in his voice. "We've inspected the fox hunters, had a karate exhibition and have taken tea with the Barbie dolls."
Bodie could imagine his partner, half annoyed, half resigned with his assignment. He'd have given anything for a photograph of Doyle sitting on a tiny pink chair, drinking from a miniature cup with his little finger raised and a doll on his lap.
"Do you have anything significant to report?" Cowley asked.
"Nothing specific," Doyle sighed. "All quiet presently in the hinterlands."
"Glad to hear it," Cowley said rather more cheerfully. He stood and walked over to his drinks cart for a bottle of whisky.
"We've identified Hassan Mahtob as the one who possibly murdered Kath Devlin and Penberthy as well," Bodie cut in so that he could speak to his partner, even such a public forum. There was no way he could say what he wanted to, but just the sound of Doyle's voice was a balm on his soul—the way Halley's hand on Barnes had soothed him.
"Penberthy's dead, too?" Doyle sounded shocked.
"Found stuffed in a barrel, much like the dormouse in the Mad Hatter's tea pot," Halley added dryly.
Bodie stifled a smile, amused that the dour Sid would use such a whimsical analogy.
"Mahtob must have some skill with horses as his prints were on the van we found just off the A307."
"On that subject, I have one bit of news," Doyle said.
"Yes?" Cowley looked up from twisting off the top off the whisky bottle.
"According the children, Ramen Khorsandi came to visit Thursday afternoon."
"Probably cut his classes. Bloke gets around, don't 'e?" Chico grinned wickedly.
"What did he want?" Bodie asked, his pulse quickening. He really didn't like the thought of Doyle out there alone. Memories of other obbos gone wrong whilst stranded in isolated manors crowded in on him. Only yesterday he'd argued that Ramen would not go to Newmarket, now Bodie had a niggling fear that he would—and bring Mahtob with him.
"The girls didn't know. They were just excited that he brought them dolls. I'll talk to Mrs Khorsandi later on."
"You do that, 4.5." Cowley lined up four glasses. "Find out all you can on what he came for and whether the woman is involved."
"I very much doubt that Mrs Khorsandi spoke to him much at all," Doyle answered. "The girls say he and their mother argue all the time. She doesn't share his politics."
"We're getting a good time line on where Ramen was up until he arrived at Sandown," Bodie said. "He and Penberthy must have been planning this for some time in advance."
"With the help of Eliza Jennings," Cowley said grimly. "Whether the lass knew it or not, she fed them information."
"I'll take an evening constitutional after the children have all gone to bed to watch for intruders," Doyle said. "The estate is enormous. There's no way to patrol every inch."
"Don't stub your toe on a rake," Bodie said, wanting more. Wanting a private conversation where they could talk intimately.
"Occupational hazard around a stable," Doyle said with a teasing lilt and rang off.
"Pure malt for strength," Cowley said, pouring aromatic whisky. He handed out the glasses like a gregarious pub owner.
"Isn't that Guinness?" Halley asked, swallowing his with an appreciative groan. He rubbed his forehead like a man in pain.
"Not to a Scotsman!" Cowley drank his portion almost reverently. "Halley, you look done in. Go on home."
Bodie glanced over the rim of his glass at the ex-jockey. Sid was so pale he could have played the ghost of the future in Christmas Carol.
"Listen to 'im, old man," Chico said before Sid could get a word in. "You were in 'ospital this morning. Time for a kip on your Uncle Ned."
"There's nothing to be done but wait for the lab results on the evidence from Arabian Farms," Bodie said, setting his glass on the drinks cart. He needed a level head for the rest of the night. Food wouldn't hurt, though. "Which—"
The phone on Cowley's desk rang, silencing them all. Cowley answered with a frown for whomever had interrupted his whisky break. "Anson, good!" he said with more vigour. "What's happened?" Three nods and he hung up the phone. "The kidnappers rang back. Anson was able to record the exchange but the call was too short to get a trace."
"Did they set a location?" Bodie asked. He wanted to be in on the money drop. With all luck, they'd be able to wrap this up with twenty-four hours to go before the meeting with Sir Reginald.
"No, these men are crafty." Cowley tapped his bottom lip with a forefinger. "They're keeping Khorsandi right where they want him, off kilter and scared. This was merely a caution to be by the telephone at eight am for instructions on where to bring the money."
"Was this one in English?" Bodie asked.
Halley and Barnes listened silently, following the conversation like spectators at Wimbledon.
Cowley shook his head, taking off his spectacles to polish the lenses. "The message was once again in Farsi, but Khorsandi was able to interpret until we can get Mr Selah to write out a proper translation." He used the eyeglasses as a pointer at the Trackdown Investigators. "You two have been invaluable on this case, and we may need you further, especially if the horse is returned tomorrow."
"Shall we knock you up or—" Chico asked, standing with a hand on Sid's shoulder.
"Once the time is set, you'll be informed." Cowley nodded. "Timing will be critical."
"If the press gets wind that Khorsandi may not go through with this merger, it could throw a spanner into the works." Bodie had been thinking about the repercussions on the drive from Epsom. England needed this oil. It was, as the old American television programme once said, liquid gold. "Khorsandi defaulting on the agreement wouldn't just muck up Albion Oil, it could affect the oil market for the whole of the UK."
"Sending oil prices soaring and quite possibly start a feeding frenzy on the stock exchange," Halley said as he got to his feet. "This isn't simply a case of a man concerned for his family and his horse. This has international implications."
"Lovely." Barnes groaned. "I'll stop at a petrol station on the way home. Fill up before it costs an arm and a leg."
"Are you implying something?" Halley asked loftily, a teasing glint in his eye. He raised his false hand in a mock threat at his partner before offering the other one to Cowley. "Thank you, sir. I look forward to helping round up the bugger who nicked Aladdin."
"I'm simply glad to meet the man who brought me so many captivating afternoons at the races," Cowley said warmly. He shook Halley's hand, nodding to Barnes as they left.
"There's no point waiting around here," Bodie said, his gut telling him he was needed elsewhere. "Is there?"
"I expect you have something in mind, 3.7?" Cowley tidied up the used glassware, placing them on a tray to be washed.
"Dinner, sir." Bodie tapped his wristwatch, pretending his stomach didn't let out a loud rumble. "It is the usual time to eat a meal."
"It may be quite some time before the lab finishes their analysis of the evidence. I'll be meeting with Sir Reginald at my club in one hour," Cowley said, a hint of amusement in his tone. "Where will you be dining?"
The old bastard knew exactly what Bodie had in mind without being told. Bodie stood, zipping his jacket.
"There's a decent pub in Newmarket called The White Hart." Cowley pushed his eyeglasses back on, examining a stack of papers on his desk with a distracted air that was clearly a ruse. "The food is excellent. The place has a wide variety of beers, and rooms above if you've a mind to stay over."
Bodie pursed his lips to avoid either laughing or asking when The Cow had last spent time there. "Will CI5 be picking up the bill?"
"Be sensible, Bodie." Cowley glanced at him in a clear dismissal. "And be back here long before eight in the morning."
Bodie held off his chuckle until he was out in the corridor. He'd never put anything over on Cowley. Jumping into the Capri, he set out with one goal—to get to his partner. A stop at the nearest chippie would be a momentary distraction.
Doyle was restless and he couldn't quite put his finger on why. The estate was peaceful, almost too quiet. He could hear the tick of the clock, something he hadn't noticed when Farook and the gang of five were roaring around the place.
The children were nearly all in their beds, and despite his feeling of unease, Doyle was getting sleepy, too. He prowled the old-fashioned library, picking up and discarding a few of the leather bound books on the shelves. He'd never been much of an Anthony Trollope fan and he'd read all of Thomas Hardy's books in school. There didn't seem to be a single book written in the last fifty years. He was just about to give Wilkie Collins a look when the door opened up and a black garbed woman glided in carrying a tray laden with tea and biscuits.
"Am I intruding?" Noor Khorsandi asked politely, putting the tray on a side table.
"No, please!" Doyle shoved The Moonstone back onto the shelf. "I was trying to find something to keep me awake for another hour. I plan to make a perimeter walk later."
"Not much to keep you awake here." Noor laughed, pouring out tea. "Nazir bought this place lock, stock and barrel, and never looked at a single book. I have a few more current novels upstairs if you want to read?"
"Actually, I'd like to ask you a few questions, if I may?" Doyle sat in a wingback chair a few feet away from her. He wanted to be respectful of her modesty and quiet dignity, and realised he hadn't ever dealt with a veiled woman one on one before. No doubt Noor was probably not allowed to be alone with a strange man in her own country. He had a feeling she sailed through life on her own terms, especially in England.
"Where's Hakim?" Doyle asked casually, taking the cup Noor handed him. Did the family guard stay inside the house or did he walk around the grounds at night?
"I sent him off to stand by the door. I get so exhausted having him loom over me." Noor waved her hand in the direction of the front door. "Karim worries about us, so he found a bodyguard I could live with, but sometimes, I don't want him crowding me."
"Oh, no, you're quite different." She pushed the plate of biscuits over to him. "You're more like a guest, and a fascinating one, at that. Farook has spoken so highly of Sensei Doyle that I was eager to meet you."
"And I you." Doyle gave what he hoped was a polite bow from the waist, all while managing to avoid spilling his tea on his trousers. He could tell Noor smiled by the way her eyes lit up. Very odd trying to read a woman's emotion from just a tiny portion of her face. "This blend smells wonderful with all the spices."
"Farook also told me how much you seemed to like the chai my sister Sharma made."
"Sharma is a good cook." Doyle sipped his tea, savouring the blend of cinnamon, cardamom, honey and milk. "She's your…older sister?"
Noor nodded, her black veil flapping a little in the breeze she made. "My mother died when I was very young. Sharma practically raised me. I only had sisters and my father was often away, so I grew up with all women in a household that was far different than most Kharistani girls." She ate two Jaffa cakes by slipping them under the fabric covering her mouth. "Then, when my father—who taught English—came over here for a sabbatical, we accompanied him and went to boarding schools."
"All that British immersion and you're not keen on shopping at Harrods?" Doyle obliquely brought the conversation around to what he wanted to ask.
"Allah!" Noor groaned with good-natured humour. "It's the only thing the ladies in my-" She raised both hands to make quotation marks in the air, "circle want to do. I don't need gold shot fabric on every piece of furniture in the house. When those men accosted me, it gave me an excuse to retire from city life to a place I prefer."
"Your husband made it sound as if you were frightened to let the children out of your sight, even here," Doyle commented. He gestured to her as she sat calmly eating another Jaffa cake. "But that isn't the impression I get of the woman in front of me."
Noor nodded. "Karim is a good man, and he's correct, this whole situation terrifies me. I hated being targeted, but here in the country, I feel removed from the violence and—as much as I worry about Aladdin's Treasure, my children are safe." She folded her hands together as if stilling restless birds. "I can't keep them cooped up in the house all day. With you here, there is an added measure of security."
"I hope I live up to that trust." Doyle raised his teacup in a salute. "The girls told me that Ramen came by on Friday."
"Thursday evening, just before tea." Noor rolled her eyes, taking a drink from her cup. "He slept in the guest wing, near the room you'll have."
"You don't get on with him?"
"He was full of his usual bluster about the policies of the British Parliament, the state of world affairs…" She chuckled, toying with the embroidery on the edge of her long sleeves. "I used to dive in and sling a bit of mud right back at him, which shocked the poor boy. He expected me to be a good, submissive Kharistani wife, even twelve years ago when he was not much older than Farook."
"He and your husband don't seem to be cut from the same cloth."
"As different as sheep and goats, the two of them," Noor confirmed. "I've learned to tune him out. It is good that he visits his nieces and nephews, for the sake of the family."
"Did he have a specific reason for coming?" Doyle asked. "I met him on Sunday, he led us to believe he was very occupied with his studies. But if he arrived in the middle of a Thursday, he must have missed a class at Oxford?"
"I hadn't even thought of that!" Noor exclaimed in surprise. "I kept my distance this time around. There is too much going on with Karim. Aladdin's win at Doncaster was still in the news because he was set for the race at Sandown, and there's been so much…strife since my husband began the merger with Albion Oil." She waved a hand in the air like she was dismissing her younger brother-in-law. "I didn't have the energy for Ramen, as well. He spent a great deal of time tramping about the grounds, riding one of the horses, that sort of thing."
Which didn't set Doyle's mind at ease. What had Ramen been doing on his own, touring the grounds? Doyle resolved to search the stables and the buildings that were off limits to the children more thoroughly.
"I expect he wanted a bit of fresh air," Doyle said diplomatically. He drained his cup, the warm after-bite of cinnamon lingering on his tongue. He'd got his second wind. He should go out whilst he had the drive. "Which would do me no end of good, as well."
"You didn't eat any of the biscuits." Noor pointed at the two left on the plate.
"If my partner Bodie had been here, he would have eaten them all, but I'm not much for sweets." He stood up, suddenly anxious to be at his appointed rounds.
"You should have said!" she exclaimed. "There are some apples and mangoes in the kitchen."
"An apple would be perfect." Doyle flashed on the apple Bodie had gagged him with and bit his bottom lip to keep from grinning.
"Come along, then." Noor swept out of the room, her long black gown brushing the wainscoting as she passed.
Feeling a bit like one of the children, Doyle followed her without comment.
There was a bowl of fruit sitting squarely on the counter in the kitchen. Red and green apples, greeny-red mangos and a clutch of purple grapes all tumbled casually together like a still-life painting.
"Take as much as you like," Noor encouraged. "If you and your colleagues find Karim's horse for him and succeed in getting him to this meeting with Albion Oil, you will deserve so much more than a few pieces of fruit."
"Ta." Doyle selected two green apples. He took a large bite from one. It was tart and crisp, exactly what he liked. Placing the other apple in the pocket of his cardigan, he set out of the kitchen door.
"Watch your footing out there. It's treacherous in the dark," Noor called after him. "The guards don't put out the dogs until after midnight."
Standing for a moment, Doyle took a deep breath, breathing in the scents of the country. No car exhaust, polluted London air or dirty pavements. He could smell dirt, wet after the rain shower an hour ago, rosemary and lavender in the kitchen garden and just a hint of animal from the stables. Natural, rich and earthy; the combination made him feel alive. He munched his apple, picking his way down the path he'd taken earlier with the children. Chewing a last bite, he tucked the core into his pocket.
The moon hid behind dark clouds, with only a faint hint of stars in the night sky. More rain was due in a few hours. Doyle placed his feet carefully. It would not be a good idea to stumble or sprain an ankle. He felt his senses stretch, adrenalin filling his veins, the patterns learned as a cop and CI5 agent falling into place.
The creamery and laundry were deserted as he'd expected. Doyle waited in the shadows of the two small buildings, listening to the muted sounds around him. The horses muttered to one another; a nicker and then an answering whinny from farther away. One of the cats yowled suddenly, rising the hair on the back of Doyle's neck. He could almost imagine haunts emerging from their graves howling like that.
Giving himself a bemused shake, Doyle watched a lone groom finishing up his duties in the stable. The horse Parisa had called Beauty neighed a greeting to the young man, snuffling at his hand. He stroked her neck for a moment before sauntering over to a building Doyle hadn't really noticed earlier. A two storey structure with a bright porch light stood to the left of the main stables. It was partially hidden by a copse of trees beyond the training hurdles, but not as far away as the out-of-use breeding stalls. Must be where the grooms slept, and possibly some of groundskeepers, as well.
Wishing he had a torch, Doyle trod cautiously, peering down at the ground for obstacles. It was really too dark to see anything but large murky objects and he kept expecting to run into rocks or other unseen dangers.
He stopped at Beauty's stall to count the horses. He had no reason to expect there to be more than he'd seen before, but this felt like he was doing something constructive. There were seven horses, with a small brass plaque screwed onto each stall door to identify the horse by name. Doyle peered into each stall, although most were so dark that he could barely make out the animal inside. Three other stalls were empty, making a total of ten in this stable block. Nothing happened, no-one called out an alarm and most of the horses completely ignored him.
Going around the paddock, Doyle trailed his hand along the top of the white fence. This far from the house, he was surrounded by cool darkness. The only lights came from the barely visible gleam over the kitchen door and a porch lamp in the grooms' sleeping quarters. That light went out abruptly. Without that small beacon, Doyle's sense of isolation deepened. There wasn't anyone here. So why was he so sure that something was amiss?
A rustle of wings alerted Doyle to an owl flying overhead. He waited, silent and watchful, attentive to anything that didn't belong. The night was chilly, almost too cold for his long sleeved cotton shirt and cardigan. Doyle cursed his forgetfulness. He should have gone back to his room for a heavier jacket. Too late for it now. And he hadn't even put his shoulder holster on again after the karate demonstration in the afternoon.
He thought about turning back to retrieve his jacket and gun but decided not to. He was conjuring danger where there wasn't any. Bodie and Sid had both argued against Ramen coming within miles of this place. This was supposed to be a simple reconnoiter of the area to check for weak spots in the security, not an all out assault on the enemy.
And yet, Ramen had been here just a few days earlier—before the crime. Why had he come? Doyle didn't believe it was just to bring Barbie dolls to his nieces. So what had he done when he rode out alone? Was it connected in any way to the horsenapping?
Doyle was intrigued by the breeding stable. It was far enough away from the house that anyone or anything hiding there might go unnoticed for days. He'd already surmised that there wasn't enough staff to adequately care for the entire estate. In all probability, the building was completely deserted, but he had to check it out.
He started out past the training ring, the hurdles and jump fences lurking like malevolent humped beasts in the gloom. He missed Bodie, plain and simple. Missed having his partner at his side, and the unspoken fact that they would watch out for one another. Even in this concealing darkness, he felt exposed and vulnerable.
Doyle crept silently toward the breeding stable, gaining the shelter of a huge oak just as a horse neighed. He caught his breath, knowing without a shred of proof that the horse was Aladdin. Because the sound hadn't come from the stables behind him, it had emanated from the building a dozen yards ahead. Thinking back, Doyle realised he'd heard Aladdin once or twice before, but with the other horses calling to each other, he hadn't picked out the one distant neigh from the rest of the noises.
Flush with motivation, he sprinted to the building, pressing himself against the outer wall. His heart was pounding in his ears and he strained to listen past the roar for evidence of any people inside with Aladdin. Time passed, but all he heard was the faint shuffling of hooves on straw.
What should he do? Go liberate Aladdin? And then what? Tuck him into an unused stall next to Beauty? Whomever had stolen the horse—most probably Ramen--would know exactly where to look.
On the other hand, Doyle couldn't leave the horse there. Khorsandi was undoubtedly waiting with a suitcase full of money right now, unable to sleep due to worry.
He had to take the Aladdin back. That was the priority. That was his job.
If he left and went back to the house to phone for help, there was the real possibility that the horsenapper would come back and move Aladdin to another location. It was now or never.
Doyle shoved his cold hands in his pockets, unconsciously reaching for a gun, and closed his fingers around the remaining apple and the leftover core. Just the thing to keep the horse quiet.
The stalls were not open to the outside the way the stalls in the other stable were. Doyle stole along the perimeter of the building, keeping one hand on the exterior wall at all times, searching for the door. He hissed through his teeth when pain shot up one finger. A splinter had gone in deep from the feel of it, but he literally couldn't see his hand in front of his face. Ignoring the injury, he explored the next section of wall. Finally, he bumped his fingers lightly against what felt like a rusty hinge.
Moving directly down, he felt a lower hinge. Now for the latch.
Stretching his left hand to full length while still holding onto the middle door hinge, Doyle encountered the door handle—and a length of cold, iron chain wrapped twice around both handles of what turned out to be double doors.
They'd locked the horse inside.
Furious, he jerked on the chain hard enough to rattle the entire door. The links clattered loudly together. Anyone within ten miles would have heard the earsplitting noise.
Doyle froze, pulling his hand away, and the entire length of chain slid through the door handle like a rattlesnake about to strike. It landed on his foot with a tremendous clank.
Bloody lucky he'd been wearing boots.
There hadn't been any padlock on the chain. Not sure who to thank for his good fortune, Doyle eased the door open, his heart thumping furiously. The hinges had been recently oiled, there was nary a squeak. To his right, Aladdin stomped a foot and whinnied softly. Good, he had a direction to take instead of blundering around an unfamiliar, potentially treacherous barn.
Doyle started forward into the inky interior, then stopped, mentally cursing himself. He had a lighter in his jeans, a remnant from the days when he smoked. Although he no longer needed to light up a fag, the tiny flame had come in handy in all sorts of situations. It would ruin his night vision, but at least he'd be able to find the bloody horse.
He fished the lighter out of his back pocket, wincing when he recalled using it to burn through ropes tied around his wrists and managing to singe his own skin. He still had a small scar on the left wrist. Flicking the igniter, Doyle squinted as the flame blossomed overly bright in the stygian darkness. The sudden brilliance hurt his eyes but only provided minimal illumination.
Aladdin whinnied in fright.
"Ssh, ssh, boy," Doyle cooed, orienting himself toward the sound. The flame kept him from running into the walls, but he couldn't really see Aladdin yet. Carrying a fire, even a tiny one, wasn't a very good idea if it terrified the horse. He was about to extinguish the lighter when he caught sight of a lantern hanging from a hook between stalls.
Doyle took down the lantern, shaking it carefully. Amazingly, he heard fluid sloshing in the chamber. As long as the thing didn't blow up in his face, he had a much safer light source. He touched the lighter flame to the dusty wick with a certain amount of trepidation. Bodie would never let him live it down if he burned off all his eyebrows. The wick caught easily, a warm glow providing much needed lighting. He clicked off the lighter and stowed it in his pocket, taking out the apple instead.
"Al," Doyle wheedled. "Fancy a treat?"
Aladdin's eyes gleamed in the firelight, but the muzzle buckled around his head prevented him from eating anything. No wonder the poor lad was calling out to anyone who could hear. That just proved that Ramen and—what had Bodie called the other one—Moby?--had left the horse on his own. Not very considerate horsenappers.
With the lantern hanging on a hook by Aladdin's stall, Doyle unbuckled the muzzle and left the simple bridle in place around the horse's head. He held out the apple. Aladdin gobbled it up in a single gulp and nudged against Doyle's hand for more.
"Got to get you out of here," Doyle murmured against his warm neck. "Where've they hidden a lead rope?" His guts told him to hurry up, but this wasn't any old horse to ride bareback, gripping the mane for support. Aladdin was strong and fast and Doyle didn't trust himself, or the horse, without some kind of reins.
He looked around. The place was still spooky, full of impenetrable shadows and dark corners, but he spied the glint of metal hanging on a board on the other side of the aisle. Sure enough, it was a collection of leather straps, most connected to metal snaffle bits. Doyle's belly loosened a fraction, enough to let him take in a decent breath. He could do this. He knew horses. It had been a while, but he'd slid the bit in past huge horsey teeth in his youth. He could do it again.
"Hup, hup," Doyle said softly, opening the stall door to approach the horse.
Aladdin shied away once. He sniffed Doyle's pocket hesitantly, smelled the apple core and tried to nose it out.
"None of that, you cart horse." With a pang of remorse, he remembered Kath using the affectionate nickname. "I'll bet you miss Kath, don't you?" he whispered, gently easing the bit over the horse's tongue. Aladdin took it calmly and Doyle placed the straps over his ears, buckling the reins to the hackamore bridle. "Now, let's see if I remember how to get up on…"
"Ramen!" a voice yelled in the darkness, followed by a string of slithery Farsi.
His heart rate slamming into triple time, Doyle grasped the bridle and swung himself up onto Aladdin's broad back.
More shouted Farsi, accompanied by the biggest Middle-Eastern man Doyle had ever seen lumber into the barn. In the gloom, he looked like some mythical monster rising out of the depths of hell.
It was virtual suicide riding bareback inside the stable, with a murderer on his tail, but Doyle squeezed his thighs into Aladdin's flanks. The powerful horse erupted down the main aisle, running straight for the enormous man.
Bodie drove with determination. On a late Monday evening, the dual carriageway had minimal traffic and he could put his foot down firmly on the accelerator. He whipped past slower lorries and Fiats.
He hadn't called Doyle to announce his arrival. Bodie didn't want Doyle thinking he was—A, worried about him or B, didn't trust him to look after himself. It didn't matter that Doyle was a trained agent who'd been a copper before that. The fact that he had nearly died from a gunshot wound to the chest not long ago really didn't enter into it. Bodie couldn't exactly pinpoint why he was driving like a demon toward Newmarket except that some inner compass, some inner surety, told him to.
Ramen Khorsandi be damned. No matter where the bloody sod was—or Aladdin, for that matter--Bodie needed to be near Doyle. That was the long and short of it. Even if they never, ever shagged each other again, he'd still want to stand shoulder to shoulder with the man.
The sign for Cambridge approached and Bodie switched lanes smoothly to take the junction for the A11 toward Newmarket. The closer he got, the more the anxiety inside him eased, and he could think about something other than Doyle.
As often happened in his job with CI5, the end result of this obbo had international implications that reached far beyond his part in the proceedings. He didn't dwell on that aspect, but it was almost bizarre that the theft of a racehorse could affect oil prices around the globe. If they didn't recover Aladdin's Treasure, a whole series of dominos fell over—no oil merger, possibly bad feelings between the Kharistan and British governments, the price of oil by the barrel, and petrol at the pump would rise. And what about the bloody Kharistani Freedom Fighters. Was their goal simply to stir up trouble between the two countries? What if Ramen did pull this off? Why would he do this to his own brother? What was the money ultimately for?
When this was over, CI5 would be delving into the Kharistani Freedom Fighters, make no mistake. They might be nutters, but if they had enough power to kidnap a horse worth one hundred thousand pounds, they could cause untold damage elsewhere.
Bodie barely glanced at The White Hart as he sped past in the silver Capri, heading for the road to Bury St. Edmunds. He didn't slow until he turned right into the drive for Baldry House. A brown skinned guard in a small gatehouse jerked to a stand, obviously not expecting anyone at nine in the evening.
Impatiently holding up his identification, Bodie took a couple of deep breaths. He couldn't burst in as if the hounds of hell were after him at this hour. Had to act more sedate.
"You with the other man who arrived earlier?" the guard asked in careful English. "He's at the main house."
Bodie peering down the unlit roadway, unable to see the main house. Must be quite a ways off the A14. "Tell me," Bodie asked. "Do you sit here all night long?'
"No, thank Allah. After eleven, the gate is closed." He pointed to an ornate metal gate with a huge B for Baldry worked into the design. "Then the Dobermans are put out."
"What if Mr Khorsandi comes in late?"
"There's a code to open the gate," the man said, his black unibrow low over his eyes. He wasn't used to being interrogated about the schedule.
"So most of the family knows the code?" Bodie asked, keeping his tone light.
"Of course, all the Khorsandi family come here at some time." The guard nodded. "Even when Mr Nazir is not in residence."
And therein lay the big problem with the security. "And I expect the dogs are friendly with family?"
"They are trained dogs—but they enjoy treats from the children," the guard said stiffly, apparently realising he was in some kind of trouble.
Bodie rubbed his forehead with a sigh. "When do you open the gate in the morning?"
"Most often at eight," he said with a frown. "Why do you ask?"
"Occupational hazard, mate," Bodie said breezily. "Suspicion is my middle name. How far is the house?"
"Three quarters of a mile." The guard waved to the south.
Aladdin's metal shod hooves thundered on the wooden floor of the stable. Shadows warred with insubstantial lantern light, casting weird, changing shapes. It was impossible to make out Mahtob and Ramen in the gloom. Not that Doyle spent that much time looking for them. He kept his head against Aladdin's flying mane, gripping with his knees to stay on top of the powerful animal.
Something tore at Doyle's leg, but he ignored the brief flare of pain and kicked off the impediment. A voice cried out and a gunshot thundered in the enclosed space. Putting on a burst of speed, Aladdin rocketed through the double doors to freedom.
Clinging to the horse, Doyle looked to his right as lightning pain slammed into his left arm and shoulder. He gasped in shock, unable to hold onto the reins. Aladdin reared with a squeal of terror and Doyle felt himself slide off the horse's back. He tried to clench his thighs, but the pull of gravity was too strong. Mahtob swung the whip a second time, a slash of fire searing Doyle's back as he landed on the ground.
"Don't let the bloody horse get away, you cretin!" Ramen screamed, his torch casting a beam of light that blinded Doyle. "Ibriham! Get the horse before we wake up…"
"Too bleeding late for that," Doyle said, gritting his teeth against the pain. He felt like his skin had been flayed open. The sleeve of his cardigan was cut clear through. "The guards, Hakim, will be coming down here any moment."
Ramen laughed. "So certain, are you, CI5?"
Mahtob growled remarkably like a wolf, advancing on Doyle with single minded purpose.
It was too dark, even outside the stable, to clearly see Mahtob's face. Doyle looked up, the shifting clouds revealing the moon. Mahtob's raised arm clutching the whip was silhouetted against the bright orb and Doyle rolled to his side, coming onto all fours.
The tail end of the whip lashed the skin on his back where his shirt had pulled free of his trousers. Instant memories of his father welled up, the thwack of the leather belt snapping against his bare arse. Where fear infused adrenalin had laid a course, fury now fuelled his muscles and he pivoted on one knee.
From somewhere far off, Aladdin squealed, high pitched and scared, setting off the other horses.
Coming up fast, Doyle let his body take over, the ingrained katas from thousands of practice bouts moving his limbs. He kicked, getting Mahtob in the knee. Too low—he'd meant for the goolies. Mahtob was a tall bastard. The man growled a Farsi curse and swung wide with the whip.
Dimly aware that there were at least two others on his periphery, Doyle whirled, catching the leather whip against the palm of his bare hands. Pain ripped deep. He closed his fists and yanked, almost falling backward from the momentum. Mahtob was as solid as Mohammed's mountain, impossible to topple. Tossing the whip aside, Doyle used his own backward velocity to flow into a crouch, hands held out as a threat to all comers. His bodily aches faded to nothing, his whole being focused on survival.
A hand grabbed Doyle's upper arm and he erupted, fists flying and feet battering. He didn't even see where his jabs landed, only felt the fleshy squish of a cut lip and the sharp grate of a broken nose on his opponent. Not Mahtob then; too weak, too easily bested. Might be the mysterious Ibriham. Ramen hadn't waded into the fray thus far, although it was too dark to know exactly where he was.
Loud voices impinged, a garbled mix of Farsi and English, too indistinct to comprehend when Doyle was in berserker mode. Lights flickered, broad swatches of brightness through the trees. Running feet and the cacophony of terrified horses created a hellish soundtrack.
Mahtob shoved hard with one massive hand, sending Doyle reeling. Stars and comets exploded in his skull and he went down hard enough to judder his back teeth.
It was a gunshot that brought him to his senses. He reared up, latching onto Mahtob's arm like a lead weight, using all his strength to pull it behind the big man. A second retort from the pistol and then a third. Mahtob sighed, a strange sort of sound that had no force, no air, behind it and seemed to deflate.
Letting go of his prize, Doyle leapt back as the murderer hit the ground with a resounding thud.
Panting, his eyesight still wonky, Doyle looked up, expecting to see the black muzzle of Ramen's pistol directed straight at him.
Bodie was kneeling on a struggling Ramen, cuffing his wrists at the small of his back. Mahtob lay unmoving, possibly dead, and a black haired man sat holding his nose, blood streaming between his fingers. In the flickering darkness, the blood looked like black oil and Doyle's belly roiled. Other men were ringed around the stable, some holding weapons, others clearly awakened from sleep still dressed in pyjamas.
"My lawyers will hear of this abuse on a foreign citizen!" Ramen yelled.
"Shut your gob," Bodie said sharply. "You killed one of your own men!"
"I was defending my property!" Ramen struggled under Bodie's hold.
Horses were whinnying in the other stable yard and Doyle knew he should be worried about Aladdin. But first—
Dazed, he swung around to his partner, words blurting out of his mouth before he had a chance to think. "What the bloody hell are you doing here?"
"Saving your arse," Bodie said with a strange, almost straggled sound.
Doyle couldn't be bothered to try and figure out whether Bodie was amused or worried. "Where's Aladdin?" he asked, getting to his feet. Suddenly, every part of him hurt—a lot. The adrenalin was draining away, leaving him shaky, but he wasn't about to let anyone else know.
"CI5 is trespassing on private property!" Ramen shouted as Bodie jerked him to his feet.
Doyle was more than relieved to see Bodie hand Ramen over to Hakim. "Have you got some place secure to keep him?" Bodie asked.
Hakim muttered something in Farsi that caused Ramen to narrow his eyes with renewed anger. "This jackal will pay for what he has done." He stared at Mahtob's body with distaste. "I didn't know they were there," he whispered. "Nor the horse. I swear on Allah's good name."
"Idiot," Ramen seethed. "Why do you pander to these capitalists?"
"Quiet!" Hakim shoved Ramen ahead of him, making the prisoner stumble. "Right now, the good Mrs Khorsandi is calling the local authorities, and your brother, to tell them of your crimes."
Another man with the straight bearing of an ex-military man helped Ibriham to his feet, leading him up to the house.
Doyle felt disconnected from the proceedings as if he hadn't been involved. He wondered if he'd hit his head too hard when he fell off the horse. And Aladdin? Had he rescued the racehorse only to have the animal run off in the dark and break one of its fragile legs?
"Doyle?" Bodie sounded like he was afraid of spooking his partner. "Should have told me you have a taste for the lash, Captain Bligh," Bodie said softly into his ear.
The beatings of his youth too fresh in his mind, Doyle shuddered. But he appreciated Bodie's attempt to get him out of his head, just the same. "Not m-my kink, Mr Bellamy."
He tightened his resolve, ashamed of the stammer. He was cold and weirdly light-headed. A portion of his brain told him he might be in shock, but that was for people who were actually hurt. He dispelled that notion. "Where's Aladdin?"
"I think the stable lads were after him." Bodie fingered the sliced sleeve of Doyle's cardigan, then pulled his hand away to look at his fingertips. "You're bleeding. What happened?" His voice was hard as steel.
"A fucking whip, that's what happened!" Doyle raged, stomping away. He shoved past the last knot of spectators, toward the paddock, his heart pounding so hard his chest ached. What the heck was going on?
The other stable was ablaze with light and men calming down the horses. Doyle caught sight of Noor—at least he assumed that the figure in the billowing burka was she—efficiently putting the chaotic scene to rights. A horse cantered around the far end of the grooms' dormitory and a shout of excitement went up.
"Aladdin!" Farook broke away from the group and raced across the grass to grab Aladdin's reins. In a single smooth movement, he vaulted from the ground and landed on the racehorse's back. Aladdin bunched his haunches as if to buck, but Farook controlled him easily, easing him into a walk.
"You couldn't wait for your partner?" Bodie asked sardonically from behind him. He bumped Doyle gently with his hip, obviously aware that there were more injuries than just the one on his left arm.
Absorbing the overwhelming love in that brief contact, Doyle finally let his defenses down. He'd done it—found Aladdin and Ramen. What were the odds? "Didn't know you were coming or I'd have made a pot of tea," he said, mentally plugging holes in the leaky old sieve that was his psyche. There was absolutely no reason to connect what his da used to do to him to what had happened today. It was all in the past and destined to remain there. "You must have collected multiple speeding violations on the A11."
"I drove as sedately as my CoE-going nan." Bodie put a hand over his heart with a mocking grin, but there was something in his eyes when he looked at Doyle, something that saw inside him.
Bodie wouldn't ask are you all right? It betrayed their code, the facade that the job and all it encompassed didn't get to them. They were operatives, rough and tumble men who shot first and asked questions after. They did not go soft in the middle of an obbo.
"Good shot, hitting the big bloke—what was his name?—from so far, in the dark," Doyle said as they walked down to the stable housing the fox hunting horses.
"Hassan Mahtob. I didn't shoot him." Bodie tapped the pistol in his shoulder holster. "Ramen was aiming for you, angelfish, and caught his own man square in the chest. You were the lucky one."
Heart palpitations gripped his chest for two, maybe three, beats and Doyle inhaled sharply. Enough. The strong scent of horse, hay and leather from the stable assailed him and the peace that Bodie's presence had instilled settled more firmly.
"Sensei Doyle!" Farook whooped from atop Aladdin. "Did you see? I caught Al!"
"Indeed you did." Doyle reached up to grab Aladdin's bridle, checking briefly for damage. Aladdin was covered in sweat and a few stray leaves, but seemed in fine fettle. He tossed his head, breathing fast through his flared nostrils. "Your father will be extremely proud of you," Doyle said.
Farook laughed, his black hair tousled from the wild ride, his dark eyes dancing with delight. "Riding is…is… brilliant! I want to train, I want to…"
"Win," Bodie finished. "I think we all did tonight. With a little help from Sensei Doyle here." He pressed his palms together and bowed, grinning. "Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto."
The sardonically quirked eyebrow got Doyle every time. He never knew whether to punch Bodie in the mouth or kiss him there. With Farook and Noor as witnesses, he did neither, but knew which one Bodie would prefer. "Go call Uncle George, berk."
Having filled Cowley in on all the particulars, Bodie made a second call to Trackdown Investigations. He got Chico on the first ring. "Ramen had Aladdin stashed at Baldry House in an old stable. Doyle found him—" He glanced over at his partner tucked up with a cuppa and Grandmaman Azizi hovering over him with paracetamol and sticking plasters.
"Bugger!" Chico exploded. "Sid'll want to hear this."
Bodie listened to the sounds of Barnes waking up his partner. Maybe he should have felt guilty at disturbing a man with a head injury but Halley and Barnes were part of this and would want to be in on the tidying up.
"Bodie," Halley rasped, his voice as rough as sandpaper. "Ramen went to the family estate? I was sure the tosser'd stay miles away from there."
"I was in agreement with you, mate." Bodie watched Doyle fend off Grandmaman with both hands. She toddled off muttering under her breath in Farsi. "Takes a big man to admit he was wrong."
Bodie ground his teeth. Guilt kept cropping up at the most unexpected moments. He knew that Doyle must hurt worse than he was letting on. Would the conclusion have been better if he'd arrived earlier? It could certainly have been a great deal worse if he hadn't come at all.
"What do you want us t'do?" Chico asked, breaking into Bodie's musing. "Sid's not about to convalesce until the bleedin' case is over anyway." There was amused resignation in his answer. "Not right in the 'ead, he isn't."
Bodie chuckled. He knew exactly how Barnes felt. "You two have the most horse savvy of the lot of us. Do you have a place you can stash Aladdin until the right time?"
"Safe as houses," Sid said promptly. "Where he should have been all along, Carson and Sons."
"Pure genius," Bodie had to admit. "How soon can you be here?"
"It's after ten," Chico said. "Not long at all. The car is full of petrol."
Bodie laughed and rang off, sitting back in one of the overstuffed chairs in the Khorsandi lounge. "What next?"
"It's all in the waiting," Doyle said, his jaw tight and his posture stiff as a mannequin. He'd changed out of the bloody shirt and cardigan and now wore a long sleeved jumper like armour plating. Doyle cradled a cup of strong tea in both hands but hadn't drunk much. A plate of naan, crumbly goat cheese and dried fruit lay untouched by his elbow. As did the pain reliever and the bandages. Putting down the cup, he glowered. "If I had known that Ramen and his cronies were there when I called Cowley…"
"Yeah, yeah, and miss basking in your moment of glory, sunshine?"
"Bodie!" Doyle nearly launched himself out of his chair and then went pale, sinking back with a groan. "Bollocks!" he hissed, wrapping his right arm protectively around his body.
"That's what I was waiting for." Bodie reached casually for the bread and cheese, eyeing Doyle all the while. He'd noticed a long open crease on Doyle's left palm the moment they came in the house. That was the only thing Doyle had allowed Grandmaman to swath in about a yard of gauzy bandage. The days old bruise on Doyle's cheek was going yellow. Bodie catalogued the other injuries through observation and guesswork, since Doyle hadn't been forthcoming. The whip slashes on his arm and flank, check. General aches and bruises, quite possibly a concussion and—something else. Odds on favourite--cracked ribs. "Do you need a doctor?"
"I'll live," Doyle said with his eyes closed.
"I know you'll live," Bodie commented dryly, popping a dried fig into his mouth. "How long until you're the bouncy Tigger of a Raymond we all know and love?" He accented the last with a bit of swishy ponce and the flip of a limp wrist.
One half of Doyle's mouth turned up. "Next you'll be telling me you like boys, Mr Wilde."
Bodie spread cheese on his naan. He didn't generally like goat cheese but it gave him something to do whilst formulating an answer. "You're a grouchy old fart at the best of times but something got to you, more'n usual." He didn't look straight at Doyle and took a bite of his open sandwich.
Doyle swallowed audibly, his adam's apple sliding up and down the column of his throat. "Ancient history, Bodie. I…" He fell silent, rubbing the back of his knuckles across Bodie's knee for a bare instant before pulling away. "When we get home, yeah? I'll tell you—you have a right to know."
"As your partner?" Bodie asked, taking Doyle's cup of tea.
"As my ma—" Doyle raised his eyebrows, reacting to someone Bodie couldn't see coming into the room. "I was a complete nutter to go out without a gun or back-up," he said in a different tone of voice as if they had been discussing that all along.
"The constabulary are quite put out that you won't allow them to take Ramen into custody," Noor Khorsandi said, closing the lounge door and leaning against it.
"He'll keep in the wine cellar until our men collect him," Bodie said, half his brain trying to work out what Doyle meant to say. Ma… mate? Man?
"I am simply aghast that I didn't realise. Karim's own brother instigating such viciousness against his own family!" She sounded close to tears and took a sustaining breath.
Bodie hadn't formally met her, just a quick exchange of names between the pandemonium in the stable yard and supervising the prisoners until the police arrived. He wasn't used to dealing with a veiled woman who could speak her mind with men she was not related to. He really would have liked to see what she looked like under the veil. "Ramen seems to have pulled the wool over everyone's eyes."
"You don't go down to that old stable," Doyle said reasonably. "How would you have known?"
"Ramen always vexed me but this—it's monstrous, and I cannot fathom that he could be party to theft and bodily harm!" she cried, slight hysteria colouring her words. Noor plumped down on the sofa, the folds of her gown fluttering. She squashed the gown mercilessly before grabbing the pot to pour tea. The homely duty seemed to steady her. "When he visited on Thursday, was he—what is the phrase—casing the joint?"
Bodie stifled his chuckle with a quick slurp of tea. "That would be Jimmy Cagney's way of saying it, yeah. That must have been what he was up to." He recalled his stay in Kharistan; patting her hand would definitely be considered overly familiar. With that in mind, he kept his hands to himself.
"Looks like Ramen contacted émigrés from Kharistan who used a restaurant in Leicester Square as a community centre," Doyle said.
"I know that place." Noor nodded, her dark eyes troubled.
"He gathered a small cadre who pulled off most of the jobs, such as accosting you at Harrods," Bodie added.
She made a disgusted noise but motioned him to continue.
"And several of the other threats on your family, including trying to kidnap Farook," Bodie went on. "Which is where we came in, as you know."
"Through interrogations with the three men we arrested, we were led to the restaurant, and a stable in Epsom that employed many Kharistani nationals." Doyle picked at the frayed edges of the bandage around his hand. "Who owned that stable, who started the Kharistani Freedom Fighters—those are questions for another day. But Ramen seems to have had his finger in several pies."
"It's a wonder he had time for his studies!" Noor said indignantly.
"Well, he may not have." Bodie raised a hand to make his point. "I spoke with the dean of his college who was advising him to change his courses to something more philosophical—"
"Like Marxism?" Noor snorted. "The bloody fool would rant on about such twaddle ad nauseum. I suppose that's why none of us thought him capable of such violence because he seemed so completely in his head, all ideologies and esoteric drivel."
"At least none of your family was seriously harmed," Doyle said as if the words were difficult to get out of his mouth. "Nor the horse. But two people died for his esoteric drivel."
"Allah," Noor whispered, bowing her head. "I got the children back to bed, now I think I must go and—have a quiet moment with myself and the Koran, to see if I can…" She lifted her shoulders in defeat. "Come to some kind of peace before Karim arrives. There will be strife in this family for a long time to come."
"If we can be of any help, Mrs Khorsandi." Bodie stood up formally when she rose from the sofa. After a beat, Doyle got to his feet as well.
"Of course," she murmured. "When my husband arrives, I am sure there will be more—drama. I just want the children kept out of the fray." Giving a distracted wave, she went out.
"We should go down there, start hammering away at Ramen," Doyle said, smacking a fist into his unbandaged palm. He winced even so.
"Without Father here?" Bodie asked lightly. "Good a way as any to get us relegated to a year's worth of dark garrets monitoring dull wire taps."
"Fuck!" Doyle raged, looking like he was going to snatch up a tea cup and fling it against the flocked wallpaper.
"Need to take a swing at me?" Bodie held his hands away from his sides, twitching his fingers in welcome. "Where's that calm Sensei Farook admires?"
"No!" Doyle bared his teeth, panting audibly. "I don't want…"
Bodie grabbed him roughly by the back of the neck and hauled him in close, wrapping both arms around Doyle. "You're too hot, Doyle. Turn down the flame or you'll boil over."
Doyle shuddered, his heart thudding against Bodie's breastbone, at least twice as fast as Bodie's own. "There must be something that you do to—what'd you call it, zen out in preparation for the katas." Bodie often centred himself by recalling the first wrestling match he'd had shortly after his mother's death. His nan had promised him that his mum was watching from heaven. That assurance had filled young William with such peace that he'd treasured the moment ever since.
"Bodie," Doyle muttered against his neck.
"Eh?" Bodie kissed him gently on the ear, getting a mouthful of curls.
"You." Doyle inhaled sharply and disentangled himself from Bodie, leaving one hand on his partner's chest.
Startled, Bodie took a step back, staring at Doyle.
"I think of you," Doyle said simply, putting his arms behind his back quite deliberately. "Cool, impenetrable Bodie—but I cracked him. My master when I need t'be taken down a peg."
Master Felt like his heart was filled to bursting and that he could tear up at the same time. But William Andrew Phillip Bodie was made of sterner stuff than that. He straightened up like the SAS officer that he had been. Doyle didn't often request a session so blatantly. They both needed one. "Tomorrow night—in my flat."
Doyle smiled, a brittle one, his eyes glittering. "Where's the jagger wheel when you need it, eh?"
Cowley's arrival got Bodie and Doyle out of their chairs and down in the damp, brick wine cellar for a quick round of interrogation before Ramen. There were questions that needed answers now.
"Och, lad, I'll not ask why you've done this to your own brother," Cowley said briskly, glaring at Ramen. "But make no mistake, if you think that being a foreigner provides you some sort of leniency, then you are sadly mistaken."
Doyle adjusted the angle of his lean against the rough surface of the wall, content to let Cowley take the lead. He felt like a complete nelly for falling apart in front of Bodie, and for such a stupid reason. His father's punishments were long gone. He could even visit his father, and Liam's latest wife, the wicked witch of the west, for Christmas supper and a pint without getting into it with either of them. Took willpower, but he'd survived rougher obbos without a scratch.
Maybe it was the combination of his father's discipline in what had originally been his oasis from the strap—a stable—that brought him so low? Wasn't worth the brainpower it took to consider that. Over and done.
He glanced at Bodie. He hadn't been lying. Bodie was his strength. As much as most would consider Doyle a prickly loner with a sharp tongue and a wicked temper, Bodie brought out the absolute best in him, and he was stronger for it.
"We have a list of charges against you as long as my arm, Ramen Khorsandi." Cowley shook a finger at the boy like a headmaster reprimanding his pupil. "Including murder, which adds years onto your prison sentence."
"Murder wasn't on the agenda!" Ramen responded belligerently, shaking his cuffed wrists until the steel rattled against the metal chair he was bound to. He looked almost as scruffy as Doyle felt, although he'd managed to come out of the fight for Aladdin without a scratch. His pale blue tunic was streaked with dirt and he'd lost his crocheted cap at some point. His black hair stood up in the back like Farook's. "Mahtob got in my way."
"Yeah, and was expendable." Doyle mimed wiping away a tear. "Touching the way he mourns for his own, innit?" He cut his eyes to Bodie, catching Bodie looking straight back at him. Instant connection, satisfying down deep.
"Killed your associate, was accessory to the murders he committed," Bodie drawled. "Doesn't matter that you didn't shoot—or in this case, strangle the victims. You worked with Mahtob. It was Mahtob who killed Kath Devlin and Sam Penberthy, wasn't it?" He waited. He only got a malignant glare from Khorsandi. Bodie grinned, but it was more nasty than cheerful. "And undoubtedly ordered him to do the dirty deed," he paused, walking over to stand square in front of the prisoner. "I warrant you watched, and enjoyed it." He all but spat in Ramen's face.
"My lawyer will have your heads for this brutality!" Ramen squeaked on the last word, a distinct sign that he was cracking.
"CI5 doesn't cower, even to Her Majesty's barristers," Cowley said dismissively. "We'll be transporting you back to London soon. However, questions first. I'd encourage you to do your utmost to answer. Cooperation can only aid in your defense."
Ramen tightened his jaw, staring at the rack of French wines as if he wanted to select a Merlot for dinner.
"Are there plans to ambush Karim Khorsandi when he arrives at Camden House on Wednesday morning for his meeting with Sir Reginald?" Cowley asked. He got no response from Ramen. "Any of your misnamed Freedom Fighters primed to shoot your brother? Your family, man!"
"We had not…" Ramen grit his teeth, barely moving his lips when he spoke. "Planned on excessive violence. This is war, and as such, all things are permissible."
"Then you'll be pleased to know we'll consider you a war criminal." Doyle put his back against the brick. His ribs twinged more than he liked and his left arm was bloody useless still. Felt like Mahtob had taken a flame thrower to it. "Did you know, on occasion, CI5 isn't required to follow the Geneva convention for treatment of prisoners of war?" He waited a beat for that to sink in. "England has had far more than its share of terrorism in the last one hundred years and we reckon we know what to do. Doesn't matter if it's IRA or Kharistani Freedom Fighters. They're all terrorists and we don't negotiate."
"It is the right of the downtrodden to take up arms and force back our oppressors to maintain a sovereign nation," Ramen began like a wind-up doll, gathering speed as he spoke. "Kharistan cannot afford to spill all our oil into the petrol tanks of the infidel! It's a vile waste of our resources, and our king would be wise to change his tactics or he could suffer the consequenc…"
Bodie cracked Ramen across the face with the back of his hand. "Threatening your king? That'll help your cause."
Khorsandi sucked in air like a wounded animal, malevolent hate rolling off him. He muttered a venomous phrase in Farsi. Doyle was sure he recognized some of the same sounds as Bodie's "your mother fucked a snake."
Bodie made a strangled noise halfway between a laugh and a gargle. "You kiss your mum with that mouth?" he asked with a smirk.
"I'll get through to the Foreign Office to arrange an audience with King Amahl to warn him," Cowley said, his eyebrows bristling. "This young man isn't going to be of any help here. Call in 3.3 and 6.5. They'll drive him and the other one—did we get a name?"
"Ibriham, no surname as yet," Doyle offered. "The local medical examiner pronounced Mahtob dead and Ibriham fit to be taken in." He didn't mention that he'd refused the doctor's examination outright.
"Excellent." Cowley nodded once, looking back at the glowering Ramen with a troubled expression. "A waste of youth, that one. What about the older Khorsandi?"
"Should be here by now. When I called, he said he was leaving immediately and that was two hours ago," Bodie said.
"What about the brother who owns this house?" Cowley asked thoughtfully. "Has he been apprised? Do we even know if he supports Ramen's cause?" He swung around to look at the prisoner again. "You had to be siphoning money off the family trusts somehow—and apparently no-one paid much attention to you. Miss Jennings would have been useful there. She may have had a hand in this after all."
"Eliza is no…" Ramen started, then snapped his mouth shut with a Farsi curse.
"Interesting." Cowley gave an unholy smile, obviously pleased with himself. "Bodie, Doyle, we can talk more in a more comfortable setting."
"After you, sir." Bodie held open the door to the wine cellar, nodding at his colleagues waiting in the corridor.
"A bloke here to see you," 3.3, also known as Timmy Stewart, said. "Sid 'Alley, the jockey."
"Good to know people in high places, isn't it?" Bodie smiled at Doyle, deliberately jolly.
Doyle grinned back, unable to resist Bodie's antics.
"I once won ten bob on him, first time I ever placed a bet!" Stewart told his partner, a thin, older man Doyle rarely worked with.
"Remand Khorsandi into custody and don't let him talk to anyone until I give the word," Cowley ordered his men, gathering up his suit jacket and briefcase. "We've been able to keep most of this from the press so far. I want it to stay that way."
"I have an idea, sir," Bodie said as they walked toward the stairway up to the ground floor. "Arrange a photograph of Halley and Karim Khorsandi with the horse at Carson and Sons. Some sort of anonymous tip, the horse was returned in the night unharmed, that sort of thing."
"Hmm, yes. I like it." Cowley nodded shrewdly. "Good thinking, 3.7. To divert attention away from the Kharistani Freedom Fighters and dilute their involvement."
"Might bring some of them out into the open, as well," Doyle put in. "If only to get their names in print and tell their side of the story."
"I got the impression that Ramen hadn't thought far enough ahead to have a contingency plan if the horsenapping fell through," Bodie said.
"Still, I don't want to be surprised on Wednesday morning. This meeting is critical—for both countries," Cowley mused. "You two will oversee getting Khorsandi to the meeting at Camden House and coordinate with his minders."
"Snipers on the adjacent roofs?" Doyle asked, already imagining the staging of the operation. Many men, troops of metropolitan police in uniform, far too much commotion.
"Exactly." Cowley slipped on the jacket he'd removed to interrogate Ramen. "I will have operatives cordon off the area and maintain a constant watch until then. This meeting has already caused far too many headaches. If we can avert a migraine in the offing, then I say do so!"
"Sound plan, sir," Bodie said, glancing at Doyle from behind Father's back.
Doyle knew exactly what he was thinking—would they have time for their own plans in the midst of all this, or should they wait until after? He'd force himself to endure the wait, but he didn't want to. The build up of pressure inside him was like a volcano, ready to explode.
"Doyle, next time, alert your partner before you go in by yourself." Cowley patted him on the left arm, obviously unaware of the wound underneath Doyle's jumper. "Fine work, getting the horse back."
Hiding the jolt of pain that burned from his elbow to his neck, Doyle accepted the rare congratulations with grace. "Ta, sir, I had to act as soon as I could."
"Do or die?" Bodie quipped with a raised eyebrow. "Or is it live and let die?" He hummed the Wings Bond theme all the way up the stairs.
Karim Khorsandi's world was coming down around his ears, and it showed. The man was shaken and pale, a shadow of the ebullient man who had poured champagne with gay abandon at the racetrack. Khorsandi braced himself against the wall of the stable as if it was the only thing keeping him upright.
Sid Halley glanced at Chico, feeling like he'd missed a reel of a movie. Between the time they'd left Cowley's office and got the phone call to drive hell-bent to Newmarket, many things had happened. Doyle looked knackered and Bodie had a tight, determined expression. Finding the horse at Baldry House had been a shocker, especially for Khorsandi, and the revelation that his brother had been the instigator of the whole affair had brought the man to his knees.
The veiled Mrs Khorsandi stood close beside her husband, as if she could protect him from all threats. The only thing that seemed to lift his spirit was seeing Aladdin again, and even then, he seemed oddly flat, as if the life was draining out of him.
Sid could sense his own latent depression deepening as if Khorsandi was contagious. He shook off the black cloud threatening to descend and centred himself in Chico's bright blue eyes. They had a job to do and wallowing in misery would only complicate things.
"I thank you and your men a million times over," Khorsandi said, stroking Aladdin's sleek neck. "Allah be praised, you have brought honour to yourselves." He shook his head, his shoulders bowed in defeat. "But my soul is mortally wounded. My own brother…"
"Thank you, Mr Khorsandi," Cowley said formally, waving a hand to include Bodie and Doyle. "Truly unfortunate that Ramen betrayed your trust in him."
"Ta," Chico said simply, draped over the door of the stall to feed Al another apple.
For the middle of the night, the horse had had far too many treats by Sid's estimation. And he suspected that there had been several more before he arrived. The poor animal would get a belly ache on the drive to Epsom at this rate. "Have you spoken with Nazir?" Sid asked. He felt it was his place, since he knew the man.
"Nazir was horrified, of course," Khorsandi sighed, scrubbing at his beard. "He will catch the earliest flight back. We must come together as a family to…" He ran out of words, as if realising that supporting Ramen might not be in their best interest.
"There will be dark days ahead for all of us, Karim," Noor said gently. "But we must focus on the bright side. Our children are safe, as is this noble steed. He will race once again, and win for us."
"Yes, I know that we are indeed fortunate, my light." Khorsandi touched his forehead to his wife's. "I strive to understand what went on in Ramen's mind. What rationale did he use to cause all this destruction? Why?"
"It may be a mystery for some time to come. In the meantime," Cowley said with brisk efficiency, "it is midnight and we have much to discuss regarding the next few days. Bodie here has suggested that Halley and Barnes smuggle Aladdin back into the paddock outside Carson and Sons to divert suspicion away from your family—"
"As well as CI5," Bodie said, pursing his lips, half hiding a smile. "We prefer to avoid the limelight."
"And shine it directly on us, yeah?" Chico chuckled. "As much as Trackdown needs the public'ty, I think CI5 deserves a bit."
"We're better off without the exposure," Doyle said dryly.
"May I sit in on your meeting, Mr Cowley?" Noor Khorsandi asked, picking up her long skirts to avoid a puddle of mud. "I may prefer the quiet of the country but I want to know all that involves my husband."
Sid had no experience whatsoever with women in burkas except for the shop girl at his corner greengrocer, and that relationship was limited to polite greetings and requesting the price of carrots. He was surprised to hear Noor speak up in front of her husband like an equal partner.
"Mr Khorsandi?" Cowley asked.
"Of course. My wife is an intelligent woman, with a good head on her shoulders," Khorsandi agreed, giving Aladdin a last pat.
"We can prepare the horse for the trip while the rest of you discuss international secrets," Sid suggested. He'd rather stay as far away from politics as possible. His head pounded abysmally and he'd had little sleep since Saturday night. But he hadn't expected to be included in the denouement so abruptly, and relished the chance to finish what he had started.
"Wise use of time, Halley," Cowley agreed. "If we could retire to the house?"
"I can offer you a whisky in repayment for the fine malt you gave me at your office," Khorsandi said, leading the way with Noor on his arm.
"That would be most welcome," Cowley said.
"May I suggest, sir," Bodie brought up the rear with Doyle, "that you post a twenty-four hour guard at the gate, particularly until the meeting with Albion Oil. And change the code for the gate regularly?"
"Is that how he got in?" Doyle asked in disgust.
Chico hooked both elbows on the stall door, Aladdin snuffling his blond curls. "Which of the equally disreputable 'orse vans you want me to fetch, Sid old man?"
Sid turned his head, pain shooting up from the base of his neck to the crown of his scalp. "Bugger," he said softly, rubbing his forehead. He longed for the days when a few hours of sleep and a gallop at six am could cure all that ailed him. A mad dash from the house just as he'd got to sleep and a drive across the country in the witching hour didn't cut it.
"Me 'ands have been registered as lethal weapons." Chico wiggled his fingers with a lecherous grin. "And as an adept—"
"Adept, is it?" Happiness lurked despite the pain in Sid's head. He waited until Chico opened the stall door and stepped onto the straw to attach a lead rope to Aladdin's bridle. A pretty gray mare a few stalls down nickered softly as if wishing the racehorse well.
"Adept, I'll have you know, yeah." Chico trailed his fingers down Sid's rock hard shoulder muscles in a suggestion of things to come. "Masseuse. Swedish birds swear by my magical lean and linger…"
"Save the fanfare for afters, Chico." Sid let himself imagine all sorts of pleasant things they could do in bed, such as sleep. After about twelve hours of slumber, he'd roll over on his blue eyed partner and engage in a very enthusiastic and erotic track down. Noshing on brekker, they'd loll against the pillows reading the London papers which would all feature their picture with a certain racehorse. Wouldn't be the first time he'd had his photo in the paper with a horse, but it would be the first time he'd have one standing next to Chico.
Coaxing Aladdin into the horse trailer, which smelt of mud and less savoury horse droppings, Sid felt a surge of overwhelming joy. He'd make sure that Cowley arranged for a number of press photographers to be there at Carson and Sons. And he'd make sure at least one of the pictures didn't include Khorsandi—just he and Chico. Next to Aladdin, to be sure. He and Chico, proud and strong, together.
Then he'd buy that photo and put in it a gold frame. Like a wedding photo. He couldn't think of a better cure for depression.
"Ready to go, squire?" Chico swung up into the driver's seat, flicking on the headlamps so that the whole stable yard blazed with light.
"I am." Sid smiled.
The sun was rising by the time Doyle pulled up to the kerb opposite CI5 headquarters. He yawned, stretching in the confines of the Capri, watching as Bodie parked his silver car a few yards away on the same side of the street. London was waking up, but still quieter than it would be in a few hours.
"I could go for breakfast," Bodie said, knocking on the window of Doyle's car. "Eggs, bacon, black pudding, porridge and about half a loaf of bread spread thick with butter and Marmite?" he said when Doyle got out.
"Then you'll keel over due to a massive heart attack from the fat and cholesterol." Doyle rolled his eyes, not sure where his own appetite had gone. As often when he was stressed, all desire to eat simply fled. And the ninety minute drive had not improved his aches and pains. He was as stiff as an old age pensioner. "All you think about, mate, is food."
"Then a takeaway sausage roll and bad coffee," Bodie said wistfully. "You never ate what Mrs Azizi served."
"I'll live, Bodie." Doyle rubbed his thighs, looking up at the stone façade of the building instead of his partner. Early morning shadows transformed the windows and architectural details into gothic flourishes straight out of some horror movie. He turned away with a grimace.
"You keep saying that." Bodie raised his arched eyebrow, regarding him thoughtfully.
"What with all Cowley has in store, I truly doubt we'll be able to…" Doyle started, having already acknowledged that any time alone with Bodie would go wanting.
"Don't." Bodie put a single finger to Doyle's lips, as light as the brush of a feather. "We can and we will."
The finger only remained for a second at most, but Doyle felt the most remarkable peace descend. It was only a small taste of the sweet submission he had when Bodie dominated him, but it was enough.
"You need something," Bodie said softly, blue eyes unwavering, holding Doyle in place by force of will. "I haven't quite sussed out what, but it won't be fixed by a debriefing with Cowley followed by an interrogation in the dungeons and debates with the mob to insure that the Albion Oil meeting goes smoothly."
Looking to the right, he broke the connection, leaving Doyle slightly dizzy. Or it could be lack of food and a concussion hangover.
Bodie shaded his eyes, peering into the rising sun. "Early paper's arrived," he announced, pointing to a delivery lorry on the corner by the newsstand. "Shall we see if it's a good likeness of Aladdin?"
Racing News, the Sun and The Daily Mail all featured pictures of Aladdin front and centre. "Winning Horse Found!" proclaimed one headline. Another announced "Aladdin's Treasure Discovered Unharmed Smaller pictures included Halley and Barnes looking damned proud.
Before Halley and Barnes left Baldry House, Khorsandi had decided that he couldn't handle the press in the middle of the night and the horse had been 'found' by Trackdown at Arabian Farms following an anonymous phone tip. The papers all quoted un-named sources, printing that 'the motive behind the kidnapping is unknown at this time.'
Bodie insisted on a quick meal and pushed them into a table at a crowded greasy spoon, complete with strong tea in white mugs and a breakfast that was neither fast nor healthy. Rashers of bacon and sausage vied for space on a plate mounded with eggs, tomato and baked beans. To his own astonishment, Doyle found he was hungry after all and tucked into the egg and tomato with gusto.
"Those two." Bodie thrust one paper in Doyle's face, a picture of Sid holding Aladdin's bridle with his false hand and his other arm around Chico uppermost on the page. "You reckon they're sweet on each other?"
Striving to control his amusement, Doyle kept a straight face. He wasn't about to let on that he'd wondered the same thing. "Are you still in junior school?"
Bodie frowned, leaning back in his chair. "Just thinking. If I can see it in the two of them, do others see it in us?"
Ah, the crux of the matter. "There's always been rumours flying around the rest room." Doyle shrugged which aggravated his sore arm. "Even before we tunnelled under the bed linens. Those continued after we validated the gossip, but no-one knows for sure, and they never will."
Bodie grinned, pinching one of Doyle's uneaten sausages. He ate it in two bites. "As long as you can keep your hands off me beautiful bum."
"Not as difficult as you'd imagine." Doyle caught sight of a familiar face standing at the door of the diner. "We've been found out."
"What?" Bodie swung around, laughing in relief when he saw Murphy. "Time to face the music."
The morning was taken up with debriefings, report writing, questions for Ramen Khorsandi and his minions, as well as another round with the increasingly hostile Eliza Jennings. Whether or not she knowingly gave Ramen information and whether he had access to all the family monies was still uncertain. The afternoon began with a conference with the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of Commerce. Doyle was near to dropping before he and Bodie were released home with the provision that they return by six am on Wednesday to be in place before the meeting at Camden House.
Bodie kicked the door to his flat closed, throwing his jacket on the sofa. "Get your clothes off—"
"God, Bodie, not now," Doyle growled. "I'm beyond fatigue. I've gone all the way to nearly dead. I know we said we'd…"
"Not that," Bodie said softly, unzipping Doyle's padded jacket. "Yeah, we're both too tired for that kind of fun. I want to see what has you moving like a veteran of the Great War." He waggled his fingers, encouraging Doyle to divest himself of the rest of his outer wear. "And if you say 'I'll live' once more…"
Baring his teeth to show how much he disliked the idea, Doyle silently shrugged out of his jacket and yanked the jumper over his head far too roughly. Pain lanced his left arm, gripping already aching shoulder and neck muscles. Didn't do a thing for his sore ribs, either.
"Bloody hell," Bodie whispered even before Doyle had stripped off the t-shirt he'd worn under his jumper. "He whipped you?" There was something savage and raw in his voice.
Too weary to dissemble any longer, Doyle nodded. His arm looked far worse than he'd expected. The whip had cut into the skin just enough to leave a long curved gash from shoulder to elbow. Dried blood was flecked here and there and the surrounding tissue had already darkened into what was going to be a spectacular bruise. The right side of his torso was purpling, too, as well as various bumps and scrapes all over his upper body.
Bodie gently probed Doyle's ribs, where he'd landed when he fell off Aladdin. "Breathe in," he said softly, palpating the cracked bone.
It hurt but Doyle complied, closing his eyes, almost swaying. He was only standing because of Bodie's close proximity and his own innate stubbornness. He felt Bodie run a hand down his flank and around to the left, directly above his arse cheek, to the other weals from the lash. Doyle shivered, the room too cool for standing around in his trousers.
"No central heating in this place!" he groused, and shivered even more when Bodie kissed the back of his neck.
"I'll turn the electric fire on," Bodie murmured, turning an unresisting Doyle enough to kiss him on the lips.
"Don't bother," Doyle whispered, all strength draining away. He was light-headed and leaden at the same time. He fell into Bodie's mouth with a kiss of his own. "You're as warm as a duvet and twice as welcome. Come to bed, Bodie. We'll shower—"
"On Wednesday," Bodie agreed.
It was four o'clock in the afternoon. They slept until the alarm went off at five a.m.
Aladdin's return was still the leading news on the radio the next day, with much speculation on who had done it and why. The leading suspects were an animal rights organisation known for releasing rats in test labs and throwing paint on fur coats at the opera; a rival racehorse owner—although which one was not specified—and the IRA. Bodie had to laugh at the last one. "Guess the Kharistani Freedom Fighters don't have the publicity that the Republican Army does."
"We can count our good fortune that the real suspect's been kept out of the media or this would be more of a circus than it already is," Doyle said, sweeping the road for any sign of danger. A doubledecker bus lumbered by on a side street, but the coppers had cordoned off the section of Blackfriars at both ends until Khorsandi arrived. "Nothing sells more papers than a stolen horse, but an international incident with enough family drama for Eastenders would have the public scooping up papers like nobody's business."
Bodie's r/t chirped and he mashed the talk button. "3.7. here."
"The car is approaching the location," Anson said tersely, using the vague language guaranteed not to give specific details to anyone listening in.
"Clear sailing ahead," Bodie said, observing his partner's alert but calm stance. Doyle would be radiating tension if he'd seen anything out of the ordinary. There was still a sense of urgency, a need for caution and vigilance. "Our own on the rooftops to the east and west, no pirate ships in view."
"Good show, lads." Anson signalled off.
Moments later, the same Bentley Doyle had ridden in on race day turned into Blackfriars, cruising slowly past a couple of panda cars. The chauffeur nodded gravely at the police and pulled up in front of Camden House. Bodie hurried down the marble stairs to open the car door. Doyle trotted close on his flank, holding his pistol down at his side in case of attack.
"This whole situation has jangled my nerves," Khorsandi said apologetically, smoothing his tie. He seemed unable to stop fidgeting; touching his neatly trimmed beard and tugging at his French cuffs. "I cannot wait for the contract to be signed and the merger to be complete."
Matthew Cougan had guarded Khorsandi for the night and ridden with him from Kensington. He nodded soberly at Bodie without a word, his red hair a flare of brightness in the dim interior of the car.
"Then we'd best get you inside, sir," Bodie said calmly, holding out his hand. "Hustle up the stairs, Sir Reginald is waiting for you." He'd always been able to sense danger, even before there was any tangible sign—the hairs on the back of his neck would prickle. But today, despite the apprehension in the air, he felt cool and confident. They'd broken the case and brought the horse back without a single casualty on their side. Not to say there hadn't been collateral damage. He deeply regretted Kath Devlin's death--far more than Sam Penberthy's. Kath hadn't been involved in any way that the mob could identify. She had been used pure and simple.
Doyle's injuries, superficial as they were, were Bodie's tipping point. Fury burned in his gut every time he thought about the inflamed welt he'd tenderly wrapped in gauze this morning.
"I do not know what my family would have done without your aid," Khorsandi said, going pale when he saw Doyle's gun. He looked up and caught sight of Murphy at the enormous front door. With a distracted nod, Khorsandi continued up the marble stairs without stopping.
Matthew Cougan followed directly behind so that between he, Murphy, Bodie and Doyle, Khorsandi was completely surrounded.
The meeting would not take long; all the preliminary discussion and reams of paperwork had already been completed in the past weeks. Just the formal signing of the contract remained. Had Khorsandi balked because of his missing horse, the contract would have been null and void. This was a vital document, in more ways than one. It ensured a reliable flow of oil for the UK as well as a valuable contact/national friendship for Kharistan, a small nation with little political clout except for its single national resource.
It was, in Bodie's mind, a win-win situation.
Murphy and Cougan led the way to a large comfortable room with no windows. It was situated in the centre of the building, with corridors on both sides. Cowley and Sir Reginald, a balding man with a fluff of white hair like an old country vicar, were already seated at a huge plank table. The contract sat square in front of Sir Reginald, along with an old fashioned fountain pen resting in a sumptuous green lacquer box.
Bodie breathed out when the carved mahogany door was shut behind them. He hadn't even realised he was holding his breath until his lungs burned when new air rushed in. He and Doyle stood in front of the door, letting Murphy and Cougan maintain stances nearer to Khorsandi.
"Sir Reginald." Khorsandi dipped his head politely, removing a small, highly polished rosewood box from his Armani jacket pocket. Gold letters on the lid spelled out Sir Reginald's full title. "A small token."
"Thank you." Sir Reginald stood, revealing a handsome charcoal gray suit and an Oxford school tie. He opened the box with a fond smile. "A gold Conway Stewart pen," he exclaimed. "You have come to know me well, Karim. I am honoured to work with you in this venture."
"And I you," Khorsandi murmured.
"Gold?" Doyle whispered out of the side of his mouth. He'd holstered his weapon but kept his jacket open for easy access. "Solid gold?"
"Must be worth a fortune!" Bodie replied, watching closely. He'd never seen a pen that cost more than his watch.
"If you will please both sign in the designated spaces?" Cowley said formally, acting as the moderator.
"For you." Reginald gestured at the elegant green marbled Conway Stewart nestled in its lacquer box sitting next to the contract. "I had it engraved with the date."
"Thank you." Khorsandi smiled, admiring the pen for a moment before signing his name with a flourish.
Once Sir Reginald had also written out his entire name, there was a communal sigh of relief. It was over.
"Perhaps a celebratory toast?" Sir Reginald held up a bottle of Ardbeg whisky. His eyes crinkled with pleasure giving him the appearance of a mischievous Einstein with his froth of white hair. Cowley and Khorsandi brightened at the suggestion.
"A fine malt," Cowley said with approval, accepting his glass.
Bodie waved the bottle away, amused when Cougan looked longingly at the drink. Murphy elbowed his partner, and they all abstained.
"On duty, Sir," Doyle said for the group.
"Mr Cowley, what is all this rubbish about my niece Eliza taking up with Ramen Khorsandi? I must say I was astonished to hear she'd been questioned…" Sir Reginald started in.
Bodie and Doyle slipped out of the room before they could hear Cowley's undoubtedly politically censored reply, their part in the job nearly over.
"Missed your karate class last night with the—what did Barnes call 'em?" Bodie snapped his fingers, remembering. "The little bleeders." There was no-one in the broad passageway and they were a long way from the coppers stationed at the main door. He and Doyle were alone for a moment.
"I'd expected that would happen when I was in Newmarket. Rang up the alternate teacher to fill in," Doyle said quietly, his eyes distant. "I'll miss Farook. Expect he'll not be back to class. He was a good kid, but his parents probably won't let him out of their sight for months, at the very least."
"Tough break for the entire family. Good thing Ramen's influence didn't reach as far as the Blackfriars Road." Bodie put one hand low against Doyle's back. He knew exactly where the lash marks were and avoided them by inches. "We'll be chasing down the last of those Freedom Fighters for a while."
"Khorsandi's told Cowley that CI5 has free use of the private box at Sandown whenever we wish," Doyle said, the light finally returning to his eyes as Bodie tightened the hold on his arse. "Aladdin's running in a fortnight. Fancy going to the races?"
"Fortnight is a long way off. I have plans for this very afternoon." Bodie's groin swelled at the heat radiating from Doyle. "Got my eye on a certain stallion that needs taking down a peg."
"Yeah?" Doyle backed up against the wainscoting, his knees buckling slightly as if he were about to kneel in front of Bodie.
Bodie swallowed sharply, forcing his arousal down. Not here, not now. But God, Doyle looked—edible. The fading bruise on his cheekbone accentuated the slant of his green eyes and his lower lip glistened, the tip of his tongue visible. "He's a cantankerous sod," Bodie said, well aware they should not be doing this with colleagues and cops in the vicinity. "Full of piss and vinegar, but doesn't respond to the whip. I'm thinking he needs some other method to bring him round. A challenge."
"Putting any money down on how he'll do?" Doyle asked recklessly, the artery in his neck throbbing in time with Bodie's accelerated heartbeat.
Bodie placed a single finger on the pulsing vessel and then slid his hand up to cup Doyle's chin oh-so briefly. "I always win with this one." Bodie straightened, taking two steps back as the door to the conference room opened and Cowley walked out.
"Bodie! Doyle! What are you doing standing around?" Cowley called impatiently. "There's still work to be done. Get to it, the danger is not over until Khorsandi is back with his family."
They secured Doyle's car in a car park CI5 used for off duty vehicles and Bodie drove his Capri through noonday London traffic, which meant they barely got a mile past the building in the first half hour.
Doyle stared at the Thames, watching a sightseeing cruise boat glide by faster than the car was travelling. Happy tourists took snaps of the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, excited to be in a foreign country. Or perhaps they were Brits who had never explored their capital city. Doyle wanted that remove. Wanted to go away for a while, just shut out all the nastiness and negativity. The quiet of the country suddenly seemed much more desirable now than when he had been there. Alternately, he yearned to slide into Bodie's domination, let go and be controlled, but something was niggling in the back of his brain, holding him back.
He needed to tell Bodie the truth about—Liam. Honesty, full disclosure. The question was, would it help or hurt what they had? He hadn't ever really thought about why he wasn't interested in swats, just that smacking another person didn't seem erotic in the least. The whole reason he didn't want to be tightly restrained was easier. Having his wrists tied brought back too many memories of dicey situations where he was in a world of danger.
Bodie never cared how he dominated Doyle, and for God's sake, Doyle relished every single session with a passion that had yet to be quenched.
So was the truth all that it was cracked up to be? He took a deep breath, Bodie's mounting frustration about the gridlocked cars impinging on his ruminations.
"Bloody bugger, why the hell would he try to turn right there?" Bodie pointed at a Land Rover performing an illegal four point turn in the middle of the road. "He'll be driving off the embankment next."
"Perhaps he's drunk?" Doyle asked mildly. Never did well to feed into Bodie's ire when he was driving. Maybe taking his mind off the traffic would be a good idea. "Back at Camden House, how did you know?"
That did the trick. Bodie turned, taking his eyes completely off the road to stare at Doyle. Since there was no chance that any of the cars in the queue would be moving in the foreseeable future, Doyle didn't chastise him for neglecting his driving.
"A bit mysterious, aren't you? About what?" Bodie must have divined the answer from thin air, or possibly from Doyle's face, because he suddenly nodded and gripped the steering wheel. Easing his foot onto the accelerator, Bodie inched the car forward. "Being whipped?" he asked, deceptively casual.
"I've only just recently sussed out the reasons myself, but you never pushed, never insisted on adding it to our repertoire."
"Ray, I don't have vast experience with—" Bodie looked straight ahead and took the chance on changing lanes whilst there was slight movement in the cars ahead of him. "All this s and m stuff, but I reckon I had more than you when we started." He turned left onto Westminster and sped into the roundabout far more quickly than Doyle had expected after the interminable snarl of cars trying to go to the right over Westminster Bridge.
Doyle waited, listening, because Bodie seemed in possession of essential truths without ever being told a blessed thing.
"But there's never been only one way to go about it. It's all what feels right." Bodie shrugged, taking a couple of turns that abruptly put them much closer to his flat than they had been only ten minutes earlier. "I wanted you on your knees, and you liked it that first time, yeah?"
"No question." Doyle didn't care if they ever got around to discussing what Liam had done in the name of parenting. He'd go down on his knees immediately if he could.
"And it felt—I dunno, empowering. Turned me on faster'n anything ever had before. So we improvised." Bodie shifted uncomfortably, widening his thighs. Obviously the subject matter was arousing him, too. "Went with the flow. You made it interesting, forced me to find what suited our needs. Ropes didn't work, a bit of erotic torture did the trick well and truly--" He'd arrived at his street and slowed to a crawl to look for a place to park. "You had your own reasons for not wanting a thrashing, no skin off my bum."
Doyle snorted at the play on words. Bodie certainly had a way of altering how Doyle looked at the world. "Me da was a drunkard."
"Figured that out on my own, sunshine." Bodie slid the Capri into a narrow slot without having to go into reverse and switched off the engine. "Fathers. Not a Karim Khorsandi between us. Mine wasn't around long enough to know, yours was a bastard—"
Scowling at Bodie, Doyle got through the rest. "Times were different then, fathers had a right to—discipline their kids. Smack their arses and withhold supper. Wasn't like there was enough for seven of us to eat on the best of nights."
"But he did it to excess?" Bodie asked so very softly and far too sympathetically.
Damn him! The last thing Doyle wanted was sympathy. He had to clench his fists between his thighs rather than slug Bodie. How was that for irony? Thank you, Liam, for all you gave me.
"Beat me bloody more'n once," Doyle said, all the pent-up dread, fear and leftover anger from his teen years welling up like a fucking volcano about to spill over. He'd felt ready to explode for days—it was only a matter of minutes now. "And don't you try to psycho-sodding-analyze me, Bodie!"
"Never fancied Kate Ross." Bodie's whole manner had changed subtly. His face had gone stern but loving; eyes narrow, his lower lip slightly pushed out. "Only you. That's all baggage, part and parcel of what makes you Raymond Doyle. Wouldn't change it for the world." He placed one hand squarely on Doyle's chest. "No beatings here, no rejection or whatever the hell head games the old man put on you. It's time to play, boy, and I don't plan to be gentle." The look in his eyes asked if Doyle understood.
He most certainly did. "Don't have to be told twice, gov," he said and got out of the car with a heady sense of freedom.
Doyle knew how the game was played. Knew exactly why Bodie had him go into the flat first, to wait for him. It enhanced the power exchange, framed their roles as dominant and submissive. They always 'played' at Bodie's flat, not his own. That was one of the rules.
Doyle removed his holster and gun first, surrendering all the control they represented. He took his time taking off his clothes, folding each item carefully and placing them on the small table in the passageway by the front door. By the time he'd dropped his pants on the pile, he could feel a glimmer of submission taking hold, subtly draining away some of his boiling anger. He could finally breathe.
Anticipation was such an important element. Waiting, wondering what would happen. Imaging and reconstructing past sessions for a taste of what was to come.
He sat in his favourite armchair, the worn brocade smooth against his bare skin. The welt along his left arm throbbed, a grinding reminder of what had happened. The ones on his back were not so fierce. He considered removing the gauze Bodie had wrapped around his arm, but reconsidered. Spreading his legs the way Bodie liked, Doyle watched his cock swell and rise like a flower opening in the sun.
No more Khorsandi family, no death, gunshots or—Doyle paused at the whip, turning the idea one way and another. Could he? Maybe not a whip, but the slap of Bodie's fine white hand against his flesh, nothing at all like what Liam did?
Abruptly, his willie deflated as if pricked by a pin.
That answered that.
Doyle sat up straighter, keeping his eyes on the rug printed with roses and vines. His heart stuttered a beat when the front door opened, and his erection stood up straight and proud as a soldier at arms.
Doyle couldn't keep the grin off his face. He watched Bodie's boots stride into the lounge, pause facing the armchair and then continue into the kitchen. There was the sound of a plastic carrier bag landing on the table and then a clatter of metal. What was Bodie doing?
"My night, my rules," Bodie said from behind the chair. "Do you have anything to say before we begin?"
"No, sir," Doyle said promptly, butterflies in his stomach. Start, now! But he didn't move, didn't force the brilliant, horrible opening gambit.
"First, give me an honest answer," Bodie spoke from much closer to him.
Doyle realised he'd closed his eyes in anticipation, and opened them, staring at Bodie's scuffed brown boots.
"You've got at least one cracked rib. Will that hinder the play?"
He'd almost forgotten about that. The pain when he took in a deep breath was sharp but hadn't been an issue all day. He shook his head.
Bodie unwound the gauze from Doyle's arm, and Doyle was glad he'd left it for him. There was something special about the way Bodie examined every inch of the wound, his breath warm and concerned against the broken skin. "You'll live," Bodie said, stroking the unblemished inside of Doyle's arm.
Doyle hitched a breath, need and rampant desire so strong he could taste the musk in the back of his throat.
"Take this." Bodie placed a tangle of leather and rubber into Doyle's hands. "And put it into your mouth."
It was a bit. A mullen bit, the name dredged out of his memory from some forgotten corner. Gooseflesh crawled up both arms and a small 'no' wailed in the back of Doyle's brain when he straightened out the leather straps to run his finger along the narrow piece of rubber with metal 'O' rings at both ends. Straps attached to buckles and a loop of reins were connected to the 'O' rings, and long shafts of metal running horizontally to the rings linked a second much shorter piece of leather underneath. A horse bit.
Doyle didn't ask if he had to do what he was told. Bodie would never force the issue. If he didn't want to, they'd move on to something else.
But a bit! The idea freaked the hell out of him, and even as he raised it to his lips, a huge part of him wanted to refuse. He looked up into Bodie's face.
Bodie was waiting, a soft light of excitement and yes—anticipation in his eyes. He smiled, warm and sweet, peppered with just enough impish mischief that Doyle wanted to laugh.
He opened his mouth and placed the bit between his teeth, something primal welling up inside. Spit it out, spit it out, spititout… Doyle lowered his eyes and nodded once, feeling Bodie's big hands close around his jaw and hold him fast.
Arousal shot through him so quickly he went light-headed. He sagged against the padded wings of the chair, panting with his mouth open, the rubber bar trapping his tongue. Bodie buckled a strap at the base of Doyle's skull to secure the bit. Another went up over the crown of his head and the short one between the two metal flanges fit neatly under Doyle's chin.
Turning his head slowly, Doyle tried to acclimate to the heavy harness encompassing his head. He felt clumsy with the weight of the metal and leather pressing against his skull. At the same time, there was a strange sense of being held in check and cradled in loving protection. Doyle could feel the reins trailing down his naked back. His cock was as hard as steel. He could have come instantly but knew there was more if he only waited.
"You look amazing." Bodie inserted a finger into Doyle's mouth, tracing the contours of the rubber bit. "Borrowed that from Khorsandi's head groom. Told him I wanted to try riding a horse that had a soft mouth." He kissed both of Doyle's eyes, his nose and his upper lip, running his tongue across Doyle's. "Suits you in ways you'd never imagine."
Doyle couldn't close his teeth, couldn't swallow without effort and couldn't prevent the drool that spilled over his bottom lip. A restraint unlike any all those sodding criminals had ever used on him. Doyle wanted to kiss Bodie, praise his inventive, adventuresome soul, but it was impossible. He extended his hand, petting the front of Bodie's trousers, feeling the solid bulge of his hard-on.
"Ah, you want so much more, do you?" Bodie asked, amused. "Not quite yet, you aren't properly attired."
There was more? Doyle raised his eyes to his master, trying to get words past the restraint.
Bodie looked magnificent. He'd taken off the leather jacket he'd worn since arriving at Baldry House to reveal a dark polo-neck. Doyle found his eyes drawn to Bodie's leather holster strapped tightly around his broad shoulders and chest. Something so ordinary was suddenly incredibly alluring, those leather straps outlining Bodie's masculine physique. Bodie emanated danger and authority just standing still. With the spark of erotic humour in his eyes, he was a power to be reckoned with.
"An-ee-fing…" Doyle managed. Speaking was far too difficult, he wasn't going to attempt that again.
"Glad you're up for the full monty, angelfish." Bodie laughed, running a proprietary finger over the tip of Doyle's cock.
Doyle gasped as arousal blazed like drinking a shot of pure malt whisky in one go. He keened, high and in the back of his throat, begging for more. For Bodie to wrap all five fingers around and milk him dry.
"We have miles to go before we sleep," Bodie misquoted, motioning for him to stand. "I have something to show you. Stand at parade rest like a good copper should while I do a bit of chopping for our…" He chuckled. "Main course."
Doyle's belly rumbled, but he wasn't hungry in the least. He assumed the required position, facing the small, cheery kitchen. Bodie pushed aside a few apples and a lemon from the familiar fruit bowl and pulled out an ugly brownish root that appeared to be a squat hand with four stubby fingers.
Ginger. Doyle hadn't a clue what that was for.
"You're always telling me to try new flavours." Bodie took a paring knife and sliced off one of the thick branches. With a few deft flicks of the blade, he'd peeled a piece about four or five inches long and the thickness of a mid-sized carrot. The hot-sweet scent of ginger perfumed the air. "Ever heard of figging?" Bodie inquired, with a teasing glance at his partner.
Doyle shook his head, minutely shifting his feet. He wasn't sure why he was nervous but he already had a suspicion that the ginger was not going to be used for some Middle-Eastern cuisine.
"And strangely enough." Bodie held up the root he'd prepared. "Figging has nothing t'do with figs. Can you guess what it's for?"
Dear God, Doyle felt his eyes widen and he struggled to take in a calming breath, his ribs protesting. Inserted up his bumhole. Ginger was heaven on the tongue, strong, sweet and hot—what the hell would it feel like plugged inside?
"I can see you do." Bodie grinned. He swiped two fingers over Doyle's chin, cleaning off the spittle. "Won't be only for you, Raymond," he whispered, his voice soft and enticing, flowing straight into Doyle's blood like a narcotic. "In for a mo, just enough to heat up your core, then I'll pull it out and plunge meself inside…"
Doyle was heating up already. He swayed, weak in the knees, and nodded, completely stripped of all ability to say no. What Bodie did to him. Marvelous, ever inventive Bodie. Doyle reached up, yearning to touch his master, but uncertain—hadn't been given permission. The tip of one finger brushed the smooth leather of Bodie's holster. He thought his head would explode; the one that stood straight up as if begging to be touched. With his other hand, he groped for his cock.
"No, no—that's off limits, love." Bodie grasped both of Doyle's hands with a smile that said he was on to him. "You're getting ahead of the game." He kissed the palm of both hands and ritually curled each finger into a fist. Left hand first and then the right. "Hold onto that for me. Don't release it, no matter what."
His heart expanding with each kiss, Doyle would have smiled if he could. He tried turning up his lips which hurt in a pleasurable, do-it-again way. Bodie was watching with a gleam in his eyes.
Opening his mouth wider, Doyle exalted in the press of the tight leather straps against his cheeks and the unyielding metal of the side braces on his jaw. The short length of leather slung under his chin was stretched tight and slippery with drool. The rubber bar forced his tongue flat, and with his jaw so wide, he was near to choking. He abruptly closed his teeth on the bit, panting.
"Yeah, you'll do anything to have this up the arse, won't you?" Bodie purred, running both hands down Doyle's wide chest to his narrow waist and hips. "One more thing before a-figging we will go." He produced a small, brown leather bag from his trouser pocket. The type for carrying marbles, with a drawstring at the top. "Just the thing to keep a willie warm," Bodie said conversationally, tucking it over Doyle's cock and pulling the drawstring tightly closed.
Doyle shut his eyes, accepting the not-quite comfortable restriction of what Bodie had placed on him. He'd never have believed he would revel in wearing a bit and such a unique French letter, nor anticipate being plugged with a ginger root, but he couldn't wait for the next step. He looked straight at Bodie, his fists at his sides, holding those precious kisses securely in each hand.
"Lean over the chair you were sitting in, bum up in the air," Bodie directed, watching every move Doyle made with obvious enjoyment.
The position was awkward, but not difficult to maintain. Doyle lowered his head, resting one cheek against the worn brocade. His ribs twinged slightly, but it was a minor interruption. Doyle felt very cherished when Bodie kissed the small of his back and gently nipped at his rounded arse cheeks.
Lifting each of Doyle's hands onto the armrests of the chair, Bodie said, "Stay very still."
The reminder was completely unnecessary since Doyle had no plans to budge an inch.
When Bodie first inserted the carved root, Doyle grunted, concentrating on relaxing his sphincter muscle. Nothing new or different than any other time he'd had anal penetration. He was quite used to the sensation of being pierced and stretched beyond what seemed natural. Then Bodie seated the ginger and gave it a slight turn, as if exposing as much inner tissue as possible to the spicy essence.
It was a slow building heat, the way the taste of ginger sparks the tongue and then lingers, growing more and more intense. Within seconds, Doyle was gasping, the heat a raging inferno that was consuming him from inside. He didn't move but, damn, he wanted to. He could have so easily released one fist and reached back to grab the incendiary device. But he didn't. He'd relinquished control, given over all to Bodie and had to trust that Bodie would keep him safe.
"I've got you," Bodie murmured, wrapping both arms around Doyle and resting his cheek on Doyle's back. "You're not going anywhere, and neither am I. Watching your back, I am." He chuckled, the vibrations from his laughter moving through Doyle's torso, electrifying his very soul with happiness.
As the ginger seeped into Doyle's sensitive internal walls, the concentrated hot/sweet sensation gathered strength until he was dripping. Not just the drool from his mouth, but all over, sweating like a racehorse pounding over the finish line.
Bodie widened his stance, his legs bracketing Doyle's, and gathered up the reins that had fallen over his left shoulder. He pulled back very gently. Doyle had to arch his spine or risk the bit dragging —possibly tearing--at the corners of his mouth. He heaved in air, so very aware of Bodie surrounding him.
"I've got you," Bodie repeated into Doyle's ear.
His fist was tight against the base of Doyle's neck, and Doyle could feel the leather reins wrapped double around Bodie's hand gliding over his skin. The straps around his skull, crown and his chin exerted constant pressure. They didn't hurt, they were simply a reminder of Bodie's dominance.
"No-one," Bodie continued, sending shivers up Doyle's spine despite the ginger burning him from the inside out. "No-one can hurt you without going through me." He reached around to stroke the largest scar on Doyle's torso. "Not bloody Mayli, not Liam Sodding Doyle, not even Macklin, if I'm in the mood. D'you hear?"
Doyle couldn't nod, couldn't move his head. "Berrr—que," he said, the bit impeding his speech. Didn't come out quite right, but Bodie clearly understood.
Rumbles of laughter rippled through his chest as he loosened the reins, giving Doyle his head. "Berk? You're an ungrateful git, I'll say that for you." He kissed Doyle over the spot where his fist had rested and let go of the reins completely.
Doyle bent his neck forward to release his tense muscles. He was alternately quivering and panting from the conflagration in his bum. He had managed to keep the kisses safe inside his palms by sheer willpower. Every brain cell that was functioning compelled him to yank the ginger out and be done with it—if only Bodie would replace the root with his cock.
"Going balmy by now, aren't you?" Bodie lazily rubbed his cock along Doyle's hipbone.
When had he taken down his trousers? Whenever, the strop of Bodie's velvety soft skin wrapped around a rock hard penis was heaven and the very last straw. Doyle was primed to blow.
"C-can't…" Doyle turned to look at Bodie, surprised to see he was still dressed. His zip was down and his impressive willie was fully erect. Doyle held out his fisted hands, desperate for some release.
"Yeah, I know." Bodie caught up both hands, kissing the tightly clamped fingers. "That's enough of that, then." Doyle opened his hands with relief, wrapping his fingers around Bodie's wrists. "Can you walk into the bedroom and keep that thing plugged in?" Bodie walked backwards, holding the reins loosely to guide him.
It was not the easiest challenge Doyle had ever accepted, but it wasn't one of Macklin's obstacle courses either. He managed to waddle along and retain the root by clenching his throbbing derriere. Stopping at the foot of the bed, he had to wait while Bodie made a show of removing his shoulder holster. Doyle caught his breath, already drooling.
"Like that, do you?" Grinning lecherously at Doyle's consternation, Bodie stripped out of his polo-neck and trousers more quickly.
It was only a minute or two at most, but in his present condition, Doyle was sure he'd melt away like butter in the sun before Bodie was finished. He pressed his palms together, trying anything to get his mind off the insistent demand of the ginger. He closed his eyes, finding mispronounced Japanese commands for katas entwined with vulgar Farsi curses fraying his ability to relax. His whole being was fixated on his arse—
Bodie surprised him, pulling the ginger root out when he wasn't paying attention. Doyle snapped open his eyes to see Bodie toss the thing in a bin. There wasn't an immediate sense of relief from the raging fire inside, and for the first time in his life, Doyle would have welcomed an enema rinse.
"Now for the piece de resistance." Bodie lay back on the bed with his knees bent. His cock stood tall as he slicked lube along the length.
Doyle all but fell over himself trying to clamber onto Bodie's waiting target. He was amazed that the touch of Bodie's hand on his leg didn't sizzle like sausages on the cooker. The slide down Bodie's full length was incredible, the reward for holding out so long.
Squeezing his eyes shut, Doyle saw the raging fire within reflected on his eyelids. Bright red and yellows dazzled. He didn't even notice the cramping of his inner walls or the sudden expansion of the tight ring of muscle that usually gave him a jolt of pain/pleasure.
"Good Lord!" Bodie said, huffing an unsteady breath. "That is…" He squirmed, twisting inside Doyle, some of the indescribable heat wicking off onto his length. "Hot!" Bodie rocked forward, his balls smacking the back of Doyle's thighs.
Doyle inhaled so sharply his chest ached with sweet pain, dark bliss blossoming in his core. Bodie moaned low in his throat, thrusting up into Doyle as if he couldn't get in deeply enough. Elemental desire flooded, sweeping Doyle along. He clutched at Bodie, grabbing any part he could—first hips and then, leaning forward, the breadth of Bodie's shoulders. He held on for dear life; joined, bonded, forged in the fire, one with Bodie.
The tide ripped through him, shredding his consciousness until he was nothing but emotions and sensations. At some point, Doyle was aware that Bodie had freed his cock and was fisting him with a double handed grip. He felt that sudden catch, the perfect instant in time when past, present and future coalesced. Heard the single peal of a bell chime through him and into Bodie.
Peace. Absolute joy and release.
He was wrung dry, utterly and completely done in. His chest heaving, the metal parts of the bit abrading the corners of his mouth, Doyle tried to untangle himself from Bodie. Suddenly, there seemed too many arms and legs, and he had no strength left to deal with the puzzle. The heat was fading in his bum, banked to a lingering tickle of spicy warmth that no longer drained away his resolve.
"Shove over, you great ox," Bodie said with sarky affection, spilling Doyle onto his side.
That was exactly the right comment to pull Doyle out of his lethargy. "'Oo di' all the bl'dy work h're?" He cracked an eyelid to peer at his partner.
His fringe plastered to his forehead with sweat, Bodie was grinning like a loon. "Think highly of yourself, do you?" he asked, tracing his finger around Doyle's restrained mouth. He slipped his tongue in, licking at the rubber bit, his lips against Doyle's. "Anyone ever tell you you're gorgeous when you come?"
Doyle laughed wearily, his cheeks hitting the straps and metal fittings. Post-orgasm, he could no longer abide the thing.
Bodie was already unbuckling straps and easing the rubber bar out from between Doyle's teeth.
His tongue felt dry as dust but he didn't really care. With a mumbled, "you're m'mate, love," Doyle tumbled into sleep.
He came awake much later. The room was a black on black texture of shadows, reminding him too strongly of the breeding stables—except for the smell. Instead of rancid straw and stinking manure, he inhaled the strong musky aroma of Bodie and sex. Exactly where he ought to be. Doyle curled up to his living bed warmer, slinging one leg over Bodie's hip. Bodie snuffled in his sleep, snoring lightly.
Doyle was warm on his front and freezing all along his back, in stark contrast to the last thing he remembered. He could still sense the occasional little flicker of spice inside his guts but it did nothing against the chilly temperature. Other aches and pains started in and there was no relaxing after that. The rain splattering on the window glass confirmed his hypothesis that it was damp and cold. Searching the bed for the duvet, he realised they'd gone to sleep on top of the linens.
"Bodie," Doyle poked him. "Wake up. It's freezing in here."
"Hmm?" Bodie sounded like a hibernating bear snuffling into his pillow.
"It's cold! Never turned on the heating when we got home." Doyle was fully awake now. His mouth felt stuffed with cotton and he had to take a leak. The clock said midnight. They'd been asleep for eight hours already, anyway.
Going into the loo, Doyle listened to sounds of Bodie getting up while he brushed his teeth and rinsed. There was no sign that he'd worn a horse bit. His misaligned face looked as it always had, the yellowish bruise on his uneven cheekbone an accenting smudge of paint. The long welt on his arm was still prominent but would soon fade, as well. The afternoon seemed a fantasy and he wanted to go at it again very soon. He showered quickly to rinse off the stickiness of their love-making.
Bodie was in the kitchen, whistling a meandering tune. He looked smart in an old satin dressing gown like William Powell in The Thin Man. He'd put a pot on to boil and was rummaging in the fridge for food. Doyle pushed past him and popped two slices of bread in the toaster. Marmalade and butter, along with a clutch of grapes and a wedge of cheddar completed their late night snack.
"I'll play mother," Bodie said with a smile, doling out cups of steaming Earl Grey. "I thought you were cold."
"Hmm?" Doyle took a deep swallow of tea, feeling the warmth spread through him like a blessing.
"Complained of cold, and still you're prancing around starkers," Bodie commented, left eyebrow insufferably smug. He held a steaming cup to his mouth as if hiding a smile. "Not that I object, just…"
He'd never gotten dressed! Doyle looked down at his nakedness. How in the world had he forgotten to get dressed? "Didn't notice." He shrugged, eating a few grapes. Strange how he had absolutely no self-consciousness around Bodie. The seat of the old vinyl kitchen chair was smooth and cool under his bare, plundered arse.
"You weren't like that when we first met." Bodie spread butter and marmalade on his toast without looking at Doyle. "Close to the vest, you were, on edge."
"Never used to relax—not around other people." He frowned, reconsidering his words and splashed milk into his tea. "Around men. Women were different, but men could…"
"Strike, hurt," Bodie finished without inflection.
Doyle didn't want to validate his conclusion. "Must have warmed up in here with the cooker on."
"Yeah." Bodie finished his toast and cheese. He poked at the crumbs, even reaching over into Doyle's plate to take a handful of grapes. Doyle swatted at his questing fingers. "Ever wonder what it would be like to have a father like Karim Khorsandi?" Bodie asked so very softly. There was sadness in his voice, the yearnings of a fatherless boy still present after all the years.
Doyle didn't say a word. As a child, he'd invented a different father late at night when he couldn't lay flat because he'd been beaten black and blue—usually for little reason. Spilt milk or coming in late from a football match. Those had been pipe dreams, unobtainable. He almost couldn't reconcile those memories with the father he knew now: a less abrasive Liam Doyle who had all but stopped drinking. Liam had never given any apology, had no remorse for what he'd done. Ray Doyle had never expected any.
"If I'd had a different da…" he said slowly, piecing together the realities he'd come to accept as a teen. The solitude of shovelling horse manure had been his salvation in more ways than one. "I wouldn't have had a sister named Maeve, nor perhaps, even the same mum. Or the sisters she bore with their fathers. And I love them. Can't rework the past, doesn't change what we have to live with."
"I wouldn't even know who I might be if old man Bodie had stuck around long enough to know his progeny." Bodie shrugged, curling his fingers into Doyle's palm. "Halley, Barnes and me got to talking, waiting for the coroner to pick up Penberthy's body at Arabian Farms. D'you know, the both of them are real bastards?"
One corner of Doyle's mouth turned up, and he winced at the slight pain. "I take it you mean the dictionary definition of the word, their mums weren't married…"
"Bastard." Bodie uncurled his fingers and brought two of them together, holding the result up in Doyle's face. "Halley's dad died a few days before the wedding, after he'd knocked up his mum, and Barnes was dropped off at a convent when he was a babe."
"Every action in our lives takes us one step closer to who we are," Doyle said quietly.
"Sounds like something from a fortune cookie."
"I suspect it was and stuck in my brain, the flotsam of your takeaway choices." Doyle scooted his chair closer to Bodie so that their legs touched. Bodie was naked under his old-fashioned dressing gown and his thigh was warm against Doyle's. "I think all that happens brings us to now." He looked into the face of the man he loved more than life itself, feeling that keen awareness that Bodie loved him, too. "And I couldn't—wouldn't change my life because it brought me to you."
"Sentimental in your old age, aren't you?" Bodie kissed him.