Short story: an amateur detective investigates a horse dealer.

Does my amateur detective ride a horse?

Not usually, but my hero, Frank Hill, is an accountant who finds himself investigating a murder. He can’t think of a better way to getting to meet a horse-dealer than looking at a horse he has for sale. This short story is an extract from Accounting for Murder, Book II, Old Money, which is not quite ready for publication. I am publishing this on the blog as I think it gives some insights into Frank’s character, as well as being a story in itself.

A horseshoe. Did this horse bring Frank any luck? Wait for the book!
A horseshoe. Did this horse bring Frank any luck? Wait for the book!

TO BUY OR NOT TO BUY A HORSE?

We told Davy and Angie how my wife, Sian, and I had got on with visiting some of their unfriendly neighbours. Angie asked, “How about Colonel Arrowsmith? He was one who didn’t like new money.”

I said, “Sorry. We haven’t found a way to get near him. “

Sian said, “My sister Cathy’s a riding instructor and knows him a bit through the horsey fraternity. She said she was going to help with that. I’ll give her a nudge.”

“That’s gentle of you.”

When she did so, Cathy replied, “He’s got a few horses for sale. I could take one of you to see him as a potential buyer.”

I agreed and Cathy contacted the colonel, arranging to take me on the Monday to look at a horse he was hoping to sell. I wondered whether I would like to own a horse. The idea appealed to me, but the cost and commitment did not. When Cathy came to collect me, I said, “I won’t have to buy the animal, will I?”

“No. You can always find fault somehow.  I know it’s advertised as suitable for a novice or an experienced rider but they almost never are.  It’ll soon twig that you’re not very experienced and will take advantage.  Oh, don’t look so worried!  I can ride him a bit first, to make sure he’s not that dangerous.  You’ll be OK.  It says he’s a palomino.”

“I thought he was a hunter?”

“Well, a palomino’s a colour.  Supposedly the colour of a gold coin, if you’ve ever seen one.  And a hunter’s a type, suitable for hunting.  I suppose you could have a palomino hunter.  I’ve never seen one before but there’s always a first time.”

“Would that be good?”

“I’m suspicious.  I expect they’ve tried to breed a horse that looks good and will probably turn out to be a poor specimen from the practical point of view.  It should be easy to find fault.”

I had done quite a bit of riding but was out of practice and was relieved when Cathy gave me a lesson on one of the riding school’s horses.  It went well and I felt quite confident as we drove out to Colonel Arrowsmith’s farm, just beyond Castell Coch.

The farmhouse and outbuildings were old but well maintained.  Most of the walls were white, having apparently been rendered fairly recently.  The exception was a line of new brick-built stables.

The colonel was slim and of average height.  He was in his fifties and wore jodhpurs and an old bodywarmer that had probably been of good quality once.  He had a friendly but businesslike manner.  After Cathy introduced me, he said, “So you want a hunter?  Is this to be your first horse?”

“Yes.  I like riding but keep putting off getting my own horse.  I’ve made my mind up now, because I want to go hunting.  A few of my clients do and I can see it wouldn’t hurt my business to move in their circles.”

“You’re probably right but a horse is a responsibility as well as a wonderful asset.  You can’t just forget about it when you’ve got other pressing matters to deal with.”

“I know.  Cathy’s put me straight about that.  Luckily, she’ll be around to keep an eye on me and give me advice.  I’ll be keeping the horse at the riding school where she works.  It’s not far from my home.”

“Good.  I know she knows what’s what.  You are indeed lucky.  Well, no use standing here talking all day.  Time to meet Blackie.”

I said, “Hang on!  I thought we were going to look at a Palomino.”

“And you are.  A very good one.  He’s called Blackie because his official name is Blackwood Golden Treasure, bred at the Blackwood Stud.  His dam was a palomino Welsh cob and his sire was a grey thoroughbred.  He’s not got his father’s speed but plenty of staying power and he’s a good jumper.  Sure-footed too.”

He took us along the line of stables and brought out a palomino gelding.  He was a beauty.  Cathy studied him closely and said, “He’s got a sloping shoulder and long pasterns like a racehorse, but curved hocks for power, like a typical cob.  I can see what the colonel means.  Should be a good hunter.”

After he had let us have a good look at him, the colonel’s groom tacked him up and led him to the schooling arena for me to try him.  Cathy tried him first and said he seemed like a safe horse for a relatively inexperienced rider.

I rode him in a few circles and tried a few changes of pace.   He was responsive and well schooled.  Then I took him twice around the edge of the arena, finally letting him canter quite fast.   He was lively but well behaved.  When I pulled him up to a halt, the colonel said, “So far so good, eh?”

Cathy asked, “What’s he like in traffic?”

“Why not let’s all go for a little hack?”  With that, he called to the groom, who brought two more horses from the stables.  The colonel and Cathy mounted and we all rode out onto a busy main road.  The colonel led the way, followed by me with Cathy in the rear.  After a while we changed the order.  And again.  The hunter was as happy to go first or last.  Traffic was no problem.  The colonel said, “How about opening them up?  There’s a track we can go on where we can gallop.”

We turned off the road onto a track through a small wood.  After a few minutes there was a long straight uphill stretch.  The colonel said, “Who wants to go first?”  We elected him.  He set off at a gallop.  Blackie raced Cathy’s horse until hers got in front.  Then he eased up to keep about a length or two behind.  Something darted out from the trees.  I felt my heart miss a beat.  The hunter checked his pace, let the sheep cross to the other side and put on a spurt to catch up with the others.

Back at the yard, the colonel said, ““How about trying him at a couple of jumps?”

I could not see any so I asked, “Where?”

“I mean, what about going down the track and through one of the fields?  There’s a couple of jumps you can take him over if you like.”

I felt nervous but could see no way of seeming like a potential buyer of a hunter unless I tried him at speed over jumps and he had been perfectly behaved up to then.  “All right.  Where do I go?”

He pointed to a muddy lane leading out of the yard and said, “Just trot him down there.  When you get to the bottom there’s a gate that’ll be open.  Go through it and canter along the bottom of the field.  Then let him open up along the long side.  There’s a couple of little jumps about halfway.  He knows them.  Just let him take them in his stride.  After that bring him down again slowly to a walk.  We’ll be watching from this end.”

I had to work hard to get him to trot down the track.  He seemed reluctant to leave the yard.  Persistence paid and he gradually built up to a steady rhythmic pace. He stopped at the end without needing to be told and walked through the open gate.  As soon as we got into the field, he came alive and I had a job keeping to a steady canter along the track worn in the grass along the bottom of the field.  Once we turned the corner, he took off at a gallop along the track beside the perimeter hedge, which was punctuated by a series of trees.  He ignored everything I did.  I remembered Cathy’s advice on the way.  She had told me to concentrate on sitting securely and in balance, to trust him to know how to look after himself and therefore me.

The first jump came up sooner than I expected.  It looked big.  It was a brush jump.  That is a lot of leafy twigs held at the bottom in a wooden frame.  He slowed the pace just before take-off and aimed at the lowest part which he cleared easily.  The next jump was a nice distance beyond the first, giving horse and rider time to recover and maintain the rhythm.  It was a pile of horizontal poles.  We went over that in a similar style but had to stretch more, which was no problem.  I was beginning to feel confident as I eyed the third jump, a pole with a ditch under it.

Suddenly I noticed something worrying.  In the shade of one of the trees, an apparently solid object lay across the track.  It would not have been visible from the top end and the colonel was unlikely to have been aware of it.   A section of fence, previously filling a gap in the hedge, had fallen at an awkward angle onto the track.  The horse was not expecting it any more than I was.  He slowed and lowered his head to look.  It was unjumpable but I hoped he was not going to try to stop, as he would almost certainly have stumbled over it.  He did not.  He swerved around it and back onto the track.  This caused him to change his stride, losing the rhythm and caused me to tip, almost falling over his right shoulder.

The next jump was getting very close and I was afraid we were not ready for it.  I was amazed and relieved, when he put in an extra short stride and jumped at an angle, making it a much bigger and sharper jump than it should have been.  I nearly lost my seat again.  I was saved because he kept going and got back into his stride.  If he had slowed down, I would not have.   When we reached the colonel and Cathy, the horse stopped fairly abruptly but I had recovered my balance by then and was not troubled.

The colonel said, “You came up this end of the hill faster than I expected and you made hard work of the last.”  I explained why.  Cathy said, “You did well to cope with all that.”

“Thanks.  I’m glad he’s such a good horse.  He certainly knew what he was doing and reacted well to the unexpected hazard.”  The hunter snorted and snatched at the bit, trying to get his head down to eat grass.  I managed to restrain him.

The colonel said, “Well, that’s what you want from a hunter.  Just the thing.”    I knew he was right.  I loved the animal.  I almost wanted to take up hunting, as he had given me such confidence.  I dismounted and led him back to the stables.  “Well, what do you think?  Is he good enough for you?”  I could hardly have imagined a better horse for me if I had actually wanted one. Would I always regret missing this opportunity? I had no idea how far-reaching my next decision was to be.

“Can you give me a minute to consult with Cathy?”

“Of course.  I’ll be putting him away.”  He untacked the horse and led him away.

I told Cathy, “I can’t see any valid reason not to buy him but I know timewasters are not popular in the horse world. We need to think of your reputation.”

“Thanks, but what do you intend to do?”

“I could buy him. I wouldn’t have to keep him for long. He should be easy to sell.”

“Can you afford it?”

“Yes. I got paid plenty for finding Ray’s hidden fortune. I’ve not spent it yet.”

“Of course, we still need to get him vetted.  Do you know a good vet?”

“I won’t tell Sian you asked that.”

I liked the idea of becoming a horseowner, if only temporarily.  We all went into the house to go over the formalities.  Cathy tried to get the price down a little and succeeded.  The colonel made a pot of tea and brought out some biscuits.  A decent selection.

Cathy said, “I think this horse is just the thing to get someone like Frank started in hunting.  Don’t worry, Colonel, I’ll help him find his feet.  The rider, not the horse.”

The colonel said, “Yes, quite.  I’ve always loved hunting.  Of course, it’s not what it was.  Can’t chase a fox now, only run around after a false scent.  Still, it’s fun and teaches you a lot.  A lot about yourself as well as about riding.”          I worried as I wondered what I was going to discover about myself.

I asked, “Have you had this place long?”

“Bought it when I came out of the Army. Was in Iraq for the invasion.  Then stayed while we tried to sort out the mess we’d made. Well, not us. The damned politicians. No planning for after we got to Baghdad.  Imbeciles!  Came home nearly ten years ago. Wanted something to do. Always loved horses. This was an ideal place at the right time. Love it.”

Cathy said, “Why did you not go into something with horses before, instead of the Army?”

“Never gave a thought to anything else when I was young.  Old military family as far back as you can go.  One of my ancestors fought at Agincourt, another at Waterloo, to say nothing of two World Wars.  I just followed in their footsteps.  It was what was expected.  Noblesse oblige.”

I thought someone called Arrowsmith was likely to have had ancestors making the arrows for the archers at Agincourt, not up the front with the nobility.  However, I saw no point in raising it.  I raised something more important. “Do you know the people who live in Castell Coch?”  I waved a hand as if indicating its direction.  It was a superfluous gesture.

“No!  Don’t want to.  Don’t need their sort round here.  Fellow goes off to America as if Britain’s not big enough for him. Then, once he’s made his pile, comes back to lord it over us. Should see the way he swans around in that big car of his, as if he was someone.”  I didn’t know whether the colonel disliked the size of the car or the way it was driven.  I did know that Davy was someone.  A successful actor and producer.  Now hoping to be a successful film company owner.  Sian would have been proud of me for exercising such restraint and diplomacy.

I asked, “Did you ever hear that that castle was haunted?”

“What utter bollocks.”  He looked at Cathy and said, “Excuse my French.  Utter nonsense.  Probably something made up by some estate agent chappie trying to sell the place to some gullible Yanks.”

“I suppose you don’t believe there’s buried treasure there either.”  He laughed and sent a spray of tea in front of him.  He wiped his mouth and the tabletop before speaking again. “Someone really has been pulling your leg! If there’d ever been anything there, someone would’ve found it by now. Long before now. If they did, do you think they’d announce it?  Not in the past. Nowadays everyone has to be open and ‘out there’ about everything. Especially Yanks.  Even their clangers, they have to put out on the internet, instead of keeping mum.  Bloody fools.”

 

As we walked to the car, I saw Cathy texting.  I assumed she was confirming to the riding school that we would be needing the stable she had provisionally booked.  When we got home, I realised the truth.  Sian and Jane found it hilarious that I had bought a horse, apparently by accident. I tried unsuccessfully to explain my reasoning.  Ian asked, “What’s so wrong with being a timewaster?”

Jane said, “You wouldn’t know. You do nothing but waste time all the time.” When she had stopped laughing at me and teasing her brother, she asked, “Did you find out anything about the colonel?  Do you think he’s behind this haunting thing?”

“I don’t know.  He seems what you’d expect.  An army type.  And horsey.  Bit of a snob.  He doesn’t like Davy and Angie, although he doesn’t know them.  I can’t see him being so obsessed as to go to all that trouble.  I don’t think he’d be capable of it either.  You’d have to be very technical.”

She said, “Are you saying you’d rule him out?”

“I don’t think so.  Not quite.”

“So you’ve bought a horse as a way to find out nothing you didn’t know before?”

“I wouldn’t put it like that.”

Jane said, “I would.”

To read more about Frank Hill and his family, have a look at Book I in this series, Double Entry.

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