It was two in the morning when Richard St. John was rudely awoken by an unholy hammering on his front door. He opened it, épée in hand, ready to give the caller a bloody good stab in his racket-making guts, only to find his old friend George Cholmondeley hanging off the door jamb with a manic look in his eye. “Damn it all, George,” said Richard stifling a yawn. “Do you know what time it is? Couldn’t you have phoned?”
“No point,” George panted, having obviously run up the stairs. “You sleep sounder than the dead, Richard. Never could get you up to go raiding the kitchens at prep.” Richard didn’t bother asking how he’d managed to charm his way past the doorman. George had always had a bewitching way with words.
“Fine, you’ve got me up. Now what’s the matter?”
“I’ve got something to show you. Tarzan’s in the car. Come on, don’t worry about the pyjamas, no-one’s going to see you where we’re going, not at this time of night.” Richard thought this a bit rich considering George was wearing white tie and tails, but he was so tired that he allowed George to drag him down the stairs to his car nonetheless.
In fact, this particular hour of the morning was so alien a concept to Richard that he’d completely forgotten that he was supposed to be boycotting George’s company.
The reason for the intended snubbing was this: Almost three months ago to the day, George had rushed into the drawing room of the Samuel Club and interrupted Richard’s after-dinner cheeseboard and paired port with cries of “Horses, Richard! Horses is where the money is!”
“All right,” Richard had said, putting down a delicious piece of chutney-daubed Lancashire Crumbly. “What is it about horses that makes them particularly lucrative this evening?”
George had explained, in great and digressive detail, about how his third cousin Rupert in New York, (“top guy, actually”) had told him that a scrawny little stallion called Red Caviar had just taken the Triple Crown, making a whopper of a wad for his owners. And they’d bought him for a pittance!
He had then convinced Richard, along with another Samuel Club regular, Tarzan Stuart-Forbes, to invest in their own equine venture, but their horse, Broken Mirror had turned out to be about as lucky as the name suggested.
“I presume you assumed irony, George?” Richard had said between gritted teeth when, several months and thousands of pounds in training fees, vets’ bills, and stabling costs later, they watched Broken Mirror come in dead last for the third time in a row on the large-screen TV in the Samuel Club’s sports room.
“Oh, myes. Iremony. That’s it,” George had replied through a mouthful of complementary mint thins.
Tarzan, who’d been pacing back and forth so violently that he was in danger of having the cost of re-carpeting the sports room added to his already unaffordable club bill, was going spare. “My creditors will be sharpening their bloody cutlasses when they hear about this,” he’d said. “I’ll have to leave London. Shack up in some hovel somewhere provincial—like, like . . . Doncaster, or Birmingham.” He shuddered at the thought.
“Rubbish.” George had said. “Look, the fellow I bought him from said he was a one-of-a-kind horse. A true original!”
Tarzan answered George with a hateful look. “One-of-a-kind awful, more like. Dash it all, George, I’d have more luck backing a dead horse than this future glue pot.”
And at that, George had stood up, a flash of some sudden—which to Richard more often than not meant expensive—inspiration in his eye, muttered simply, “interesting,” and then left, without saying another word.
“Where’s he going?” Tarzan cried. “George! George, you thieving bugger. I want my money back!”
But George had gone, and Richard had not seen hide nor hair of the man until he’d been awoken by him ten minutes ago.
Now, as they drove through several miles of dark streets and slumbering suburbs, Richard tried to calm a clearly still irritated Tarzan by reminding him of the time he’d very nearly got off with the Dutch barmaid at the Pink Flamingo on Pimlico Road, until they arrived, to the best of Richard’s somnambulant knowledge, at a stables somewhere in the vicinity of Wimbledon. They left the car and George led them to an isolated dark shed some distance from the markedly more upmarket stalls where several prize horses were undoubtedly slumbering.
“What is this place, George?” Richard asked with a yawn. “And what the hell are we doing here?”
“My cousin Cynthia comes here for riding lessons,” George answered. “And I’ve rented this shed from the owner, distant relative of a pal of mine from the bank. Very reasonable price. I told him to forward the bill to you, Richard. I hope you don’t mind.”
Richard was about to protest when a yawn rather rudely jumped the queue to his mouth, allowing George to steamroller on:
“Fantastic. You always were a first class pal.” They arrived at the door of the shed. “Brace yourselves, gentlemen,” said George with a grin. Then he flung open the doors to reveal whatever it was he had dragged them both there to see.
Tarzan immediately fainted. Richard, of a more phlegmatic disposition, simply woke up very quickly. He wanted to speak but all that seemed to be able to come out of his mouth was a series of splutters that made him sound like an asthmatic goose.
“What,” Richard managed after he’d finally gained control of his lower jaw, “is that?”
“Isn’t she a beauty!” said George, beaming like a proud father.
“She?” Richard gasped. “She? It’s a bloody skeleton, George.” He blinked several times before speaking again. “George,” he said at last. “Did you buy a dead horse?”
“Technically I think the term is undead, but you’re more or less right, Richard. Yes, I bought a dead horse. Isn’t it genius?”
The horse whinnied—or rattled, if an accurate account of things is to be preserved—causing Richard to start.
He tried to compose himself and ask some searching questions of his friend, but instead suffered a repeat bout of spluttering.
George, radiating a calm dominance of the situation, held out his hands and ushered Richard to be quiet.
“It’s what Tarzan said,” he said, nudging the unconscious Tarzan with his undoubtedly extortionate patent leather dress shoes. “About having better luck with a dead horse. And I thought about all those ghost stories Nanny used to tell me when I was little, about people being chased by terrible devils and spectres riding undead horses, and the horses are always incredibly fast, faster than any of your run-of-the-mill flesh-and-blood horses, anyway. I think it probably has something do with them being so light, not being completely—what’s the word?—corporeal and everything. Interesting topic, really, don’t you think—”
“But where did you find it?” Richard, finally having pushed the yawns and splutters to the back of the queue, interrupted George’s reverie.
“Oh, I bought it from a charming man in a cowl. Top guy, actually. Sold it to me for a very reasonable price—ten—”
“Good god, George, ten thousand?”
“No, no. Ten years. Ten years of life. Well, Tarzan’s life actually, but don’t tell him—his family live long enough as it is; he won’t miss a decade. Do you know he still has a great uncle knocking about some country house in Kent who’s pushing a hundred and five?”
“But . . . but it’s a skeleton, George. No one will let us race a skeleton. There must be rules against it.”
“Oh, we’ll just pop a rug over her.”
“Pop a rug over her?”
“Yes, a nice Persian. No one will notice. I promise you, Richard,” he said. “This horse is a shoe in!”
He gave the bony mare an encouraging slap on the pelvic bone and found himself, a moment, later, standing next to a pile of collapsed horse bones.
“Oh, bugger,” he said.
* * *
Several days later they repeated the ritual once again. George hammered on Richard’s door at a decidedly unceremonious hour, and the two of them along with Tarzan, proceeded by car for a second time to the stables in Wimbledon. Tarzan seemed even more irritable than the last time and kept asking the two if they thought he looked a bit peaky. “It’s like I’ve been drained,” he said. “You don’t think it’s anything serious do you? Do I look a bit peaky, George, Richard? Because I feel a bit peaky. Why won’t either of you look at me?”
George mumbled something about it probably being allergies, and Richard nodded, saying yes, he’d heard that the pollen count this year was particularly astronomical.
Tarzan said that he supposed so, but he still didn’t look entirely satisfied with the explanation.
As before, they arrived at the stables, where George once again ushered them around the back to his isolated shed and flung open the door in triumph.
“Behold, gentlemen,” he bellowed, even more vociferously than before, “a sure winner!”
Tarzan fainted, as per. Richard, however, not one to be caught lost for words twice, immediately spotted the fault in George’s plan.
“Damn it all, George. It hasn’t got a bloody head!”
“A minor cosmetic defect, Dickie my boy. Isn’t she fantastic? Got her off an Irish chap who was a bit short in the head department himself as it happens. Now, he wanted my head in exchange for this fine filly, and naturally I volunteered good old Tarzy here to pick up my tab, but in the end when we went to shake on it something seemed to spook him, and he bloody well scarpered leaving me with the horse, gratis. I say, you don’t think he thought my cuff-links were too gaudy, do you? I mean they are a bit flamboyant, but . . .”
Richard inspected George’s cuff-links: two golden imperial crowns studded with canary yellow diamonds. They were quite resplendent.
“Probably a republican,” Richard said, rolling his eyes.
“Oh dear, well, lucky escape, then. Wouldn’t want poor old Tarzan having to go round with his noggin stuck to one of those, eh!”
Richard agreed. “But still George,” he said, feeling that his original point was probably important enough to warrant a second stab at acknowledgement, “it hasn’t got a head.” The horse neighed, from what orifice, Richard could not be sure.
“Not to worry. My Great Aunt Beatrice is chairman of her local am dram club. I’m sure she has a pantomime horse’s head banging about that we could borrow.”
“All right, well suppose we do get the damn thing—”
“Her name is Molly.”
“Suppose we do get Molly entered into a race. Who the hell are we going to get to ride her? No jockey alive would get on the back of that!”
George held out his arms in an effortlessly benevolent gesture and smiled. “I, my friend, am miles, nay, furlongs ahead of you.” He took out his phone and made a quick call. “We’re ready for you now, Mistress Pendragon,” he said. “You may enter.”
He hung up the phone, and a moment or two later, the door of the shed creaked open, revealing a woman draped in a white smock, a brown cloak, and a decidedly sibylline air.
“Come in, madam seer,” George effused.
“Did someone call for a communicator with the afterlife?” the woman trumpeted in a sonorous contralto as she entered, though her attention was rapidly captured by the sight of Molly the headless horse.
“We certainly did,” said George, loudly enough to reclaim the woman’s notice. “We would like to contact a famous jockey.”
“Anyone in particular,” the woman asked, barely affording George a glance as she patted the beast on its neck, before proffering a Rolo, produced from somewhere in the folds of her smock, to the horse’s salivating oesophagus.
George looked at Richard, who shrugged. He had as little knowledge of famous dead jockeys as George did.
George, having found no help, did not wish to seem to flounder, “Er—no, no, anyone will do,” he said.
“Wonderful,” said the woman, wiping her hands on her cloak. “Now, if we’ll all sit in a circle. I’ve got my candles here somewhere”—there was more rummaging in her smock—”and if you could just pop your friend there upright, dear. We can’t be having any unconscious bodies lying around. Risk of possession, you see.”
“Ah! That reminds me,” said George, and he hurried off to the back of the shed to retrieve something from a pile of haystacks, leaving Richard to revive the supine Tarzan, at least enough to have him sit in a vaguely upright position on the floor. “Oooo,” Tarzan mumbled. “I say, Richard? Is this a dream?”
Richard rubbed his back gently. “That’s right, old boy,” he said. “Just a silly old dream.”
“Oh good,” Tarzan said, “oh good,” and sat there in a kind of stupor, which Richard thought was probably about as close to consciousness as he’d be able to get him. Upon which point George came bounding back.
“I wonder,” he said, brandishing what appeared to be a crudely constructed effigy, made by stuffing a set of green and yellow jockey’s silks with hay, “you couldn’t get the jockey to possess this, could you?”
* * *
Fifteen minutes later, the relative quiet of the night was broken by a cry.
“Now look here, crone!” George bellowed at the woman. Richard had never seen him lose his temper before. “I want my money back.” Richard wanted to remind him that it was his money they’d used to pay the woman, rather than George’s, but decided perhaps to do so at a more clement opportunity.
“No, sir,” snapped the old woman, “I did what you asked. I put a famous jockey in that effigy.”
“But madam,” said George, balling up his fists and pressing them to his temples. “The spirit currently possessing this effigy, as you put it, is Jocky Wilson, the bloody darts player. We wanted a famous jockey—with an ‘e’!”
“Well I’m sorry but you should have been more specific. You did say anyone would do, didn’t you? And less of that tone, young man. Morgana Willowherb Pendragon won’t be spoken to like that.”
George looked like he was about to crack. “Well are you going to put this right or not?”
“No, I’m not as a matter of fact,” Mistress Pendragon said with a huff. “I am leaving.”
“Oh, you are going to regret this,” said George, now fuming. “My Uncle Tarquin was at school with the bloody Lord Chief Justice.” He threw his head back dramatically and pointed an accusing finger at her. “You’ve got a world of trouble coming your way, you charlatan! Watch out! Legal Armageddon is about to begin for—oh, wait,” he said, suddenly genial. “Actually, before you go. You don’t want a horse, do you? I’ll give you a good price for her.” He looked at Richard with an expression of “cut your losses?”
Mistress Pendragon considered the offer for a moment. “I might be able to take her off your hands,” she said, before letting a small smile crack her otherwise stony visage. “I’ve always loved horses. And she is a beauty. How much are you asking for her?”
She and George spoke together for a while together in a highly conspiratorial manner while Richard occupied himself with getting Tarzan’s cigarette lighter out of the late, great, but very much present Jocky Wilson’s now highly flammable hands.
After a while, George and the woman shook hands and she left, taking the horse with her.
“So,” Richard asked eagerly, hoping to recoup at least enough of his losses to be able to pay his bill at the Samuel for another month, “how much did you get for her?”
“What? Oh, nothing. Morgana’s going to send me a few tips about the market. She said she’d consult the spirits when she gets home. Though she said I shouldn’t expect too much, the spirits are pretty good at ominous portents and open ended prophecies, but with stuff like the market they’re pretty hit and miss. But still, you never know, some of it might pay off.” He sighed and sat down on some hay.
George, Tarzan, and Richard were now left in the shed, with no horse, not even a dead one, and only a possessed effigy for company. Their prospects for recouping their losses seemed more remote than ever. The mood was so hopeless that none of them felt like even moving. Rather, they seemed morbidly content to watch as the effigy wandered about the shed, testing out its new hay-legs and rummaging around in the miscellany that littered the shed’s shadowy corners. After a while, it picked up an old military magazine, which featured on its cover a large picture of the RAF roundels, and attached it with a bent screw to the wall. Then it took some rusty nails from the floor, stepped back three paces, and began throwing them at the poster. Each nail landed dead centre.
“Hey there, George, look at that,” Tarzan said. “What an extraordinary thing.”
“My god, Tarzan, you’re right,” George said. “Richard, lend me your phone, will you? Mine’s flatter than a crêpe Suzette.” Richard passed George his phone. He had planned to spend the day at his leisure at the Samuel, read the papers, perhaps play a round of cards—in short, make the most of his last fleeting days as a paying member. But now a look in George’s eye was making him feel that a leisurely weekend was probably—yes, there it was, that maniacal firework again—was definitely off the agenda.
George turned to the two of them and coughed. “Gentlemen,” he said, “some new information has come to light which may turn our fortunes around.” He turned the phone towards them. “The prize money for the World Darts Championship is . . . three hundred and fifty thousand pounds. Now,” he said, smiling his diamond-in-the-rough smile, “if only one of us was a dab hand at darts . . .”
“The Dead Cert” © 2017 by Dafydd McKimm. All rights reserved.
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