Neil Griffon
Back to Bonecrack


Order a copy

UK Edition

US Edition

Extract From Bonecrack


They both wore thin rubber masks.


I looked at the two identical faceless faces in tingling disbelief. I was not the sort of person to whom rubber-masked individuals up to no good paid calls at twenty to midnight. I was a thirty-four-year-old sober-minded businessman quietly bringing up to date the account books at my father's training stables in Newmarket.

The pool of light from the desk lamp shone squarely upon me and the work I had been doing, and the two rubber-faces moved palely against the near-black panelling of the dark room like alien moons closing in on the sun. I had looked up when the latch clicked, and there they were, two dim figures calmly walking in from the hall of the big house, silhouetted briefly against the soft lighting behind them and then lost against the panelling as they closed the door. They moved without a squeak, without a scrape, on the bare polished floor. Apart from the unhuman faces, they were black from head to foot.

I picked up the telephone receiver and dialled the first of three nines.

One of them closed in faster, swung his arm, and smashed downwards on the telephone. I moved my finger fractionally in time with the second nine all but complete, but no one was ever going to achieve the third. The black gloved hand slowly disentangled a heavy police truncheon from the mangled remains of the Post Office's property.

'There's nothing to steal,' I remarked.

The second man had reached the desk. He stood on the far side of it, facing me, looking down to where I still sat. He produced an automatic pistol, without silencer, which he pointed unwaveringly at the bridge of my nose. I could see quite a long way into the barrel.

'You,' he said. 'You will come with us.'

His voice was flat, without tone, deliberate. There was no identifiable accent, but he wasn't English.


'You will come.'

'Where to?'

'You will come.'

'I won't, you know,' I said pleasantly, and reached out and pressed the button which switched off the desk lamp.

The sudden total darkness got me two seconds' advantage. I used them to stand up, pick up the heavy angled lamp, and swing the base of it round in an arc in the general direction of the mask which had spoken.

There was a dull thump as it connected, and a grunt. Damage, I thought, but no knock-out.

Mindful of the truncheon on my left I was out from behind the desk and sprinting towards the door. But no one was wasting time batting away in the darkness in the hope of hitting me. A beam of torchlight snapped out from his hand, swung round, dazzled on my face, and bounced as he came after me.

I swerved. Dodged. Lost my straight line to the door and saw sideways the rubber-face I'd hit with the lamp was purposefully on the move.

The torch beam flickered away, circled briefly, and steadied like a rock on the light switch beside the door. Before I could reach it the black gloved hand swept downwards and clicked on the five double wall brackets, ten naked candle bulbs coldly lighting the square wood-lined room.

There were two windows with green floor-length curtains. One rug from Istanbul. Three unmatched William and Mary chairs. One sixteenth-century oak chest. One flat walnut desk. Nothing else. An austere place, reflection of my father's austere and spartan soul.

I had always agreed that the best time to foil an abduction was at the moment it started: that merely obeying marching orders could save present pain but not long-term anxiety: that abductors might kill later, but not at the beginning, and that if no one's safety was at risk, it would be stupid to go without a fight.

Well, I fought.

I fought for all of ninety seconds more, during which time I failed to switch off the lights, to escape through the door, or to crash out through the windows. I had only my hands and not much skill against the truncheon of one of them and the threat of a crippling bullet from the other. The identical rubber-faces came towards me with an unnerving lack of human expression, and although I tried, probably unwisely, to rip one of the masks off, I got no further than feeling my fingers slip across the tough slippery surface.

They favoured in-fighting, with their quarry pinned against the wall. As there were two of them, and they appeared to be experts in their craft, I got such a hammering in that eternal ninety seconds that I soundly wished that I had not put my abduction-avoiding theories into practice.

It ended with a fist in my stomach, the pistol slamming into my face, my head crashing back against the panelling, and the truncheon polishing the whole thing off somewhere behind my right ear. When I was next conscious of anything, time had all too clearly passed. Otherwise I should not have been lying face down along the back seat of a moving car with my hands tied crampingly behind my back.

For a good long time I believed I was dreaming. Then my brain came further awake and made it clear that I wasn't. I was revoltingly uncomfortable and also extremely cold, as the thin sweater I had been wearing indoors was proving a poor barrier to a freezing night.

My head ached like a steam hammer. Bang, bang, bang.

If I could have raised the mental energy I would have been furious with myself for having proved such a push-over. As it was, only uncomplicated responses were getting anywhere, like dumb unintelligent endurance and a fog-like bewilderment. Of all the candidates for abduction, I would have put myself among the most unlikely.

There was a lot to be said for a semi-conscious brain inasemi-conscious body. Mens blotto in corpore ditto . . . the words dribbled inconsequentially through my mind and a smile started along the right nerve but didn't get as far as my mouth. My mouth anyway was half in contact with someimitation leather upholstery which smelled of dogs. They say many grown men call out for their mothers in moments of fatal agony, and then upon their God: but anyway I hadn't had a mother since I was two, and from then until seven I had believed God was someone who had run off with her and was living with her somewhere else... (God took your mother, dear, because he needed her more than you do) which had never endeared him to me, and in any case this was no fatal agony, this was just a thumping concussion and some very sore places and maybe a grisly future at the end of the ride. The ride meanwhile went on and on. Nothing about it improved. After several years the car stopped with a jerk. I nearly fell forwards off the seat. My brain came alert with a jolt and my body wished it hadn't.

The two rubber-faces loomed over me, lugged me out, and literally carried meupsome steps and into a house. One of them had his hands under myarmpits and the other held my ankles. My hundred and sixty pounds seemed to be no especial burden.

The sudden light inside the door was dazzling, which seemed as good a reason as any for shutting one's eyes. I shut them. The steam hammer had not by any means given up.

They dumped me presently down on my side, on a wooden floor. Polished. I could smell the polish. Scented. Very nasty. I opened my eyes a slit, and verified. Small intricately squared parquet, modern. Birch veneer, wafer thin. Nothing great. A voice awakening towards fury and controlled with audible effort spoke from a short distance above me.

'And who exactly is this?'

There was a long pin-dropping silence during which I would have laughed, if I could. The rubber-faces hadn't even pinched the right man. All that battering for bloody nothing. And no guarantee they would take mehome again, either.

I squinted upwards against the light. The man who had spoken was sitting in an upright leather armchair with his fingers laced rigidly together over a swelling paunch. His voice was much the same as Rubber-Face's: without much accent, but not English. His shoes, which were more on my level, were supple, handmade, and of Genoese leather.

Italian shape. Not conclusive: they sell Italian shoes from Hong Kong to San Francisco.

One of the rubber-faces cleared his throat. 'It is Griffon.'

The remains of laughter died coldly away. Griffon is indeed myname. If I was not the right man, they must have come for my father. Yet that made no more sense: he was, like me, in none of the abduction-prone professions.

The man in the armchair, with the same reined-in anger, said through his teeth, 'It is not Griffon.'

'It is,' persisted Rubber-Face faintly.

The man stood up out of his armchair and with his elegant toe rolled me over on to my back.

'Griffon is an old man,' he said. The sting in his voice sent both rubber-faces back a pace as if he had physically hit them.

'You didn't tell us he was old.'

The other rubber-face backed up his colleague in a defensive whine and a different accent. This time, down-the-scale American. 'We watched him all evening. He went round the stables, looking at the horses. At every horse. The men, they treated him as boss. He is the trainer. He is Griffon.'

'Griffon's assistant,' he said furiously. He sat down again and held on to the arms with the same effort as he was holding on to his temper.

'Get up,' he said to me abruptly.

I struggled up nearly as far as my knees, but the rest was daunting, and I thought, why on earth should I bother, so I lay gently down again. It did nothing to improve the general climate.

'Get up,' he said furiously.

I shut my eyes.

There was a sharp blow on my thigh. I opened my eyes again in time to see the American-voiced rubber-face draw back his foot for another kick. All one could say was that he was wearing shoes and not boots.

'Stop it.' The sharp voice arrested himmid-kick. 'Just put himin that chair.'

American Rubber-Face picked up the chair in question and placed it six feet from the armchair, facing it. Mid-Victorian, I assessed automatically. Mahogany. Probably once had a caned seat, but was upholstered now in pink flowered glazed chintz. The two rubber-faces lifted me up bodily and draped me around so that my tied wrists were behind the back of the chair. When they had done that they stepped away, just as far as one pace behind each of my shoulders.

From that elevation I had a better view of their master, if not of the total situation.

'Griffon's assistant,' he repeated. But this time the anger was secondary: he'd accepted the mistake and was working out what to do about it.

It didn't take himlong.

'Gun,' he said, and Rubber-Face gave it to him.

He was plump and bald, and I guessed he would take no pleasure from looking at old photographs of himself. Under the rounded cheeks, the heavy chin, the folds of eyelids, there lay an elegant bone structure. It still showed in the strong clear beak of the nose and in the arch above the eye sockets. He had the basic equipment of a handsome man, but he looked, I thought fancifully, like a Caesar gone self-indulgently to seed: and one might have taken the fat as a sign of mellowness had it not been for the ill will that looked unmistakably out of his narrowed eyes.

'Silencer,' he said acidly. He was contemptuous, irritated, and not suffering his rubber-faced fools gladly.

One rubber-face produced a silencer from his trouser pocket and Caesar began screwing it on. Silencers meant business where naked barrels might not. He was about to bury his employees' mistake.

My future looked decidedly dim. Time for a few well-chosen words, especially if they might prove to be my last.

'I am not Griffon's assistant,' I said. 'I am his son.'

He had finished screwing on the silencer and was beginning to raise it in the direction of my chest.

'I am Griffon's son,' I repeated. 'And just what is the point of all this?'

The silencer reached the latitude of my heart.

'If you're going to kill me,' I said, 'you might at least tell me why.'

My voice sounded more or less all right. He couldn't see, I hoped, that all my skin was prickling into sweat.

An eternal time passed. I stared at him: he stared back. I waited. Waited while the tumblers clicked over in his brain: waited for three thumbs-down to slot into a row on the fruit machine.

Finally, without lowering the gun a millimetre, he said, 'Where is your father?'

'In hospital.'

Another pause.

'How long will he be there?'

'I don't know. Two or three months, perhaps.'

'Is he dying?'


'What is the matter with him?'

'He was in a car crash. A week ago. He has a broken leg.'

Another pause. The gun was still steady. No one, I thought wildly, should die so unfairly. Yet people did die unfairly. Probably only one in a million deserved it. All death was intrinsically unfair: but in some forms more unfair than in others. Murder, it forcibly seemed to me, was the most unfair of all.

In the end, all he said, and in a much milder tone, was, 'Who will train the horses this summer, if your father is not well enough?'

Only long experience of wily negotiators who thundered big threats so that they could achieve their real aims by presenting them as a toothless anticlimax kept me from stepping straight off the precipice. I nearly, in relief at so harmless an enquiry, told him the truth: that no one had yet decided. If I had done, I discovered later, he would have shot me, because his business was exclusively with the resident trainer at Rowley Lodge. Temporary substitutes, abducted in error, were too dangerous to leave chattering around.

So from instinct I answered, 'I will be training them myself,' although I had not the slightest intention of doing so for longer than it took to find someone else.

It had indeed been the crucial question. The frightening black circle of the silencer's barrel dipped a fraction: became an ellipse: disappeared altogether. He lowered the gun and balanced it on one well-padded thigh.

A deep breath trickled in and out of my chest in jerks, and the relief from immediate tension made me feel sick. Not that total safety loomed very loftily on the horizon. I was still tied up in an unknown house, and I still had no idea for what possible purpose I could be a hostage.

The fat man went on watching me, went on thinking. I tried to ease the stiffness which was creeping into my muscles, to shift away the small pains and the throbbing headache, which I hadn't felt in the slightest when faced with a bigger threat.

The room was cold. The rubber-faces seemed to be snug enough in their masks and gloves, and the fat man was insulated and impervious, but the chill was definitely adding to my woes. I wondered whether he had planned the cold as a psychological intimidation for my elderly father, or whether it was simply accidental. Nothing in the roomlooked cosily lived in.

In essence it was a middle-class sitting-room in a smallish middle-class house, built, I guess, in the nineteen thirties. The furniture had been pushed back against striped cream wallpaper to give the fat man clear space for manoeuvre: furniture which consisted of an uninspiring three-piece suite swathed in pink chintz, a gate-legged table, a standard lamp with parchment-coloured shade, and a display cabinet displaying absolutely nothing. There were no rugs on the highly polished birch parquet, no ornaments, no books or magazines, nothing personal at all. As bare as my father's soul, but not to his taste.

The room did not in the least fit what I had so far seen of the fat man's personality.

'I will release you,' he said, 'on certain conditions.'

I waited. He considered me, still taking his time.

'If you do not follow my instructions exactly, I will put your father's training stables out of business.'

I could feel my mouth opening in astonishment. I shut it with a snap.

'I suppose you doubt that I can do it. Do not doubt. I have destroyed better things than your father's little racing stables.'

He got no reaction fromme to the slight in the word 'little'. It was years since I had learned that to rise to slights was to be forced into a defensive attitude which only benefted my opponent. In Rowley Lodge, as no doubt he knew, stood eighty-five aristocrats whose aggregate worth topped six million pounds.

'How?' I asked flatly.

He shrugged. 'What is important to you is not how I would do it, but how to prevent me from doing it. And that, of course, is comparatively simple.'

'Just run the horses to your instructions?' I suggested neutrally. 'Just lose to order?'

A spasm of renewed anger twisted the chubby features and the gun came six inches off his knee. The hand holding it relaxed slowly, and he put it down again.

'I am not', he said heavily, 'a petty crook.'

But you do, I thought, rise to an insult, even to one that was not intended, and one day, if the game went on long enough, that could give me an advantage.

'I apologize,' I said without sarcasm. 'But those rubber masks are not top level.'

He glanced up in irritation at the two figures standing behind me. 'The masks are their own choice. They feel safer if they cannot be recognized.'

Like highwaymen, I thought: who swung in the end.

'You may run your horses as you like. You are free to choose entirely... save in one special thing.'

I made no comment. He shrugged, and went on.

'You will employ someone who I will send you.'

'No,' I said.

'Yes.' He stared at me unwinkingly. 'You will employ this person. If you do not, I will destroy the stable.'

'That's lunacy,' I insisted. 'It's pointless.'

'No, it is not,' he said. 'Furthermore, you will tell no one that you are being forced to employ this person. You will assert that it is your own wish. You will particularly not complain to the police, either about tonight, or about anything else which may happen. Should you act in any way to discredit this person, or to get him evicted from your stables, your whole business will be destroyed.' He paused. 'Do you under-stand? If you act in any way against this person, your father will have nothing to return to, when he leaves the hospital.'

After a short, intense silence, I asked, 'In what capacity do you want this person to work for me?'

He answered with care. 'He will ride the horses,' he said. 'He is a jockey.'

I could feel the twitch round my eyes. He saw it, too. The first time he had really reached me.

It was out of the question. He would not need to tell me every time he wanted a race lost. He had simply to tell this man.

'We don't need a jockey,' I said. 'We already have Tommy Hoylake.'

'Your new jockey will gradually take his place.'

Tommy Hoylake was the second best jockey in Britain and among the top dozen in the world. No one could take his place.

'The owners wouldn't agree,' I said.

'You will persuade them.'


'The future existence of your stable depends on it.'

There was another longish pause. One of the rubber-faces shifted on his feet and sighed as if from boredom, but the fat man seemed to be in no hurry. Perhaps he understood very well that I was getting colder and more uncomfortable minute by minute. I would have asked him to untie my hands if I hadn't been sure he would count himself one up when he refused.

Finally I said, 'Equipped with your jockey, the stable would have no future existence anyway.'

He shrugged. 'It may suffer a little, perhaps, but it will survive.'

'It is unacceptable,' I said.

He blinked. His hand moved the gun gently to and fro across his well-filled trouser leg.

He said, 'I see that you do not entirely understand the position. I told you that you could leave here upon certain conditions.' His flat tone made the insane sound reasonable. 'They are, that you employ a certain jockey, and that you do not seek aid from anyone, including the police. Should you break either of these agreements the stable will be destroyed. But...' He spoke more slowly, and with emphasis, '...If you do not agree to these conditions in the first place, you will not be freed.'

I said nothing.

'Do you understand?'

I sighed. 'Yes.'


'Not a petty crook, I think you said.'

His nostrils flared. 'I am a manipulator.'

'And a murderer.'

'I never murder unless the victim insists.'

I stared at him. He was laughing inside at his own jolly joke, the fun creeping out in little twitches to his lips and tiny snorts of breath.

This victim, I supposed, was not going to insist. He was welcome to his amusement.

I moved my shoulders slightly, trying to ease them. He watched attentively and offered nothing.

'Who then', I said, 'is this jockey?'

He hesitated.

'He is eighteen,' he said.

'Eighteen ...'

He nodded. 'You will give him the good horses to ride. He will ride Archangel in the Derby.'

Impossible. Totally impossible. I looked at the gun lying so quiet on the expensive tailoring. I said nothing. There was nothing to say.

When he next spoke there was the satisfaction of victory in his voice alongside the careful non-accent.

'He will arrive at the stable tomorrow. You will hire him. He has not yet much experience in races. You will see he gets it.'

An inexperienced rider on Archangel . . . ludicrous.

So ludicrous, in fact, that he had used abduction and the threat of murder to make it clear he meant it seriously.

'His name is Alessandro Rivera,' he said.

After an interval for consideration, he added the rest of it.

'He is my son.'