June 2001: Royal Ascot was into its third day, with crowds enjoying the unusually warm, sunny weather. There was a circus atmosphere at times, with clowns on stilts and booths selling racing memorabilia. A brass band was warming up, and the aroma of fish and chips still hung in the air. Ladies in extravagant hats were escorted by men in morning suits, and everywhere they walked, the champagne flowed. Affluent visitors headed toward private boxes or to the Royal Enclosure. Today, it was murmured, Her Majesty the Queen was present, for one of her own horses was running.
Outside the official car park, Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, and Mercedeses queued with buses, coaches, and station wagons. The car park closest to the main gates was only for owners and trainers, and rows of attendants checked the passes displayed on windscreens. Police and racecourse stewards directed pedestrians over a crossing that led to the gates and turnstiles. The stewards wore old-fashioned bowler hats, smart black suits, white shirts, and as requested by the track officials, sober ties.
Christina de Jersey pulled her navy Corniche, packed with two teenage daughters and their friends, into the closest car park. The girls all wore their large hats bedecked with flowers, while Christina's was stowed safely in the trunk.
She had invited several guests to lunch in the de Jersey box and overseen the menu with her usual meticulousness. Though it was not twelve o'clock yet, she had wanted to avoid the even greater crush that would ensue nearer to the start of the first race, to give herself time to check the table and greet her guests.
A couple of hours earlier, in his helicopter, her husband had piloted his jockey, Mickey Rowland, and trainer, Donald Fleming, to the track. Now, from the busy helicopter pad, he made his way toward the racing stables on the far side of the track. Though fifty-seven, Edward de Jersey was still athletic and exceptionally fit from daily exercising his vast stable of racehorses. At almost six feet three, with broad, strong shoulders, he cut a striking figure. He wore not a gray top hat but rather a black silk one with a slightly curved Victorian-style brim.
De Jersey had a tight sensation in his stomach. Even though he had kept in constant touch with his stable lads, who had traveled by road from his stud farm, he would not feel easy until he had seen his entry, Royal Flush, for himself.
"What stall is he in?" he bellowed to his trainer.
"Number four," said Fleming, breathlessly, catching up.
Fleming, too, had spoken frequently to the lads to make sure the prize colt had not suffered any adverse effects from the journey. Royal Flush could be moody; a horse that volatile might injure himself in or out of the horse box. He was to race in the three o'clock seven-furlong Chesham Stakes for two-year-olds with a 37,000-pound purse. Royal Flush had cost a fortune, and de Jersey was convinced that he was special enough to win the Derby the following year. He had won his maiden race at Lingfield by over a furlong: a spectacular result. Still, Royal Flush had to prove he wasn't a one-race wonder.
As de Jersey approached the stables, he greeted his two lads. "How's my boy?" Numerous other owners and trainers were also checking their horses. Royal Flush was draped in his blanket and appeared unruffled by the hubbub around him.
"He's been a right bugger, sir. We cladded the sides of the box, but you know what he's like, tried to bite me hand off earlier-and he's been kicking and bucking. We gave him a good walkabout, though, in the backfield after breakfast, so he's calmer now."
De Jersey bent close to kiss the horse's soft velvet muzzle. "You be a good fella now," he told him. Then he checked virtually every inch of the horse. As he ran his hand over the muscular, glossy flanks, he felt breathless with anticipation. There was big competition against Royal Flush for the Chesham: the Queen's horse was the favorite, and the Sheikh had a runner worth over a million.
At last, satisfied that all was in order, de Jersey went off by himself to stride the famous racetrack. He thought how perfect it was for his colt: well watered-and with the forecast of a hot summer day, he couldn't have asked for better-the track would be firm. Royal Flush did not run well on soft ground.
He turned to look back at the finishing post, then at the stands and boxes, and half-wished they had not invited so many guests. If his "boy" wasn't placed, he would be hard-pushed to remain the genial host.
"Good day for it, sir."
De Jersey didn't recognize the wizened little man in his suit and bowler hat.
"Harry Smedley, sir. Your lad came up earlier. Says to be sure Royal Flush goes into the starting gate last. Apparently he's got a bit of a temper on him."
"It's imperative," de Jersey replied. "He doesn't like being stalled, and with so many young colts there'll be a delay getting them in."
Smedley nodded. "I'll make sure of it. The lads working the starter stalls aren't due up here yet, not until just before the first race, but I'll warn 'em."
De Jersey felt for his wallet.
"No need, sir, but let's hope he runs a good race. Certainly ran a blisterer on his maiden."
De Jersey was eager now to return down the track.
"Your dad would have been proud." Smedley gave a knowing wink. "Right old character he was."
Smedley reminded de Jersey of a garden gnome, with his bulbous nose and flushed cheeks. "You knew him?" he queried.
The small man looked baffled. "I'm Margie Smedley's son. My family used to run the dairy at the end of your street, and we was at school together. Before you got into the grammar school. Long while ago now, but my mother knew yours."
De Jersey still had no recollection of the man, but he nodded and smiled anyway.
Smedley moved closer. "You remember the corner shop just up from the dairy, two doors down from your old fella's bettin' shop? Gawd almighty, she was in and out like a ferret, my mother, never could resist a bet, and with it being on her doorstep . . ." Smedley chuckled. "You was always held up as an example to me. First, the only lad from round our way to get into the grammar school, then you went off to that officers' training place, didn't you?"
"Sandhurst." Still de Jersey couldn't place him.
"Your dad, he used to show us your picture in your uniform, proud as punch he was. And you had that handsome fella staying. He was wiv you at Sandhurst, right?"
De Jersey was surprised at the old man's memory-he and Jimmy Wilcox had been very close; they had been at officers' training together, and Wilcox was to this day someone he trusted.
"Mind you, it's only cos I knew you way back that I've followed your career. I'd never have recognized you now, but being a racing man meself, I wondered if you was him. Then I spotted you at Epsom a few years back. Your dad was a card, wasn't he?"
"He died a long time ago."
"I know, but those were the days, eh? We was at his funeral. Wanted his ashes sprinkled over the Epsom racetrack, great character he was. Did you do it?"
"Do like he wanted, with his ashes?"
"No, they wouldn't give me permission. Well, it's been nice talking to you, Mr. Smedley," said de Jersey, turning away, but the man tapped his arm.
"It's Harry, sir, eh? Funny old life, isn't it? I heard you had to leave that military college. Hurt yourself, didn't you?"
"Yes, I injured my knee."
"Fell off a horse, was it?"
"It must have been fate. I mean, look at you now, eh? I hadda do National Service. Life's full of surprises, isn't it?"
"It certainly is, Harry," replied de Jersey.
"No one would believe it, you and I was at school together in the East End."
"Well, not many people know," said de Jersey. This time he took out two fifty-pound notes from his wallet, saying, "Have a flutter on Royal Flush for old time's sake." He tucked the notes into Smedley's top pocket and, before the man could say any more, walked off.
"Good luck today, sir," Smedley said and tipped his bowler hat.
As he walked back down the track, de Jersey thought of his dapper little father, Ronnie Jersey. The "de" had been acquired many years after his father's death: de Jersey thought it gave his name more of an upper-class ring. Once he had acquired the deep, rather plummy tones of an aristocrat, it was hard to detect any East End in his speech.
The injury to which Smedley had referred destroyed any hope of an army career; perhaps it had been fate, although at the time it had broken his heart. The fall damaged his kneecap so severely that he still limped and was often in pain, though he never allowed it to interfere with his grueling daily rides.
Down the track, Smedley was regaling one of the other stewards about his "school pal" Edward de Jersey.
"His father ran a bookies'-in fact, two of 'em. Nice earners, but back in the fifties he had a lot of aggravation from the villains. Word was, he was forced out of business and his son took 'em over but sold them fast. Looks a real toff now, but we was at school together. I tell you one thing, I'd like a share of his life. He's worth bloody millions!"
De Jersey headed past the winner's enclosure and through the famous hole-in-the-wall archway toward the boxes. On the third floor he got out of the lift and walked to his double box, pausing only to look over the railing at the throng below. The crowds were in good humor, standing almost shoulder to shoulder around the bandstand, where the brass band played a medley of old-time music-hall songs. The crowd joined in with the chorus: "Ohhhhh, there ain't a lady living in the world that I'd swap for my dear old dutch." As he listened, de Jersey remembered his dad standing at the piano in the pub close to their terraced house. His dad only had the nerve to get up and sing after he'd downed several pints. He'd sing at the top of his voice, button eyes focusing on his beloved wife, Florence. De Jersey laughed softly as the past swept over him and he heard his mother say, "Eddy, get your dad's hat. We're goin' home!"
Someone brushed against his shoulder, and he turned to find Lord Wilby offering his hand. "Hello, Edward, wonderful day for it." Wilby introduced his wife.
"Charming as ever." De Jersey gave her a small bow and tipped his hat.
"How do you rate your colt's chances?" Wilby had two runners himself that day.
"Rather good, as long as he keeps his head."
Wilby checked his race card. "Ah, Mickey Rowland, yes, he's a good jockey. Handled well at Lingfield." Then more owners were acknowledging de Jersey, and the conversation ended.
Christina had decorated the box navy and white, his racing colors, and had the table laid for twelve. On the balcony, rows of seats overlooked the track. De Jersey's box faced the large screen that would televise the races, situated opposite the winning post. There were television screens inside the box, where some preferred to watch the action, especially if the weather was bad. Today, though, it was perfect.
Christina was arranging the flowers on the table when he entered. She wore little makeup and, like him, was lightly tanned. Even after twenty years of marriage, de Jersey continued to be amazed by how attractive he found her. She was tall, almost five ten, with long, naturally platinum blond hair, which she wore loose or caught up in a wide-toothed butterfly clip. De Jersey loved the delicate wisps that fell down to frame her perfect face, chiseled cheekbones and full mouth, though Christina's eyes, a strikingly deep blue, were her best feature. She was de Jersey's second wife; his first was merely a distant memory. Christina had two children, yet she still had the body of a young woman. She also retained the lilt of her Swedish accent.
She was wearing a white, wide-brimmed hat, with a black band and a large bow draped down one side, a tailored white jacket, tight black pencil skirt, and high-heeled black sling-back shoes. She still had a wonderfully voluptuous figure. She looked so cool and sophisticated; it was easy to tell that she had once been a model.
De Jersey encircled her waist and kissed her neck.
"Mind my hat," she said, laughing.
"You look stunning," he said.
She cocked her head to one side. "You're quite appetizing yourself, Mr. de Jersey. Go, welcome your guests, there's champagne open."
"I was watching you and thinking what a lucky man I am. I do love you."
She stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. "Did he travel well?"
"He did, and he's behaving himself, but he's got serious competition. I'll be happy if he just gets placed."
"He's going to win," Christina said with certainty. She did not share his passion for this colt, though she liked horses and enjoyed riding. De Jersey had been in property development when they met and was already a very rich man, the cultured voice honed to perfection. She still knew little of her husband's past and would have been astonished to learn that he had come from London's East End. Christina had been at his side throughout his career in racing, watching with pride as the stud farm grew to be one of the biggest in England. She took no part in the running of the racing yard but had an important role in de Jersey's life, giving him a stability he had never previously believed possible.
She poured him a glass of champagne and prompted him to join his guests, watching him go. Their nineteen-year age difference had never been an issue. Christina was above all a contented woman. She knew that behind his extrovert image her husband was a private man and, at times, inadequate at small talk. She enjoyed entertaining and smoothing the way for him. They made a good team.
"We have a beautiful day for it." He shook hands and opened another bottle of Krug. She knew he would prefer water until Royal Flush's race was over. Aware that he would be totally focused on his horse, she had chosen her guests carefully. Donald Fleming's wife was there, and their local vicar, who had leapt at the chance of going to the races, with his wife, a shy, retiring woman. After the racing they could spend time box hopping with the Sangsters and the Henry Cecils.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Royal Heist by Lynda La Plante. Copyright © 2004 by Lynda La Plante. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.