Under orders, p.2

Under Orders, page 2

 

Under Orders
 



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  They went on trying for much longer than I would have expected. They took it in turns to force air into the lungs or compress the chest. Almost half an hour had passed before they began to show signs of giving up. By then, an ambulance had driven into the parade ring and a stretcher had been made ready. The man was lifted onto it but it was clearly all over for him. The urgency had fallen away from the medical movements. Another heart attack fatality, just one more statistic.

  With the departure of the victim, accompanied by his grieving wife, the crowds drifted away to the bars to get out of the rain, tut-tutting about the shame of it and the need to look after our bodies. Sales of crackling at the pork-roast stall didn’t seem to be affected.

  •

  I WATCHED THE first race from the Owners and Trainers grandstand. The Triumph Hurdle is the blue-ribbon event for four-year-old novice hurdlers, over a distance of two miles and a furlong. The start was impressive as the twenty-five runners spread right across the course, resembling a cavalry charge over the first flight of hurdles. I found that I was paying particular attention to Huw Walker on Candlestick. The runners were still bunched together as they galloped fast past the grandstand for the first time. The climb to the highest point of the course began to sort them out, and there were only half a dozen or so in with a chance as they swung left-handed down the hill. Candlestick was third going to the second last when the leader got too close to the hurdle, hit the top and fell in a flurry of legs. Huw Walker pulled left to avoid the carnage and kicked Candlestick hard in the ribs.

  It was one of those finishes that gives racing a good name. Four horses jumped the final flight abreast and the jockeys almost disappeared in a whirl of arms and whips as they strove to get the final effort from their mounts. There was no question that, this time, Candlestick was trying his best with Huw Walker driving hard for the finish line. His labors were well rewarded as they flashed past the post to win by a head.

  Pleased, I walked back to the paddock to see the horse come back in, only to find that the trainer Bill Burton was looking like thunder. It seemed that a win was not in his game plan. If he’s not careful, I thought, he will confirm to all those watching that the rumors are true.

  I leaned on the rail, watching Bill Burton and Huw Walker unsaddle the sweating horse. The steam rose in great clouds from the animal’s hindquarters, but even this did not hide the animosity between the two men. They seemed oblivious of the thousands around them as they stood toe to toe beside the horse, shouting insults at each other. From where I was standing, I couldn’t hear the complete exchange, but I clearly caught a few “bastard”s, as well as some other, less flattering adjectives. The confrontation appeared to be heading towards violence when an official stepped between them and pulled Bill Burton away.

  Huw looked in my direction, saw me, shrugged his shoulders, winked and then smiled broadly as he went past me to be weighed.

  I was standing there wondering what to make of all that when I was slapped hard on my back. Chris Beecher, midforties, balding and overweight. A journalist and a pain in the neck—and the back.

  “How’s that fancy hook of yours?”

  He didn’t seem to realize that it was one of those questions one shouldn’t ask. Rather like inquiring if that strawberry birthmark on your face goes brown in the sun. Some things were best left alone. But Chris Beecher made his living hurting other people’s feelings. Gossip columnist was his official title. Rumormonger would have been more accurate. He was responsible for the Diary page in The Pump, a daily and Sunday newspaper that I’d been at odds with some years ago. Half of what he wrote was pure fiction, but there was enough truth in the rest that many believed it all. To my knowledge, he had been the direct cause of two divorces and one attempted suicide during the previous twelve months.

  My fancy hook, as he called it, was a highly expensive, myoelectric false left hand. What the jagged horseshoe had started had been well and truly finished by a sadistic villain and I was now the proud owner of a state-of-the-art, twenty-first-century hook. In truth, I had learned to do most things one-handed, but I tended to wear the false limb as a cosmetic defense against people’s stares.

  “Fully charged and ready for action,” I said, turning and offering my left hand for a shake.

  “Not bloody likely! You’ll crush my fingers with that thing.”

  “I’m good at picking up eggs,” I lied. In truth, I had broken dozens of the bloody things.

  “I don’t care,” he said. “I’ve heard stories on the grapevine of you hitting people with that and, by all accounts, they stay hit.”

  It was true. I’d broken a couple of jaws. No point in fighting clean when I had a ready-made club firmly attached below my left elbow.

  “What do you make of that little exchange between trainer and jockey?” he asked, with apparent innocence.

  “Don’t know what you mean.”

  “Ah, come off it,” he said. “Everyone must have seen that tiff.”

  “What’s the story, then?” I asked, equally innocently.

  “Obvious. Walker won when he wasn’t meant to. No stable money on the nose. Bloody fool.”

  “Who?” I asked. “Walker or Burton?”

  “Good question. Both of them, I suppose. I’ll be surprised if the Stewards don’t have them in, or the Jockey Club. Fancy a beer?”

  “Some other time. I promised my father-in-law I’d go have a drink with him.”

  “Ex-father-in-law,” he corrected.

  “No secrets on the racetrack, not from you, anyway.”

  “Now you’re really joking. I couldn’t beat a secret out of you if you didn’t want to tell. I’ve heard that on the grapevine, too.”

  He had heard too much, I thought.

  “How’s your love life?” he asked abruptly.

  “None of your business.”

  “See what I mean?” He tapped me on the chest. “Who’s Sid Halley screwing now? The best-kept secret in racing.”

  He went off in search of easier prey. He was a big man who was used to throwing his considerable weight around. A bully who took pleasure in making people cry. I watched him go and wondered how he got to sleep at night.

  But he had been accurate in one respect. Who Sid Halley was presently “screwing” was indeed one of the facts I tried to keep from the racetrack. The track was my place of work, my office. Apart from keeping my work and my pleasure separate, I knew from experience that I was vulnerable to threats being made against those I loved. Much safer for me, and for them, if their existence was unknown to my quarry.

  2

  * * *

  I made my way up to the private boxes in the grandstand. It was not as easy as it used to be as so-called security seems to get stiffer each year. The friendly gatemen, like Tom down by the parking lot entrance who knew every trainer and jockey by sight and many of the owners, too, were a dying breed. The new generation of youngsters, bused in from the big cities, has no knowledge of racing. My face, once the ticket to every part of any racetrack, was now just another in the crowd.

  “Do you have a badge for a box?” asked a tall young man with spiky hair. He wore a dark blazer with EVENT SECURITY embroidered on the breast pocket.

  “No, but I’m Sid Halley, and I’m going for a drink with Lord Enstone.”

  “Sorry, sir.” He didn’t sound sorry. “Only those with passes can go up in this elevator.”

  I felt foolish as I flashed my out-of-date jockey’s badge his way.

  “Sorry, sir.” He sounded even less sorry and more determined. “That doesn’t get you through here.”

  I was reprieved at that moment by the managing director of the racetrack, who I assumed was hurrying as usual from one minor crisis to another.

  “Sid,” he said with genuine warmth, “how are you?”

  “Fine, Edward,” I replied, shaking his hand. “But having a little difficulty getting up to Lord Enstone’s box.”

  “Nonsense,” he said, winking at the young man
. “Be a sad day for all of us when Sid Halley can’t get everywhere on this racetrack.”

  He put his arm around my shoulder and guided me into the elevator.

  “How’s the investigation business?” he asked as we rose to the fifth floor.

  “Busy,” I said. “These days I seem to be working more and more away from the racetrack, but not this week, obviously.”

  “Done a lot of good for racing, you have. If you need any help, just ask. I’ll send you a pass that’ll get you everywhere on this track, even my office.”

  “How about the jockeys’ changing room?”

  “Ah.” He knew as well as I did that the jockeys’ changing room was off-limits to everyone except the jockeys riding that day and their valets, the men who prepared their equipment and clothes. Even Edward wasn’t technically allowed in there on race days.

  “Almost everywhere,” he laughed.

  “Thanks.”

  The doors opened and he rushed off.

  •

  LORD ENSTONE’S BOX was bursting at the seams. Surely all these people don’t have badges for this box, I thought as I forced my way in. They could obviously talk their way past the spiky-haired young man better than I.

  Those lucky few with boxes at Cheltenham on Gold Cup day invariably found that they had all sorts of dear friends who wanted to come and visit. That these “dear friends” turned up only once a year didn’t seem to embarrass them at all.

  A waitress offered me a glass of champagne. As a general rule, I held drinks in my real, right hand, but it made shaking hands so complicated, and I felt that I should use my left more to justify the large amount of money I had spent to acquire it. So I very carefully sent the correct impulses and the thumb of my left hand closed just enough around the stem of the glass. I had often shattered even the best crystal by not knowing how hard to grip with my unfeeling digits to prevent a glass from falling out. It could be humiliating.

  Charles had spotted me across the throng and made his way to my side.

  “Got a drink, good,” he said. “Come and see Jonny.”

  We squeezed our way out onto the balcony that ran the length of the grandstand in front of the glass-fronted boxes. The view from here across the track and beyond to the hills was magnificent, even on a dull day.

  Three men were standing close together at the far end of the balcony, their heads bowed as they talked. One of them was Jonny. Jonny was our host, Lord Enstone. Another was Jonny’s son, Peter. The third I knew only by reputation. I had never actually met George Lochs. He was in his thirties and already a big player in the Internet gambling business. His company, make-a-wager.com, while not being the market leader, was expanding rapidly and, with it, so was young George’s fortune.

  I had once been commissioned by the Jockey Club to do a background check on him, a routine procedure for those applying for bookmaking licenses. He was the second son of a bookie’s runner from north London. He’d won a free scholarship to Harrow where, apparently, the other boys had laughed at his funny accent and the way he held his knife. But the young George had learned fast, conformed and flourished. Except that he hadn’t been called George then. He had been born Clarence Lochstein, named by his mother for the Duke of Clarence. Not Albert, Duke of Clarence, elder son of Edward VII, who supposedly died of pneumonia in 1892, although the rumors persist that he was poisoned to prevent his being arrested for being Jack the Ripper. Nor even for George, Duke of Clarence, the brother of Richard III who was convicted of treason and drowned in a vat of malmsey wine at the Tower of London in 1478. Clarence Lochstein had been named by his mother for the Duke of Clarence pub at the end of her road in Islington.

  There were rumors that Clarence/George had been asked to leave Harrow for taking bets on the horses from the other boys and, it was said, from some of the staff. However, he still won a place at the London School of Economics. Clarence Lochstein/George Lochs was a bright chap.

  “Can I introduce Sid Halley?” said Charles, oblivious to the private nature of the men’s conversation.

  George Lochs jumped. While his reputation had reached me, mine had also clearly reached him.

  It was a reaction I was quite used to. It’s a bit like when a police car stops behind you at a traffic light. A strange feeling of guilt inevitably comes over you even when you’ve done nothing wrong. Do they know that I was speeding five minutes ago? Are my tires legal? Should I have had that second glass of wine? Only when the police car turns off or passes by does the heartbeat begin to return to normal, the palms of the hands stop sweating.

  “Sid. Good. Glad you could come.” Lord Enstone smiled broadly. “Have you met George Lochs? George, Sid.”

  We shook hands and looked into each other’s eyes. His palm was not noticeably damp and his face gave nothing away.

  “And you know my son, Peter,” he said.

  I had met him once or twice on racetracks. We nodded in recognition. Peter was an averagely competent amateur jockey in his early thirties who had for some years enjoyed limited success, mostly in races reserved for amateur riders.

  “Do you have a ride in the Foxhunters later?” I asked him.

  “I wish,” he said. “Couldn’t convince an owner to put me up.”

  “What about your father’s horses?” I asked, giving his father a wink.

  “No bloody chance,” said Peter with a halfhearted smile. “Mean old bastard won’t let me ride them.”

  “If the boy wants to break his neck riding in races, that’s his business, but I don’t want to aid and abet him,” said Jonny, ruffling his son’s blond hair. “I’d never forgive myself.”

  Peter pulled his head away from his father’s hand with irritation and stomped off through the doorway. It was clearly a topic much discussed in the past.

  “Charles, take young George here inside and find him a glass of fizz,” said Lord Enstone. “I want to have a word with Sid in private.”

  It was clear that young George didn’t actually want to be taken off for a glass of fizz, or anything else.

  “Promise, I won’t listen,” he said with a smile, standing his ground.

  “Dead right, you won’t.” Enstone was losing his cool and with it his cultured RP accent. “Jist gan’ in there with Charlie, bonnie lad, I’m askin’, OK?” Pure Geordie.

  A few years previous, I had also done a check on him for a horse-owning syndicate that he had wanted to join. Jonny Enstone was a builder. He had left school in Newcastle aged sixteen to become an apprentice bricklayer with J. W. Best Ltd, a small, local general construction company owned by the father of a school friend. Within two years, he was running the business and, soon after, he bought out the friend’s father. Expansion was rapid and, under the banner THE J. W. BEST BUILT HOUSE YOU’LL EVER BUY, Best Houses marched north, south and west, covering the country with smart little three- and four-bedroomed boxes from Glasgow to Plymouth and beyond. Jonny Enstone had become Sir John, then Lord Enstone, but he still had his hands on his business. He was famous for arriving very early one dark morning at a building site some two hundred miles from his home and personally firing anyone who was even a minute late at seven o’clock. He then removed the jacket of his pin-striped suit, rolled up the sleeves of his starched white shirt and worked the whole day in place of his fired bricklayer.

  “Now, Sid,” RP fully restored, “I need you to find out something for me.”

  “I’ll try,” I said.

  “I’ll pay you proper rates. I want you to find out why my horses aren’t winning when they should be.”

  It was something I was regularly asked to do. I inwardly sighed. Most owners think their horses should be winning more often than they do. It’s a matter of “I paid good brass for the damn thing, so why doesn’t it start repaying?”

  “I think,” he went on, “my jockey and trainer are stopping them.”

  That was what they all thought.

  “Move them to another trainer.” I was doing myself out of a commission.
<
br />   “It’s not as simple as that, young man. I tell you, my horses are not just not winning when they should, they’re running to orders that aren’t mine. I feel I’m being used and I don’t like it.” I could suddenly see the real Jonny Enstone beneath the Savile Row exterior: powerful, determined, even dangerous.

  “I’m in racing because I like to win,” he emphasized the word. “It’s not the money that’s important, it’s the winning!”

  Why was it, I thought, that it was always those with plenty of it who believed that money was not important. To the hard-up punter, a place bet on a long-priced runner-up was much better than an ultra-short-priced winner.

  Peter returned with a fresh glass of champagne for his father as a peace offering, their earlier little spat obviously forgiven.

  “Thanks, Peter,” said Lord Enstone. He took a sip of the golden fluid.

  “Who trains your horses?” I asked. “And who rides them?”

  “Bill Burton and Huw Walker.”

  •

  I STAYED TO watch the Gold Cup from Lord Enstone’s box. The balcony was heaving with bodies pressed up against the front rail as everyone strove to get a view of the supreme challenge for a steeplechaser, three and a quarter miles over twenty-two fences, all horses carrying the same weight. The winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup was a true champion.

  I had ridden eight times in this race and I knew all too well the nervous anticipation being experienced by the jockeys as they paraded in front of the packed grandstands. This was one of only two or three really big jump races in the year that put the winning horse and jockey into the history books. For a horse to win this race more than once was the stuff of dreams. Winning it three times put the animal into the legend category.

 

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