Under Orders, page 8
With Jonny Enstone’s reputation for promptness in mind, I arrived at the Peers’ Entrance at one o’clock exactly. “Peer” is a strange title really for a member of the House of Lords since the dictionary definition of “peer” is “a person of equal rank” and the Peers with a capital P were clearly not. Even among themselves, there were five levels, with Duke at the top and Baron at the bottom.
The tones of Big Ben were still ringing in my ears as I stepped into the revolving door, a time-warp portal rotating me from the hustle and bustle of twenty-first-century London on the outside to the sedate world of nineteenth-century quiet and formality on the inside.
The staff still wore knee breeches and silk stockings, their tailcoats and starched collars looking somewhat incongruous next to machine-gun-toting police in flak jackets. Such are the necessities in our fear-of-terrorist-atrocity society.
Lord Enstone was already there and I noticed him glance at his watch as I arrived. He seemed to nod with approval and came forward to shake my hand.
“Sid, glad you could make it,” he said.
Glad I could make it on time, I thought.
“Let’s go and find ourselves a drink.”
He waited as I went to pass through the security checkpoint.
“Anything metal in your pockets, sir?”
I obediently emptied keys and loose change into the plastic tray provided. What to do? Should I also remove the pound and a half of steel from the end of my left arm and put it in the tray? I had learned from multiple experiences at airports that to do so usually caused more problems than leaving it where it was.
I stepped through the detector and, predictably, it went into palpitations.
“Sorry, sir,” said the security man. “Please stand with your legs apart and arms out to your side.”
He waved a black wand up and down my legs and around my waist without success and was about to wave me on through when the wand went berserk at my left wrist. The poor chap was quite startled when he switched to a manual search and discovered the hard fiberglass shell that constituted my lower arm.
Lord Enstone had been watching this exchange with ill-disguised amusement and now burst into laughter.
“Why didn’t you tell him?” he asked.
“He would ask me to take it off and it’s such a bore. It’s normally easier this way.”
The guard regained his composure and, with an embarrassed chuckle, he allowed me to pass. I thought about getting a gun installed to shoot through my middle finger. It was a common failing of security that once having discovered that I had a prosthetic hand, they rarely checked it well enough to determine if I had a firearm or a knife built into it.
Jonny Enstone was in his element and clearly loved being a member of what has often been described as the best gentlemen’s club in London (women were not admitted until 1958, and then only reluctantly). We climbed one of the hundred or so staircases in the Palace of Westminster and strolled along bookcase-flanked corridors to the Peers’ bar overlooking the Thames.
“Afternoon, my lord,” said the barman.
Jonny Enstone obviously enjoyed being called “my lord.”
“Afternoon, Eric. G and T for me, please. You, Sid?”
“G and T would be fine, thank you.”
We took our drinks over to a small table by the window and sat and discussed the state of the weather.
“Now, Sid,” said his lordship at last, “how can I help?”
“Well, sir,” I started, opting for a formality that matched our surroundings, “after our little chat at Cheltenham I was hoping you might be able to give me some more details of why you think that Bill Burton and Huw Walker were fixing the races in which your horses ran.” I purposely kept my voice low and he leaned closer to hear.
“Did you hear that Burton’s been arrested for killing Walker?” he replied.
“I was there when it happened,” I said.
“Were you indeed!” He made it sound like an accusation in the same way that Carlisle had done.
“I went to ask him about your horses but never got the chance.”
“Fancy Burton being a murderer,” he said. “One never can tell.”
“He hasn’t been convicted yet. Maybe the police have the wrong man.”
“No smoke without fire,” he said. I thought about some of the many rumors that surrounded his business dealings and wondered if there was fire there, too.
“But about your horses and your suspicions,” I prompted.
“Doesn’t really matter now, Sid. Took your advice and moved the lot this morning. New trainer, new start. No good crying over spilled milk. Walker’s dead and Burton’s been banged up for it. Little bit of race fixing seems a bit trivial now, doesn’t it? So I’ve cut my losses and moved on.”
“Who’s your new trainer?” I asked.
“Another Lambourn man. Chap called Andrew Woodward,” he replied. “Fine fellow, won’t stand any nonsense. My type of man.”
He of the riding whip reputation, a man prepared to run roughshod over other people’s feelings. He was indeed Jonny Enstone’s type of man.
“Sorry, Sid,” he went on, “won’t be needing your services anymore. Send me the bill for your time—not that I’ve taken up much of it.” It was his way of telling me that my bill had better not be too big. He hadn’t become a multi-multi-multimillionaire by paying more for things than he could get away with. It was usually the poor who were more spendthrift with their money, one of the reasons they remained poor.
“Shall we go through to lunch?” he said, closing the matter.
There are two dining rooms. One for Peers alone, to discuss in private the affairs of state, and one for Peers and their guests, where such discussion was frowned upon, if not exactly forbidden.
Needless to say, we were in the second one, an L-shaped room with heavy oak paneling covered with stern-looking portraits of past Lords of the Realm. The upright dining chairs were covered in red leather and the carpet was predominantly red, and so were the curtains. Everything in the Lords’ end of the Palace of Westminster was red. The commoners’ end was green.
Jonny Enstone worked the room, stopping and speaking to almost every group as we made our way to what was obviously his usual table at the far end. Why did I wonder that he liked this table for that very reason?
It was like walking into the pages of Who’s Who. Faces that I was familiar with only from the television and newspapers smiled and said “Hello.” Lord Enstone almost purred, he was so enjoying being part of “the club,” and all the more so for having me in tow.
I decided on the soup and the mushroom risotto for one-handed eating while Lord Enstone chose the pâté and the rack of lamb. I rarely ate much for lunch and two large meals within twenty hours were not going to be good for my waistline.
We talked racing for a while and I asked what hopes he had for his horses.
“Well,” he said, “I’ll need to talk with Woodward, but I hope that Extra Point might be ready for the big handicap at Sandown next month. He’s still entered for the National, but he’s not fully fit, at least that’s what Burton told me last week. I’ll reserve judgment until Woodward has seen what he can do.”
“When did you start to question what Bill Burton told you?”
“I didn’t really, not until last week.”
“What happened last week specifically?” I asked.
“It was something I heard—I can’t remember exactly when, Tuesday or Wednesday, I think.” He paused. “No, it was definitely Tuesday, after the Champion Hurdle. I was in the Royal Box, having a drink with Larry—you know, Larry Wallingford.”
Larry Wallingford, or rather Lawrence, Duke of Wallingford, was a regular at racetracks, a major owner of racehorses, both on the flat and over the jumps, and a stalwart of the Jockey Club. I wondered when a boy from the wrong end of Newcastle had taken to calling dukes by their nicknames and most others by their surnames. Tomorrow, no doubt, Lord Enstone would tell someone th
“Did the Duke tell you something specific?”
“No, no. It was a lady who was sitting with him. I didn’t get her name. She said something about having been told by a friend that Burton’s horses didn’t seem to be always doing their best.”
“That doesn’t sound much like evidence to me.”
“No, nor to me. But it was enough to make me ask around and to look at the results of my horses.” He stopped to take a sip of an excellent Merlot, the “House” red.
“I have seven horses at present. I keep a detailed account of all their races and on Tuesday evening I went right through my records for the past two years. I had ninety-two runners over that time. Fourteen winners, but not one of them won when they started with odds of less than five to one. Sixteen started favorite and only one of those won, and that was when the leading pair both fell at the last.” He took another drink. “So I began to be suspicious and asked your father-in-law to get you to my box last week. I didn’t want to go to the Jockey Club. Discreet inquiries were what I wanted.”
What he meant, I thought, was that he didn’t want everyone to know that he had been a mug.
“Well, now I’ve moved the horses so that’s that. End of story.”
“But it’s not the end,” I said. “Huw Walker’s been murdered. Maybe he was shot because he was fixing races. Or perhaps for not fixing them when he had been paid to do so.”
“Maybe, but I don’t want to get involved.”
“You may not have that luxury,” I said.
“I won’t thank you for getting me involved with this business and it will be to your advantage not to.” He shifted in his chair and moved closer to me. “Leave it alone, Halley. Let the police do their job. Do you understand me?” It was said with venom and there was little doubt that I was being warned off.
“Sure,” I said, “but the police are still likely to talk to you because you had seven horses in Bill Burton’s yard.”
He smiled, leaned back in his chair and spread his hands. “I know nothing.”
Here was a member of the House of Lords, the highest court in the land, intent on obstructing justice. But honesty and integrity have never been prerequisites to remaining in the House of Lords. A criminal conviction and prison sentence of twelve months or more results in expulsion from the House of Commons, but their lordships remain immune to such inconveniences and can return to Her Majesty’s Parliament on release from any length of stay in Her prisons. And they do, often.
Even a conviction for high treason does not disqualify members, save actually during their imprisonment. In the past, this was not a problem, as there was little chance of a return from the block and the ax.
And then there was the case of the seventh Earl of Lucan. A coroner’s jury established that he had indeed battered his children’s nanny to death with a length of lead pipe in 1974 before disappearing for good. Even when twenty-five years later, in 1999, the High Court made a ruling that, body or not, Lord Lucan was officially dead, his son and heir could not sit in the House, as it was deemed by their Lordships that there was no “definite proof” that his father would not suddenly walk out of the jungle and claim his rightful place on the red leather benches.
However, the House does have some standards. Undischarged bankrupts cannot take their seats.
Clearly, to a lord, being broke is a greater crime than being a murderer.
Lord Enstone and I finished our lunch mostly in silence and I was content to pass again through the revolving time portal and back to the present.
I WALKED DOWN Victoria Street towards my flat. I stopped twice on the journey. First, I went into an office equipment store to buy a new telephone answering machine. My trusty old one had served me well but had been overtaken by the electronics revolution. I decided on a fancy replacement that came complete with a vast number of megabytes in its digital memory, and one that could also tell me the dates and times when my messages were received. And, second, I popped into a betting shop.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. I hadn’t been in a betting shop for years, not since the law prevented them having any decent chairs or televisions, or any creature comforts like a coffee machine or a lavatory. Nothing that could persuade the itinerant gambler to linger.
Now we lived in more enlightened times when gambling was not seen as some shifty addiction of the lowlife and was even to be encouraged in the form of the National Lottery, to “provide for good causes.” That some of the “good causes” were a touch suspect and others were simply an excuse for underfunding in the public services did not seem to deter the millions whose hopes each week far exceeded their true expectations. A few big winners gave the multitude faith, so much so that nearly a fifth of the population was seriously relying on winning the lottery to provide for their old age.
In spite of the change in the law, one would hardly describe the interior of this particular establishment as plush. The floor was covered in bare linoleum that had seen better days, especially around the high traffic areas near the door and the betting window. There were a few stools, and a counter stretched down one side of the room at hip height, its surface covered with the detritus of past decision making, screwed-up betting slips and scattered copies of newspapers.
Above the counter were pinned the pages from the Racing Post and, above them, a line of six television sets showed a mixture of betting odds and live action of both greyhound and horse racing.
On the other side of the shop were notice boards with brightly colored posters extolling the benefits of wagering on the coming weekend’s Premiership soccer matches, with the odds for each game written large with a black felt-tip pen. A table with a coin-operated coffee machine sat in one corner, with the all-important betting window in the other.
Business on the Tuesday afternoon after Cheltenham was slow, with just three others in there determined to take on the might of the bookmaker. Save for a few grunts during the actual running of a race, not a sound was uttered as they circled around one another from counter, to betting window, then to a stool to watch their selections on a TV and then back to the counter for deliberation on the next event. Race timings are so staggered to provide a contest from one venue or another every five minutes. And so it went on like a ballet, but without the grace.
I was the odd man out. First, I was in a suit and tie rather than the apparent uniform dress of extra-large replica soccer shirt hanging out over an extra-extra-large belly held in place by super-extra-large blue jeans with off-white running shoes beneath. Second, I was not gambling on every event; in fact, I wasn’t gambling on any of them. And, third, I was talking. “Well ridden,” I said to the second screen from the left as the jockey got up in the last stride to win by a nose.
“Do you come here often?” I asked a man as he sidestepped around me to the betting window.
“Not working for my wife, are you?” he replied.
But he wasn’t listening, he was busy counting out a wad of notes to hand over.
“I know you,” said one of the other two, the one in the Manchester United shirt. “You’re Sid Halley. Got any tips?”
Why did punters always believe that jockeys, or ex-jockeys, made good tipsters?
“Keep your money in your pocket,” I said.
“You’re no bloody good,” he said with a smile. “What brings you in here?”
“Furthering my education,” I replied, smiling back.
“Come off it, all jockeys are punters. Stands to reason, they control the results.”
“What about the horses?”
“They’d run round in circles without a driver.”
“Do you really believe that jockeys control the results?”
“Sure they do. If I lose, I always blame the jockey. I have to admit though that I won more on you than I lost.”
I suppose it was a compliment, of sorts.
“Gerry. Gerry Noble.” He offered his hand and I shook it firmly.
“Shame you had to give up,” Gerry said. He glanced down at my left hand, then up at my face.
“One of those things,” I said.
I agreed with him, but life moves on.
“Sorry,” he said.
“Not your fault.”
“Yeah, but I’m sorry all the same.”
“Thanks, Gerry.” I meant it. “Tell me, do you ever gamble on the Internet?”
“Sure,” he replied, “but not often. Too bloody complicated; never can understand all that exchanges stuff. Much easier to give the man my ready cash”—he nodded to the window in the corner—”and then, win or lose, at least I know where I stand. Don’t fancy using credit cards. I’d get into trouble too quick and too deep.”
“Do you come here every day?” I asked.
“Yeah, pretty much,” he said. “I work an early shift, start at four in the morning, finished by twelve. Then I come here for a few hours on my way home.”
“Do you win?”
“You mean, overall?”
“I suppose, if I was honest, I have to say I lose on the whole. Not much, and some days I win big.” He smiled. “And the wins give me such a high that I forget the losses.”
“But don’t you hate to lose?”
“It’s cheaper than cocaine.”
I stayed for a couple more races and helped Gerry cheer home a long-priced winner on which he had heavily invested.
“See what I mean!” he shouted, giving me a high five. “Bloody marvelous!”
He grinned from ear to ear and I could see what he meant by a “high.” I used to have that feeling, too, whenever I rode a big winner. As he said, it was indeed bloody marvelous.
I had enjoyed his ready companionship.
“See you!” I called to him as I left, a simple goodbye said without any real expectation of seeing him again.
“You know where to find me,” he said, and went back to his deliberations.
WHEN I GOT back to the flat, I connected my new answering machine to the telephone in my office. I recorded a greeting message and tested it by calling it from my cell phone. I left myself a brief message, and then tested the remote-access feature. Perhaps I am a bit of a skeptic about electronics, but I was pleasantly surprised that it worked perfectly.
DICK FRANCIS SERIES:
Other author's books:
- ProofStraightBoltCome to GriefKnock DownTrial RunBreak InDick Francis's Damage
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