Decider, p.1Dick Francis
Books by Dick Francis
THE SPORT OF QUEENS (autobiography)
IN THE FRAME
LESTER: The Official Biography
COME TO GRIEF
TO THE HILT
FIELD OF THIRTEEN
THE DICK FRANCIS LIBRARY
MICHAEL JOSEPH LTD
Published by the Penguin Group 27 Wrights Lane, London w8 5TZ
Penguin Putnam Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA
Penguin Books Australia Ltd, Ringwood, Victoria, Australia
Penguin Books Canada Ltd, 10 Alcorn Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4V 3B2
Penguin Books (NZ) Ltd, Private Bag 102902, NSMC, Auckland, New Zealand
Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England
First published in Great Britain in September 1993
Second impression September 1993
Third impression November 1993
Fourth impression December 1993
Fifth impression December 1993
Sixth impression December 1993
Seventh impression December 1993
Eighth impression February 1994
Ninth impression March 2000
Tenth impression June 2001
Copyright © Dick Francis 1993
All rights reserved.
Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
The moral right of the author has been asserted
My thanks to my godson
Dip Arch (Edin) RIBA
and love to my grandchildren
OK, so here I am, Lee Morris, opening doors and windows to gusts of life and early death.
They looked pretty harmless on my doorstep: two middle-aged civil Englishmen in country-gent tweeds and flat caps, their eyebrows in unison raised enquiringly, their shared expression one of embarrassed anxiety.
‘Lee Morris?’ one of them said, his diction clipped, secure, expensive. ‘Could we speak to him?’
‘Selling insurance?’ I asked dryly.
Their embarrassment deepened.
Late March evening, sun low and strong, gold light falling sideways onto their benign faces, their eyes achingly narrowed against the glare. They stood a pace or two from me, careful not to crowd. Good manners all around.
I realised that I knew one of them by sight, and I spent a few extended seconds wondering why on earth he’d sought me out on a Sunday a long way from his normal habitat.
During this pause three small boys padded up the flagstoned passage from the depths of the house behind me, concentratedly threaded a way around me and out through the pair beyond and silently climbed like cats up into the fuzzy bursting leaf-bud embrace of an ancient spreading oak nearby on the lawn. There the three figures rested, becoming immobile, lying on their stomachs along the old boughs, half seen, intent, secretive, deep in an espionage game.
The visitors watched in bemusement.
‘You’d better come in,’ I said. ‘They’re expecting pirates.’
The man I’d recognised smiled suddenly with delight, then stepped forward as if in decision and held out his hand.
‘Roger Gardner,’ he said, ‘and this is Oliver Wells. We’re from Stratton Park racecourse.’
‘Yes,’ I said, and made a gesture for them to follow me into the shadowy passage, which they did, slowly, tentatively, half blinded by the slanting sun outside.
I led them along the flagstones and into the cavernous room I’d spent six months converting from a rotting barn into a comfortable house. The revitalising of such ruins was my chief livelihood, but recently the inevitable had finally happened and my family were currently rebelling against moving to yet another building site and were telling me that this house, this one, was where they wanted to live.
The sunlight fell through tall west-facing windows onto the sheen of universal slate-grey flagstones which were softened here and there by rugs from Turkey. Round the north, south and east sides of the barn now ran a railed gallery bearing a row of bedrooms, with a staircase giving access at either end.
Under the gallery, a series of rooms stood open-fronted to the great room, though one could close each off with folding doors for privacy. They offered a book-lined room for watching television, an office, a playroom, a sewing room and a long capacious dining room. A breakfast room in the south-east corner led into a big half-visible kitchen with utilities and a workshop wholly out of sight beyond. The partition walls between the open-fronted rooms, partitions which looked merely like space dividers, were in fact the extremely strong load-bearers of the gallery above.
Furniture in the central atrium consisted chiefly of squashy armchairs scattered in informal groups, with many small tables handy. A fireplace in the western wall glowed red with logs.
The effect I’d aimed for, a dwelling built like a small roofed market square, had come out even better than I’d imagined, and in my own mind (though I hadn’t told the family) I had intended all along to keep it, if it had been a success.
Roger Gardner and Oliver Wells, as was usual with visitors, came to a halt and looked around in frank surprise, though they seemed too inhibited to comment.
A naked baby appeared, crawling across the flagstones, pausing when he reached a rug, wobbling onto his bottom and looking around, considering things.
‘Is that yours?’ Roger asked faintly, watching him.
‘Very probably,’ I said.
A young woman in jeans and sweater, fair hair flying, came jogging out of the far part of the kitchen in businesslike trainers.
‘Have you seen Jamie?’ she demanded from a distance.
She swooped on the baby and gathered him up unceremoniously. ‘I take my eyes off him for two seconds…’ She bore him away, delivering a fleeting glance to the visitors, but not stopping, vanishing again from our view.
‘Sit down,’ I invited. ‘What can I do for you?’
They tentatively sat where I indicated and visibly wondered how to begin.
‘Lord Stratton recently died,’ Roger said eventually. ‘A month ago.’
‘Yes, I noticed,’ I said.
‘You sent flowers to the funeral.
‘It seemed merely decent,’ I agreed, nodding.
The two men glanced at each other. Roger spoke.
‘Someone told us he was your grandfather.’
I said patiently, ‘No. They got it wrong. My mother was once married to his son. They divorced. My mother then married again, and had me. I’m not actually related to the Strattons.’
It was unwelcome news, it seemed. Roger tried again.
‘But you do own shares in the racecourse, don’t you?’
Ah, I thought. The feud. Since the old man had died, his heirs, reportedly, had been arguing to a point not far from murder.
‘I’m not getting involved,’ I said.
‘Look,’ Roger said with growing desperation, ‘the heirs are going to ruin the racecourse. You can see it a mile off. The rows! Suspicion. Violent hatreds. They set on each other before the old man was even cold.’
‘It’s civil war,’ Oliver Wells said miserably. ‘Anarchy. Roger is the manager and I’m the Clerk of the Course, and we are running things ourselves now, trying to keep the place going, but we can’t do it much longer. We’ve no authority, do you see?’
I looked at the deep concern on their faces and thought about the difficulty of finding employment of that calibre at fifty-something in the unforgiving job climate.
Lord Stratton, my non-grandfather, had owned three-quarters of the shares in the racecourse and had for years run the place himself as a benevolent despot. Under his hand, at any rate, Stratton Park had earned a reputation as a popular well-run racecourse to which trainers sent their runners in dozens. No Classics, no Gold Cups took place there, but it was accessible and friendly and had a well laid out racing circuit. It needed new stands and various face-lifts but old diehard Stratton had been against change. He appeared genially on television sometimes, an elder conservative statesman consulted by interviewers when the sport lurched into controversy. One knew him well by sight.
Occasionally, out of curiosity, I’d spent an afternoon on the racecourse, but racing itself had never compulsively beckoned me, nor had my non-grandfather’s family.
Roger Gardner hadn’t made the journey to give up easily.
‘But your sister is part of the family,’ he said.
‘Mr Gardner,’ I explained, ‘forty years ago my mother abandoned her infant daughter and walked out. The Stratton family closed ranks behind her. Her name was mud, spelt in capitals. That daughter, my half-sister, doesn’t acknowledge my existence. I’m sorry, but nothing I could say or do would carry any weight with any of them.’
‘Your half-sister’s father…’
‘Particularly,’ I said, ‘not with him.’
During the ensuing pause while the bad news got chewed and digested, a tall fair-headed boy came out of one of the bedrooms on the gallery, skipped down the stairs, waved me a flapping hand and went into the kitchen, to reappear almost at once carrying the baby, now clothed. The boy took the baby upstairs, returned with him to his bedroom and shut the door. Silence fell.
Questions hovered on Roger’s face but remained unasked, to my amusement. Roger – Lt. Colonel R.B. Gardner, according to the Stratton Park racecards – would have been a thorough flop as a journalist, but I found his inhibitions restful.
‘You were our last hope,’ Oliver Wells complained, accusingly.
If he hoped to instil guilt, he failed. ‘What would you expect me to do?’ I asked reasonably.
‘We hoped…’ Roger began. His voice faded away, then he rallied and manfully tried again. ‘We hoped, do you see, that you might knock some sense into them.’
‘Well, for one thing, you’re big.’
‘Big?’ I stared at him. ‘Are you suggesting I literally knock some sense into them?’
It did seem that my appearance had given them instant ideas. It was true that I was tall and physically strong; very useful for building houses. I couldn’t swear I’d never found those facts conclusive in swinging an argument. But there were times when to tread softly and shrink one’s shoulder-span produced more harmonious results, and I leaned by nature more to the latter course. Lethargic, my wife called me. Too lazy to fight. Too placid. But the ruins got restored and left no trails of rancour in local official minds, and I’d learned how to get round most planning officers with conciliation and reason.
‘I’m not your man,’ I said.
Roger clutched at straws. ‘But you do own those shares. Can’t you stop the war with those?’
‘Is that,’ I asked, ‘what you mainly had in mind when you sought me out?’
Roger nodded unhappily. ‘We don’t know where else to turn, do you see?’
‘So you thought I might gallop into the arena waving my bits of paper and crying “enough”, and they would all throw down their prejudices and make peace?’
‘It might help,’ Roger said, straightfaced.
He made me smile. ‘For one thing,’ I said, ‘I own very few shares. They were given to my mother all those years ago as a divorce settlement, and I inherited them when she died. They pay a very small dividend now and then, that’s all.’
Roger’s expression went from bewilderment to shock. ‘Do you mean,’ he demanded, ‘that you haven’t heard what they are fighting about?’
‘I told you, I have had no contact with them.’ All I knew was what I’d learned from a brief paragraph in The Times’s business pages (‘Stratton heirs dispute over family racecourse’) and some blunter remarks in a tabloid (‘Long knives out at Stratton Park’).
‘I’m afraid you will soon hear from them,’ Roger said. ‘One faction of them want to sell off the racecourse to developers. As you know, the course lies just to the north-east of Swindon, in an area that’s growing all the time. That town has exploded into a centre of industry. All sorts of firms are moving there. It’s heaving with new life. The racecourse land is increasing in value all the time. Your few shares might now be worth quite a lot, and they might be worth even more in the future. So some of the Strattons want to sell now, and some want to wait, and some don’t want to sell at all, but to go on running the racecourse for racing, and the sell-now lot should have been onto you by now, I would have thought. Anyway, some day soon they’ll remember your shares and they’ll drag you into the fight whether you like it or not.’
He stopped, feeling he’d made his point; and I supposed he had. My sincere desire not to be dragged into any fracas looked like being a casualty of ‘the real world’, as one of my sons described all calamities.
‘And naturally,’ I commented, ‘you are with the faction that wants racing to continue.’
‘Well, yes,’ Roger admitted. ‘Yes, we are. Frankly, we hoped to persuade you to vote your shares against selling.’
‘I don’t know that my shares even have a vote and there aren’t enough of them to sway anything. And how did you know I had any?’
Roger briefly consulted his fingernails and decided on frankness.
‘The racecourse is a private limited company, as I expect you know. It has directors and board meetings and the shareholders are informed each year when the annual general meeting is to take place.’
I nodded resignedly. The notice came every year and every year I ignored it.
‘So last year the secretary who sends out the notice was ill, and Lord Stratton told me just to do it, there’s a good chap…’ – his voice mimicked the old man’s splendidly – ‘so I sent out the notice and it happened that I put the list of names and addresses in a file for the future…’ he paused, hovering, ‘in case I had to do it again, do you see?’
‘And the future’s upon us,’ I said. I pondered. ‘Who else owns shares? Did you by any chance bring the list with you?’
I saw from his face both that he had brought it and also that he was unsure of the ethics of passing it over. The threat to his job, though, conquered all, and after the briefest of hesitations he reache
I opened it and read the ultra-short list. Shorn of addresses it read:
William Darlington Stratton (3rd Baron)
Hon Mrs Marjorie Binsham
Mrs Perdita Faulds
Lee Morris Esq
‘Is that all?’ I enquired blankly.
Marjorie Binsham was, I knew, the old lord’s sister. ‘Who is Mrs Perdita Faulds?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know,’ Roger said.
‘So you haven’t been to see her? You came here, though?’
Roger didn’t answer, but he didn’t need to. That sort of ex-soldier felt more at home with other men than with women.
‘And,’ I said, ‘who inherits the old man’s shares?’
‘I don’t know,’ Roger answered exasperatedly. ‘The family aren’t saying. They’ve shut up like clams about the will, and of course it’s not open to public inspection before probate, which may be years away, at the rate they’re going. If I had to guess, I’d say Lord Stratton left them all equal shares. He was fair, in his way. Equal shares would mean that no single one of them has control, and that’s the nub of the problem, I’d think.’
‘Do you know them personally?’ I asked, and they both nodded gloomily. ‘Like that, is it?’ I asked. ‘Well, I’m sorry, but they’ll have to sort it out themselves.’
The young fair-haired woman strolled out of the kitchen with a glass in one hand and a feeding bottle of milk in the other. She nodded vaguely in our direction and went up the staircase and into the room where the boy had taken the baby. My visitors watched in silence.
A brown-haired boy rode a bicycle up the passage from the front door and made a controlled circuit of the room, slowing slightly as he passed behind me and saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, you told me not to,’ before returning along the passage towards the outside world. The bicycle was scarlet, the clothes purple and pink and fluorescent green. The very air seemed to quiver with vibrant colour, settling back to quiet slate when he’d gone.
Tactfully, no one said anything about obedience or keeping children in order.
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