Blood Sport, p.1Dick Francis
an imprint of
Books by Dick Francis and Felix 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 13
I awoke with foreboding. My hand closed in a reflex on the Luger under the pillow. I listened, acutely attentive. No sound. No quick surreptitious slither, no rub of cloth on cloth, no half-controlled pulse-driven breath. No enemy hovering. Slowly, relaxing, I turned half over and squinted at the room. A quiet, empty, ugly room. One-third of what for want of a less cosy word I called home.
Bright sunshine by-passed the thin pink curtains, spilling a gold slash on the faded brown Wilton. I didn’t like pink. Also I didn’t have the energy it would take to argue the landlord into changing to blue. After eight months I knew he never renewed anything until it had fallen to bits.
In spite of the prevailing calm the feeling of foreboding deepened and then identified itself and dissolved into a less threatening, more general state of gloom. Sunday morning, June 20th. The beginning of three weeks’ leave.
I rolled back on to my stomach and shut my eyes against the sun, and took my hand six inches from the Luger, which was far enough, and wondered how long a man could sleep if he really put his mind to it. Even a man who never slept soundly to start with. Three weeks, the three obligatory overdue weeks could be got through more easily asleep.
Three millenniums of sleep lay under the pillow. The nine-millimetre equalizer, my inseparable friend. It went with me everywhere, to beaches, to bathrooms, to beds other than my own. It was there to save my life. Not to take it. I had lived through a lot of temptations, and I lived with that too.
The telephone bell put paid to the three weeks before they had gone half an hour.
‘’Lo,’ I said blearily, balancing the receiver on the pillow.
‘You haven’t gone away then.’ There was relief in the voice, the voice of my boss. I looked at my watch. Ten o’clock.
‘No,’ I said unnecessarily. He knew I wasn’t going away. I didn’t understand his relief. It was missing when he spoke again.
‘How about a day on the river?’
He had a motor cruiser somewhere on the upper Thames. I’d never seen it. Hadn’t been asked before.
‘Invitation or order?’ I said, yawning.
He hesitated. ‘Whichever you’ll accept.’
What a man. You did more for him than you believed you would, every time.
‘Where do I go, and when?’
‘My daughter will fetch you,’ he said. ‘She’ll be there in about half an hour. Family party. Boating clothes. Come as you are.’
‘Sure,’ I said. Complete with stubble, Luger, and shorts. A riot. I never wore pyjamas. They slowed you up too much.
Boating clothes, I decided, were greyish brown cotton trousers and an olive green nylon jersey shirt. I carried the Luger with me in the left hand pocket when the doorbell rang. One never really knew. But a look through the wide-angled spyhole showed it was only Keeble’s daughter, as arranged. I opened up.
‘Mr Hawkins?’ she said hesitantly, looking from me to the dingy brass six screwed on to the solid dark stained wood.
‘That’s right,’ I smiled. ‘Come in.’
She walked past me and I shut the door, interested to notice that four flights of stairs hadn’t left her breathless, as they did most visitors. I lived high up for that purpose.
‘I was just finishing my coffee,’ I said. ‘Would you like some?’
‘It’s very kind of you, but Daddy said not to waste time, he wants to be off up river as soon as possible.’
Keeble’s daughter was just like her photograph on Daddy’s desk. Half woman, still at school. Short bouncy dark hair, and watchful dark eyes, a rounded body slimming down, a self-possessed touch-me-not expression, and an endearing gaucheness in her present situation.
She looked cautiously round the sitting room, which neither she nor I nor anyone else would have classed as elegant living. The landlord’s furniture was junkshop stuff and I had made no effort to improve it. My total contributions to the scene were two rows of books on the shelves and in one corner a tin trunk of oddments which I had never bothered to unpack. A drawn back curtain revealed the kitchen alcove and its entire contents: cupboard, refrigerator, sink, and cooker, all of them showing their age.
One went through the sitting room to the bedroom, through the bedroom to the bathroom, and through the bathroom to the fire escape. The flat had everything but a drawbridge and a moat, and it had taken me weeks to find it. Only the tiny spyglass had been lacking, and the landlord had been furious when he finally noticed I had installed it. It had cost me three months’ rent in advance to convince him it wasn’t there for the sole purpose of being out when he came.
I watched Keeble’s daughter search for something nice to say about my living quarters and give up the struggle with a defeated shake of her young head. I could have told her that I had once had a better flat, a spacious comfortable first-floor front with a balcony overlooking a tree-dotted square. It had proved too accessible to unwanted guests. I had vacated it on a stretcher.
‘I’ll fetch my jacket,’ I said, finishing the coffee. ‘And then we’ll go.’
She nodded, looking relieved, oppressed already by the emptiness of my home life. Five minutes of it had been enough, for her.
I went into the bedroom, picked the jacket off the bed, and transferred the Luger from my trousers into its built-in under-arm holster, fastening it there with a press stud on a strap. Then, coat over arm, I dumped the dirty coffee cup in the sink, pulled the curtain across the kitchen, opened the front door, and let myself and Miss Keeble out.
Four uneventful storeys down we emerged into the quiet sunlit Putney street, and she looked back and up at the solid old converted house. It needed paint and oozed respectability, exactly like its row
‘I wasn’t sure I’d come to the right place. Daddy just said the fourth house along.’
‘He gives me a lift home, sometimes.’
‘Yes, he said so.’ She turned to the white Austin standing at the kerb and paused with the key in her hand. ‘Do you mind if I drive?’
‘Of course not.’
She smiled for the first time since she’d arrived, a quick flashing affair which verged on friendliness. She unlocked her door, climbed in, and reached over to unlatch the opposite one for me. The first thing I noticed as I bent to get in were the L plates lying on the back seat.
‘When did you pass the test?’ I said mildly.
‘Well …’ the smile lingered, ‘as a matter of fact, yesterday.’
For all that, she drove very well, careful but confident, quiet with the gears though a bit heavy with the hand signals. She crept somewhat tentatively around the Chiswick roundabout and up the slope to the M4. The big blue motorway sign said no L drivers, and her nose twitched mischievously as we passed it.
‘Did you come this way to fetch me?’ I asked idly.
She edged into the slow lane and hit forty.
‘Er, no. I live in a hostel with about sixty other girls in South Ken. Daddy just rang me and said as I’d got the car up in London this weekend I could collect you and meet him in Henley. Sort of spur of the moment thing.’
We came to the end of the fifty mile an hour limit and her foot went down with determination.
‘Do I scare you?’ The needle quivered on sixty-five.
I smiled wryly. ‘No.’
‘Actually …’ Her hands gripped the wheel with the tension of inexperience. ‘Actually, you don’t look as if you’d scare easily.’
I glanced at her in surprise. I look ordinary. Quiet and ordinary. And very useful it is, too.
‘Anyway,’ she went on frankly, ‘I asked Daddy about coming this way, and he said he guessed your nerves would stand it. He seemed to find it very funny, for some reason or other.’
‘He has his own brand of humour.’
‘Mm.’ She drove on for several miles in silence, concentrating on the road. The speed dropped slowly down to fifty again, and I guessed she was finding the motorway not such pure fun as she’d imagined. The usual number of Sunday Jim Clarks were showing off in the fast lane and family outings with Grandma driving from the back seat were bumbling about in the slow. We went down the centre and pulled out bravely now and then to pass an airport bus.
Eventually, in thinner traffic after Windsor, she said, doubtfully, ‘You do … er … work for Daddy?’
‘Yes. Why not?’
‘Well, no reason why not. I mean,’ she looked embarrassed, ‘I mean, I can’t remember him ever asking anyone from work … well, he just doesn’t usually, that’s all.’ She looked as if she wished she hadn’t started.
‘A kind thought,’ I suggested; and wondered what he wanted. Not just to give me a sunny day out. As his daughter said, he didn’t do that sort of thing.
We made it to Henley with the paint intact, and she parked neatly in a large gravelled enclosure by the railway station. Her hands trembled slightly as she locked the doors, and I realized that it must have been her longest drive, as well as her fastest.
‘You drove beautifully,’ I said sincerely. ‘Like a veteran.’
‘Oh.’ She gave a laugh which was half a cough, and looked relieved and pleased. ‘Well, thank you.’ She would be more relaxed, I knew, on the way back, and less strung up when she got there. To give and to remove confidence were tools of my trade, and there was no union to say I couldn’t use them on Sundays.
‘Flying Linnet… that’s our boat … will be somewhere along the bank,’ she said. ‘It isn’t far.’ She smiled again and gestured, ‘That way.’
We walked down to the river and along the neatly built broad tarmac towpath, where half the town seemed to be out feeding the ducks. The sun sparkled on the dark green water and there was a queue at the boatyard for rowing boats and punts. There were gardens and lawns and seats, and a bowling green, and a playground with a slide and swings, all of them sprinkled with sunny Sunday faces and murmuring summer voices. Families and couples and groups: few alone. Three weeks alone, I thought bleakly. I could spend them beside the deep green river feeding ducks, and just jump in when I couldn’t stand any more of it.
‘There’s Daddy,’ said Keeble’s daughter, pointing. The sun lay along her light brown arm and shifted in burnt toffee shadows on the curves of her orange tan dress. Too young for me, I thought inconsequentially. Or rather, I was too old. Aeons too old. Forty still lay a couple of years ahead, but I could have told Methuselah a thing or two.
Keeble had stepped ashore from one of the boats moored top to tail along the towpath and was walking towards us, hand outstretched, welcoming smile in face. My boss, except for an open-necked shirt, looked his usual weekday self, a short slightly chubby man with a mild manner and a faintly anxious expression. The light blue-grey eyes blinked freely as usual behind the unimpressive spectacles and as usual he had missed a patch while shaving. Premature baldness had made him look fifty at thirty-five, but far from regretting this, he believed it was the cause of his rapid promotion over well-thatched contemporaries. He may have been right. He looked harmless, cautious, unambitious, one of nature’s safest plodders. It was eight years since he had inherited me along with the rest of the setup, and to discern the cutting brain behind the waffle had taken me two minutes flat.
‘Gene,’ he said. ‘Glad you could come.’ He pumped my hand up and down perfunctorily, the social gesture as meaningless to him as to me, and we exchanged smiles to match. For his daughter the warmth came from the heart. She kissed him affectionately on the cheek and his eyes held a glimmering pride I had never seen in him before.
‘Well, Lynnie my love, you got here safely. Or did you let Gene do the driving?’
‘Do me a favour,’ she said. ‘He didn’t even flinch.’
Keeble flicked me an amused glance, and I repeated the compliment to her skill, with her father nodding his thanks to me over her head, knowing exactly why I said it.
They turned and began to walk back along the path, gesturing to me to come. Keeble’s boat, the one they stopped at, was a graceful neat-looking fibre-glass cruiser with a cabin forward and a large open cockpit at the back, the decks spotless and the chromium shining. Sitting casually side by side on the pale blue plastic upholstery were a man and a woman, both of whom raised smiling faces at our approach and neither of whom got up.
Lynnie jumped down into the boat and kissed the woman, and Keeble stepped carefully after.
‘Come aboard,’ he said to me, and again in his tone there was a choice. An invitation or an order, whichever I would accept. I opted for the invitation, and embarked on more than the Flying Linnet.
‘My wife Joan,’ said Keeble, stretching a hand to the seated woman. ‘Gene Hawkins, honey.’
Joan Keeble was a frail birdlike woman with a coyness of manner left over from the time when she was pretty. She twinkled her eyes at me, inviting admiration. I scraped some up, and exchanged the necessary platitudes about weather, boating and driving daughters. Keeble waded into this with a wave towards the man sitting beside her.
‘You two haven’t met …’ he hesitated a fraction. ‘Dave … Gene, this is Dave Teller.’
Teller stood up, shook hands economically, and said he was glad to know me. He wore a sloppy wrinkled pale blue shirt hanging out over patched cotton trousers, battered plimsolls on his feet, and a dirty old baseball cap on his head. American, well educated, prosperous, assured: the categories clicked over from habit in my assessing mind. Also he was a lean man nearing fifty, with a strong beaky nose, straightforward eyes, and a marvellous dentist.
Keeble offered no information beyond that bald introduction, but bustled about getting his ship ready to put to sea. His yell into the cabin for a certain Peter to come and help
‘Peter,’ his father yelled.
Peter heaved a martyred sigh, scrambled the back of the camera shut, and went out past me with his eyes down and his fingers winding the knob. Surefooted, he stepped without looking on to the narrow side of the boat and from there to the towpath.
‘He’ll fall in one day,’ Lynnie said to the world in general. Her brother didn’t even hear. Still concentrating on his camera with one hand he was slowly untying the rope from the mooring ring with the other, crouching down on the tarmac in his clean black jeans and getting up with two large dusty patches on the knees. Pointing his viewfinder at a passing formation of ducks he clicked the shutter and with a serious, absorbed expression wound on the film.
Farther up the path Keeble and Teller were undoing the bow rope, talking amicably in the sun. Lynnie and her mother straightened the cushions and coiled the ropes and fussed around over a lot of nothing, chatting trivialities. I wondered what the hell I was doing there and felt out of contact with everything around me. Not a new feeling, but recurring more often. The two levels of living were growing farther apart. The day-to-day social level had lost all meaning, and underneath, where there should have been rock, had opened a void of shrivelling loneliness. It was getting worse. The present was bad enough: the future an abyss. Only work brought my splintering self into any sort of whole, and I knew well enough that it was the work itself which had started the process. That and Caroline. Or, to be more accurate, Caroline’s husband.
‘I say, hold this rope, will you?’ Peter said. I took the wet snake he offered. ‘Hi,’ he added, seeing me properly for the first time, ‘Who are you?’
‘Anybody’s guess,’ I said with more truth than sense, and his mother stared at me with astonishment and told him my name.
Keeble came back on board and started the engine. Teller stood up on the small forward deck and cast off the bow rope when Keeble told him, and Peter left it until almost too late to leap on board with the stern. The camera bounced on the cord round his neck. ‘Birthday present from Gran,’ he said to Lynnie with pride. ‘Super, isn’t it.’
Blood Sport by Dick Francis / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes