Rat Race - By Dick Francis
I picked four of them up at White Waltham in the new Cherokee Six 300 that never got a chance to grow old. The pale blue upholstery still had a new leather smell and there wasn’t a scratch on the glossy white fuselage. A nice little aeroplane, while it lasted.
They had ordered me for noon but they were already in the bar when I landed at eleven forty. Three double whiskies and a lemonade.
Identification was easy: several chairs round a small table were draped with four lightweight raincoats, three binocular cases, two copies of the Sporting Life and one very small racing saddle. The four passengers were standing nearby in the sort of spread-about group indicative of people thrown together by business rather than natural friendship. They were not talking to each other, though it looked as though they had been. One, a large man, had a face full of anger. The smallest, evidently a jockey, was flushed and rigid. The two others, an elderly man and a middle-aged woman, were steadfastly staring at nothing in particular in the way that meant a lot of furious activity was going on inside their heads.
I walked towards the four of them across the large lounge reception room and spoke to an indeterminate spot in mid air.
The elderly man, who said ‘Yes?’, had been made a Major a good long time ago. Nearer seventy than sixty; but still with a tough little body, wiry little moustache, sharp little eyes. He had thin salt-and-pepper hair brushed sideways across a balding crown and he carried his head stiffly, with his chin tucked back into his neck. Tense: very tense. And wary, looking at the world with suspicion.
He wore a lightweight speckled fawn suit vaguely reminiscent in cut of his military origins, and unlike the others had not parked his binoculars but wore them with the strap diagonally across his chest and the case facing forwards on his stomach, like a sporran. Club badges of metal and coloured cardboard hung in thick clusters at each side.
‘Your aeroplane is here, Major,’ I said. ‘I’m Matt Shore… I’m flying you.’
He glanced over my shoulder, looking for someone else.
‘Where’s Larry?’ he asked abruptly.
‘He left,’ I said. ‘He got a job in Turkey.’
The Major’s gaze came back from the search with a click. ‘You’re new,’ he said accusingly.
‘Yes,’ I agreed.
‘I hope you know the way.’
He meant it seriously. I said politely, ‘I’ll do my best.’
The second of the passengers, the woman on the major’s left said flatly, ‘The last time I flew to the races, the pilot got lost.’
I looked at her, giving her my best approximation to a confidence-boosting smile. ‘The weather’s good enough today not to have any fear of it.’
It wasn’t true. There were cu-nims forecast for the June afternoon. And anyone can get lost any time if enough goes wrong. The woman gave me a disillusioned stare and I stopped wasting my confidence builder. She didn’t need it. She had all the confidence in the world. She was fifty and fragile looking, with greying hair cut in a straight-across fringe and a jaw-length bob. There were two mild brown eyes under heavy dark eyebrows and a mouth that looked gentle; yet she held herself and behaved with the easy authority of a much higher command than the Major’s. She was the only one of the group not outwardly ruffled.
The Major had been looking at his watch. ‘You’re early,’ he said. ‘We’ve got time for the other half.’ He turned to the barman and ordered refills, and as an afterthought said to me, ‘Something for you?’
I shook my head. ‘No, thank you.’
The woman said indifferently, ‘No alcohol for eight hours before a flight. Isn’t that the rule?’
‘More or less,’ I agreed.
The third passenger, the large angry looking man, morosely watched the barman push the measure up twice on the Johnnie Walker. ‘Eight hours. Good God,’ he said. He looked as if eight hours seldom passed for him without topping up. The bulbous nose, the purple thread veins on his cheeks, the swelling paunch, they had all cost a lot in Excise duty.
The atmosphere I had walked into slowly subsided. The jockey sipped his low calorie lemonade, and the bright pink flush faded from his cheek bones and came out in fainter mottles on his neck. He seemed about twenty-one or two, reddish haired, with a naturally small frame and a moist looking skin. Few weight problems, I thought. No dehydration. Fortunate for him.
The Major and his