Whittaker Prize Round 5 story

Friday, 15 August 2008

(prompt: I’m not as dumb as you look)

GOING TO THE DOGS

I knew trouble the second I clapped eyes on it.

“Gordon H Bennett,” I says to Kevin when I saw the lad in the back seat of Kevin’s red Peugeot. “What’s he doing here? Riding shotgun?”

I couldn’t see the lad’s face. He had his head down so all I could see was a lot of grey hood. And his kecks. They were them baggy kecks, the ones with pockets in the legs, the kind that make them look like they didn’t make it to the shithouse when they walk, you know what I mean? He had one of them games that makes a lot of bleeps and whizzes and his hands were dancing over it like John Travolta in that old flick, what was it, Saturday Night Fever.

“Leave him be, Tel,” Kevin says. “This is Carl, our Sal’s little brother. She wants him out of her hair tonight”

“You pillock, Kev,” I says, “We’re doing business tonight. We don’t want nothing getting in the way. One slip and we’re toast.”

“He’ll be ok Tel,” Kevin says, “we just put him in front of the fruits and he’ll be as good as gold.”

“You hear that, Carl?” I says to the lad. “you stay out of the way and keep your nose clean, you hear?”

The lad didn’t move. Except his fingers, working away at the game. They were just a blur. Spooked me out they did, specially with all the bleeps.

“I said…” I started to say but then Kev gets uppity.

“It’s no good.” says Kev, ” he can’t hear you, he’s deaf.”

“What? A mutt?” I says. Kev leans over and taps Carl on the shoulder, and then the two of them are wagging their fingers at each other like a pair of tic-tac men only five times faster. I could see the lad’s face now, fresh as an April morning at Sandown Park before the bookies come and spoil it. I don’t know what the two of them were saying but it was bloody noisy. That sounds daft doesn’t it, neither of them made a sound but there was a lot of it, if you see what I mean, and the lad grinned and nodded a lot.”

“Here,” I says, “you’d better not be pulling a fast one Kev or both of you will be keeping the worms company tonight. What you say to him?”

“I said he could have a tenner to play the fruits or have a bet if he stays out of the way.” says Kev. “He’ll not be a problem.” I didn’t like it but we’d got too much staked on the business to stop there and then.

Anyway, Kev and me we get a stakeout by the window in the bar so we can clock what’s going on. And keep a special eye on Ted Danby’s pitch by the track. Rather him than me, standing out there with his trilby and his shiny mac calling the odds in the rain. Great stair rods, they were, shining in the track lights and hammering on the tin roof of the bar. It was a fine night for a conspiracy. Ours wouldn’t be the only business in town. But stick to the plan, keep a close watch on Ted Danby and don’t let anything distract you. That’s the only way to do it.

I have to keep half an eye on the lad Carl though. He was happy enough in the corner. He seemed close to the machine, hugging it to his jacket so that boy and machine seemed to become one. Every now and then the machine had a spasm of polite coughing. “Magic fingers, that Carl has,” I says to Kev. “We could bring him into the partnership one day.”

“He’s got a way with fruits, Tel, I think he fixes them. He’s not so dumb as you look,” says Kev.

I let that pass for now. The reckoning could wait. “Shut up and don’t take your eyes off Danby,” I says.

The Tannoy crackles out the call for the fifth race. Outside kennelmaids in Dayglo waterproofs parade their charges before the punters and lead them to the traps. One of those strange moments you get at dog tracks. It’s hard to describe. Nothing much changes and everything does. The level of chat in the bar doesn’t get louder or quieter, but it changes somehow. It’s more focused. And everybody turns to the window, everybody except the ones who are pouring into the rain regardless to see the action. For a few seconds the air is charged with electricity, and then the hare comes by and the traps rattle open and there are six dogs in pursuit. Christ, they’re beautiful, them dogs, when they’re running. Such grace! Such power! Fair makes me want to go straight when I see them like that.

But it’s only for a few seconds, thank Christ. Just as long as it takes for the dogs to go round the track a couple of times and then they have to be sorted out by their kennelmaids like the rabble they are. Mugs, they are, just like the punters. If they had any brains they’d cut across the track instead of chasing the hair round in circles. Cut the corners, grab your chances, that’s the only way to survive in this life.

The machine in the corner’s standing alone. “Where the fuck’s Carl?” I says, “Aren’t you watching him? I don’t trust him.”

“You said watch Danby. I ain’t got eyes in the back of my fucking head.” That Kevin’s getting a bit lippy if you ask me. But then he says “There he is, over there by the window.” And so he is. The punters are all going back to their drinks now that the race is over. But the lad’s still standing there, staring out into the night, at nothing. Well I couldn’t see much. Nobody with any sense was out in the open, except for two guys on the grass in the middle, huddled under umbrellas having some kind of a pow-wow. Trainers, owners maybe. Nobody I knew, none of the local business types, I know all about them. You don’t get business outsiders, not at a little track like this one.

So Danby’s chalking up the odds for the last race and I’m trying to watch every twitch he makes as well as watching Kevin to make sure he’s watching too. And so I don’t see the lad Carl go anywhere. All I know is suddenly he’s not at his post watching the guys in the middle any more, mainly because those guys aren’t there any more either, and he’s not standing at the fruit machine either, and try as I might I can’t see him anywhere and I don’t feel safe. So I says to Kevin, “Stay there and watch Danby cause I’m going looking for the lad. And I goes out into the rain, see, to rub shoulders with the punters chasing their crocks of gold like the mugs they are. Only the bookies ever win, but one bookie that night was going to get unlucky.

And then I sees Carl and where is he? He’s over by Ted Danby’s pitch and he’s waving his hands at the blackboard. This looks like a bad accident in the making so I ambles over so see what the lad’s up to. What he’s up to is grunting at Ted and pointing at a name on the board. Number five, ‘Proper Charlie’, it was, and the mutt probably was one if the odds on offer were anything to go by. “Don’t be daft,” I says to him as I pass, “that’s not a dog, that’s a malnourished donkey.” But of course he can’t hear me. “Well, it’s your money and it’s your funeral,” I says as I sidle off. Besides, we’d get the money back later. When I look back Carl is scooping handfuls of coins into a bag Danby is holding out for him.

Well, you know how word spreads in these places. The next time I pass Danby’s board the odds against Proper Charlie have shortened like a bishop’s plonker in a vice-squad bust. It’s the same all the way down the line of bookies. Something’s up, I thinks to myself, but I don’t worry too much because there are other things on my mind, so I go back to find Kevin, and to relief all round Carl’s back in the corner with the fruit machine where I can keep an eye on him.

But something’s making me want to keep an eye on that last race because there’s something afoot and I don’t want anything spoiling my evening. As the dogs streak by the stand on the first lap, Proper Charlie is lagging but he doesn’t look like an unhappy dog. Biding his time, more like, waiting for his chance. On lap two Proper Charlie is making his way through the pack, and by the finish he’s a couple of lengths clear. So that was it. A ringer.

Did Carl know something? Surely not. And yet there he was, the first to Danby’s pitch to collect, and Danby is peeling off rolls of smackers and giving them to him. But Danby doesn’t look happy, and neither does anybody else. And then it’s merry mayhem out there.

I nudge Kevin. “Go go go,” I whispers. We use the cover of a bunch of punters who know something’s hit them but don’t know what yet to move darkly amongst the pitches and up behind Danby. A quick check for Danby’s reckoner, who is busy with an angry punter, and then no words are necessary. Something hard pressed to the base of Danby’s spine is all Danby needs to tell him what’s required of him. Kevin’s got the boltcutters out and back up his sleeve again before you can say “steward’s enquiry” and the satchel is safe in his hands as that pressure on Danby’s spine gives him time to slide off through the crowd again.

It was just perfect. I couldn’t have planned it that way, and by the time Kevin is out of site the stadium is filling with sirens and blue lights that catch the slanting rain along with the undivided attention of the punters. I push my way towards the exit and then remember that Carl is somewhere around and he’s turning out to be a bloody liability after all. Where would he go? Back in the bar; he couldn’t keep away from those fruits could he? So I runs up the steps as best I can with all those punters coming down towards me, and I pushes my way into the building. There’s no Carl there, but there is a posse of dibbles, and it’s me they’re after.

Carl stood bail. He could afford to, he was the only one who cleaned up that night in the end. The dibbles spoke to Kevin and let him go, nothing to pin on him. Don’t ask me what he did with Danby’s satchel and a pair of boltcutters in the garage is just a pair of boltcutters in the absence of any other evidence. I was all for having his bollocks on toast for my breakfast but then he pointed out that it wasn’t clever to get on the wrong side of Carl in my current predicament.

“But how did he do it, Kev?” I asked.

“He knows how to fix a fruit machine,” says Kev. “And then he stakes the proceeds on an alleged no-hoper in the last race while he could get good odds. Simple, really.”

That didn’t even begin to satisfy. “That’s all well and good,” I says, “but how did he know Proper Charlie wasn’t a hopeless case?”

“A couple of men told him,” Kevin says.

I remembered the two guys on the grass in the middle of the track, in the rain. With umbrellas. They must have thought nobody could possible hear them out there. And inside my head somewhere, a fruit machine coughed a single penny into the tray.

“The little sod can lip-read!” I says.

“I told you our Carl wasn’t daft,” says Kevin.

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