Gene Hawkins
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Extract From Blood Sport


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.


'Uh huh.'

'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 junk-shop 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 of neighbours.

'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.'

'I see.'

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 produced no results. I stuck my head through the door and saw a boy of about twelve engrossed in fitting a new roll of film into a small simple camera.

'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. Sure-footed, 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.'

'You'll drop it in the river, if you aren't careful.'

'This is only my second film. I used the first one up on the boys at school. Do you think those ducks will come out all right?'

'I expect you had your finger over the shutter.'

'I've got a book in there.' He nodded to the cabin, expertly sifting out the affection behind her sarcasm and showing no resentment. 'It tells you about exposures and focuses. I think I'll just check what it says about sunny days. It was cloudy dull all week at school.'

I don't belong here, I thought. I wished I were asleep.

The Flying Linnet nosed upstream through a scatter of row-boats, Keeble at the wheel, Teller sitting forward still on the cabin roof, and Peter trying to get past Lynnie teasing him in the cabin doorway. Joan Keeble sat down on the wide seat across the back and patted the place next to her for me to join her. With an effort I did so, but after a minute or two, in the middle of apparently idle hostessy chat, she pulled me back to attention by trying delicately to find out who I was and why I had been invited, while not wanting to have me realize that she didn't know.

I could play that sort of game for ever. Inference on inference. I didn't know the answer to why was I there, but that she needed to ask it, that indeed she had asked it, told me a great deal about non-contact between Keeble and his wife, and opened new doors on to Keeble himself. I knew then why he'd never before asked me home. It was one thing to employ a microscope, but another to put oneself under the lens. I thought it all the odder that he'd done it now.

As if he could feel my mind on the back of his neck he turned round and said, 'The lock's just ahead.' I stood up and joined him, and Peter gave up his struggle and went back to his duty with the stern rope.

'Marsh Lock,' Lynnie said, standing beside me and looking forward through the windscreen. 'Not an easy one, from this side, going upstream.'

When we got nearer I saw what she meant. The broad stretch of river narrowed abruptly to the lock gates on the left and the weir on the right, alongside. Baby whirlpools and trails of bubbles met us fifty yards away, with larger eddies and convolutions bubbling up as we went on. The boat tended to swing sideways under their power, and Keeble spun the wheel rapidly to keep her straight. Ahead of us water in tons tumbled over the weir, green and brown and splashing white, thundering down in great curving leaps, smelling of mustiness and mud.

A low wooden wall divided the lock approach from the turbulent weir water, and to the calm side of the barrier Keeble neatly steered his boat. Teller standing at the bow threw his rope over the hook on a mooring post there, and Peter slung a loop over a bollard at the stern.

I looked idly over the side of the boat, over the wall, up to the weir. Bouncing, tumbling, foaming, sweeping away back into the width of the river, the rough water looked superb in the sun. I felt the warmth and the fine spray mixed on my face and wondered whether if someone fell in there, he would ever come up.

The lock gates opened, the downcoming boats chugged out, and the Flying Linnet went in. Teller and Peter did their stuff mooring us to the side and Peter took a photograph of the boat in the lock. Water surged through the sluices in the upper gates, lifting us up, and in ten minutes we were going out of the lock on to another broad calm stretch of river, six feet higher than the one below.

'There are fifty locks on the Thames,' Keeble said. 'Lechlade is as far up as you can go except in a rowing boat, and that's about 300 feet above sea level.'

'Quite a staircase,' I commented.

'The Victorians,' he nodded, 'were a brilliant lot. They built them.'

Teller stood up on the foredeck holding the coil of rope, the peak of his baseball cap pointing forward like an attentive bird. I watched him, speculating, and Keeble followed the direction of my eyes and gave me only silence to work on.

Less than half a mile upstream from the lock we made an obviously pre-arranged stop at a riverside pub, Teller jumping ashore with his rope and fending the boat off the concrete edges as we drifted towards it. He and Peter tied expert knots, and everyone followed them ashore.

We drank sitting on a ring of uncomfortable metal chairs round a table with a sun umbrella spiked through its centre. Lynnie and Peter had Cokes and without consultation Keeble bought Scotch for the rest of us. Joan sipped hers with a pursed mouth and screwed eyes, as if it were a mite too strong for fragile little her, but I noticed she finished a long way first. Teller left his untouched for several minutes and then tossed it back in kingsized gulps. Keeble drank in pauses, revolving his glass in his hands and squinting through it at the sun. They were talking about the river, and other days on it, and other weather. On either side of us, round more umbrellas, sat more family parties much the same; Sunday morning drinks, Sunday lunch, Sunday snooze, Sunday Express, Sunday supper, Sunday Night at the London Palladium . . . safe little families in a sheltered routine, well-intentioned and more or less content. Even Keeble fitted in. Whereas I... was apart.

'Drink,' Keeble said. 'You're on holiday.'

Faced with instant sharp curiosity from the rest of his family I meekly picked up my glass, still full when theirs were empty. It felt wrong to drink in the morning; it raised sub-conscious bells of alarm. I liked the taste of alcohol all right, but couldn't afford its effects. Alcohol encouraged you to put your trust in luck, and I was better off trusting a clear head. Consequently I sometimes didn't touch the stuff for weeks on end, and on that morning had had none for nearly a month.

Keeble watched me swallow the whisky, as vivid and familiar as a long-lost friend. The extent to which I was ever on holiday lay in the jacket across my knees, a pound of deadly mechanism in an under-arm holster; but it did seem most unlikely that I would need it on the Thames. When Teller ordered a refill, I drank that too. And then, since it was my turn, a third.

Peter lasted the course to three Cokes, and then wandered away with his camera poised, looking for excuses to use it. Next door a boatyard, like the one at Henley, was doing a roaring trade in punts. Four of the pub's more enthusiastic customers were having trouble stepping aboard, and Teller said chuckling, 'What's the fine for punting under the influence...?'

'A soaking,' Lynnie said. 'Silly nits.'

The punt pole waved recklessly as they set off, but the four men didn't fall in. The punt skidded ten feet up the river and hit the pub's landing stage with a thump that tumbled them into a leg-waving heap. I tried to laugh with everyone else and only succeeded in feeling more remote than ever.

We finished the drinks, re-embarked, and went up through the next lock, Harbour, to an unpopulated green-pasture stretch of river, where we moored for lunch. Peter swam, jumping off the boat repeatedly in glittering splashes, and Lynnie helped her mother in the cabin, preparing the food. Teller sprawled lazily on the back seat, and Keeble sat down with a Sunday newspaper and unfolded it, and I wearily began to wonder just when he would come to the point.

The point, however, was the newspaper. We had arrived.

'Read that,' he said, tapping a small paragraph on an inside page.

I read it.

'There is still no sign of Chrysalis, free in Kentucky, US, since Tuesday. Anxiety mounts for the safety of the £500,000 stallion, sire of this year's Derby winner, Moth.'

'Is this what you mean?' I asked, puzzled, making sure I'd read the right section. I had. He nodded vigorously.

'Didn't you know about it?' he asked.

'That Chrysalis had got lost? Yes, I suppose so. It was on all the news bulletins on Wednesday.'

'And it didn't mean a damn thing to you,' Teller said, with a trace of controlled and civilized bitterness under his smile.


'I have a share in that horse,' Teller said. 'A one-eighth share, 200,000 dollars worth.'

'Wow,' I said blankly. It seemed a lot of money to invest in one-eighth of a horse.

'What is more,' he said, sighing, 'I have spent all of last month negotiating the sale, and was lucky to beat out another syndicate that was bidding for him. And now as soon as he gets over there, this has to happen.'

'I'm sorry,' I said, conventionally polite.

'I can't expect you to understand.' He shook his head, excusingly. 'It isn't the money which matters, it's the horse. He's irreplaceable.'

'They'll find him.' I had no doubts of it, and I didn't care one way or the other.

'I am not so sure,' he said. 'And I would like you to get out there and look for him.'

For five seconds no one twitched a muscle, least of all me. Then Teller turned his head to Keeble and smiled his glossy smile. 'I wouldn't play poker with him,' he said. 'OK, I'll buy what you say about him being all that good.'

I glanced at Keeble and he gave me raised eyebrows, a tiny shrug, and a slightly embarrassed expression. I wondered just how complete his testimonial had been.

Teller turned back to me. 'Sim here and I, we were in the same business, way back in World War II.'

'I see,' I said. And I did see. Quite a lot.

'It was just a war job for me, though,' he said. 'I got out of the Army in '47 and went back home to Pappy, and a couple of years later he died and left me his racehorses and a few bucks on the side.' The beautiful teeth flashed.

I waited. The story had hardly begun.

After a pause he said, 'I'll pay your fare and expenses, of course, and a fee.'

'I don't hunt horses,' I protested mildly.

'I can guess what you hunt.' He glanced again at Keeble. 'Sim says you're on vacation.'

I didn't need reminding.

'Chrysalis', he said, 'is the third stallion of international status to have disappeared in the last ten years.'