FROM Driving Force by Dick Francis
The bell by the back door rang as I was heating up left-over beef stew for a fairly boring supper, consequence of living alone, and with barely a sigh and no premonition I switched off the hotplate, put the saucepan to one side and went to see who had come. Friends tended to enter at once while yelling my name, as the door was seldom locked. Employees mostly knocked first and entered next, still with little ceremony. Only strangers rang the bell and waited.
This time it was different. This time when I opened the door the light from inside the house fell yellowly on the stretched scared eyes of two of the men who worked for me, who stood uncomfortably on the doormat shifting from foot to foot, agonisedly and obviously expectant of wrath to come.
My own response to these clear signals of disaster was the familiar adrenaline rush of alarm that no amount of dealing with earlier crises could prevent. The old pump quickened. My voice came out high.
‘What’s the matter?’ I said. ‘What happened?’
I glanced over their shoulders. The bulk of one of the two largest in my fleet of horseboxes stood reassuringly in the shadows out on the tarmacked parking area, the house lights raising gleams along its silvery flank. At least they hadn’t run it into a ditch: at least they’d brought it home. All else had to be secondary.
‘Look, Freddie,’ Dave Yates said, a defensive whine developing, ‘it’s not our fault.’
‘This four-eyes we picked up—’
The younger one said, ‘I told you we shouldn’t, Dave.’
In him the anxiety whine was already full-blown, since wriggling out of blame was his familiar habit. He, Brett Gardner, already on my list for the chop, had been hired for his muscles and his mechanical know-how, the whining nature at first unsuspected. His three months’ trial period was almost up, and I wouldn’t be making him permanent.
He was a competent watchful driver. I’d trusted him from the start with my biggest and most expensive wagons but I’d had requests from several good customers not to send him to transport their horses to the races, as he tended to sow his own dissatisfactions like a virus. Stable lads travelling with him went home incubating grouses, to their employers’ irritation.
‘It wasn’t as if we had any horses on board,’ Dave Yates was saying, trying to placate. ‘Just Brett and me.’
I’d told all the drivers over and over that picking up hitchhikers while there were horses on board invalidated the insurance. I told them I’d sack any of them instantly if they did that. I’d also told them never, ever, to give any lifts at all to anyone, even if the box was empty of horses, and even if they knew the lift-begger personally. No, Freddie, of course not, they’d said seriously; and now I wondered just how often they’d disobeyed me.
‘What about the four-eyes?’ I said, my annoyance obvious. ‘What’s actually the matter?’
Dave said desperately, ‘He’s dead.’
Mystery novelist and former jockey Dick Francis died leaving behind forty-one bestselling novels.
During his career as a jockey, Francis won 350 races. He began writing suspenseful crime novels set in the world of horse racing. The novelist won the Mystery Writer of America’s prestigious Edgar Award for Best Novel three times: for Forfeit in 1970, Whip Hand in 1981, and Come to Grief in 1996.
He will be sorely missed by mystery fans everywhere.