A Horse Racing Novel
Dock picked up the telephone before it had completed its first ring. He was expecting J.P.'s call with the results of the day's racing card. There was that click again, like someone picking up an extension. It was the same little noise that he had been hearing when he would place a call. He studied and listened, but there was only the faint hum of the phone.
It was J.P.'s voice that broke the silence. "Dock, you there?"
"Yeah, I'm here," Dock replied. "Are you at a pay phone?"
"Yeah, the one by the corner of the barn."
"Give me that number. I'll call you back."
"Well, it's five, five, six, forty-two, seventy-three. You gonna call right back?"
"Yeah. You just wait there."
"Are you OK, Dock? Nothing wrong, is there?"
"No, and I'm all right," Dock replied hesitantly. "It's just that I, well, I've got an urgent call to the bathroom. I'll call you back in a few minutes," he said hurriedly.
Dock held the line open after J.P. hung up. There was a soft click, then the hum. He placed the receiver in its cradle, walked into the bathroom, waited a few minutes then flushed the commode. He walked softly across the room, let himself out the door then eased it shut behind him. He walked down the long hallway to the row of pay phones in the lobby. He deposited a quarter and dialed the number J.P. had given him.
No mention was made of Dock's rather unusual behavior, so he figured J.P. had accepted the bathroom story. After reporting on Paragon, J.P. told Dock that Sonny had ridden Shoemaker's Dandy to place in the second race, but drove in the field in the fifth.
"Sonny came in last on Gay Blade?" Dock questioned. "What happened? Last I knew that horse was figured for an easy win."
"That's right," J.P. replied. "He went in at three to two. He had trouble coming out of the gate. Tripped an' damned near went down."
"Damn!" Dock exclaimed. "Did Sonny get hurt?"
"No, but he sure could have. If they'd gone plumb down, Sonny would have been thrown right underneath the number five horse. But luckily, he was able to pick the horse up before it fell. After they got straightened out, Sonny laid the bat on an' they come aflyin'. But there was no way, in two furlongs, that he could catch up. I talked to Sonny after the race. He says he thinks the gate handler did something to throw the horse off balance just as the gate opened. Who knows?" J.P. said.
"Who was holdin' the horse's head?" Dock asked.
"Some fellow I don't know," J.P. replied.
"You reckon somebody got to him?" Dock asked.
"It happens," J.P. said.
"Who would you suspect, in this instance?" Dock asked.
"Well," J.P. responded. "Could have been any number of people. Maybe someone didn't want Gay Blade to win. The number eight horse, Handsome Jet, won and paid thirty-three dollars. Somebody could have had a bundle ridin' on it. Then again Dock, it could have been somebody wanting Gay Blade to either stumble or get bumped, and maybe go down; setting Sonny up for a nasty fall."
"That's the thought that bothers me," Dock said. "That's all we'd need is to have Sonny out of commission on Sunday. I've been concerned about that but didn't feel like I could ask him to lay off other mounts just for us. I sure as hell wouldn't feel very good with a new jockey on Paragon. I thing that'd be a helluva handicap, here at the last minute. I was relieved when you told me yesterday that you and Sonny had agreed he wouldn't ride after today so he'd be rested and ready for Sunday."
"Yeah, I agree," J.P. said. "A different jockey would be bad. Paragon knows Sonny. A stranger up would made a difference in his behavior. Anyway, Sonny was willing to lay off a day. And when you consider his cut of a futurity purse you can understand why he figures it's to his advantage, as well as ours.
"I'll canter Paragon on the track tomorrow morning," J.P. continued, "then on Sunday morning we can put him on the walker for a spell. That ought to do."
"I thing he's fine-tuned and ready, don't you?" Dock asked.
"He's fine as frog hair, Dock. If we get beat Sunday it will be because he's up against a better horse."
"Or," Dock injected, "somebody bushwhacks us. I'm coming out to the track. Meet me at the barn in a few minutes." He hung the receiver on the bracket and hurried across the lobby toward the front entrance.
Dock drove the mile and a half from the motel to the horseman's entrance to the track with his thoughts centered on what to say to J.P. The man had spent most of his life around the track. He was accustomed to the shady things that were considered by track people as part of the industry. Maybe I'm making mountains out of mole hills, Dock thought; suspecting someone's got my phone bugged. Maybe I've been watching too much television. But what about Sonny's close call today? "Damned if I know," he exclaimed.
J.P. was sitting on the tack box in front of Paragon's stall watching Robert, his new stable boy, load the manger with timothy.
"Let's go get a cup of coffee," Dock suggested. "Lock the doors to the stall and tell Robert to stay here and keep an eye on things. We won't be gone long."
"Wait until I grain Paragon before we go," J.P. said.
"Don't you trust the boy to do that?" Dock asked.
"I don't trust nobody but you or me to feed him grain. I know exactly how much I want fed and when I want it fed. You know how important that is. And I check what I feed to be sure it's clean. Some of this stuff we get has ergot in it, or maybe you'll find..."
"Yeah, or maybe," Dock interrupted. "If somebody could pick the lock on your grain box and plant a whiskey bottle, then they sure as hell could get in and doctor the grain with arsenic, couldn't they?"
The abrupt interruption and the possible implication of censure in Dock's statement caused J.P. to turn and look at his boss, a frown of concern crossing his ruddy features. "You tryin' to make a point?" he asked.
"Let's talk while we're walkin'," Dock said. As they made their way along the path towards the track and grandstand area, Dock continued: "J.P., what would you say if I said I think my phone at the motel is bugged?"
"Your phone's bugged?" J.P. questioned.
Dock explained his reasoning. He described the noise that sounded like an extension and the fact that he knew the room on the other side of the wall with his phone jack was occupied because he could hear the toilet flush. Yet he never heard voices or saw anyone come or go from that room.
"Well," J.P. drawled as he slowly nodded his head, "it all adds up."
"What adds up?" Dock asked.
"I hadn't said anything to you," J.P. replied, "because I didn't want to worry you until I was sure of something. But...," he paused, his brow wrinkled in concentration and his eyes squinted as he marshaled his thoughts.
"But what?" Dock prompted.
"Well," J.P. continued, "I've noticed a fellow hanging around our barn area the past few days. And he's damned sure not a horseman. He tries to dress like he belongs, but shit, it's obvious that he's as counterfeit in his get up as I would be in a three-piece business suit. Then, since we win the Texas, every time we've run Paragon against the stopwatch I've seen this same dude watchin' from back in the shadows of the grandstand. I figure he's holding a clock on us."
"I saw him the other day," Dock said. "You introduced him to me a couple of days ago. His name's Wayne something-or-other. I remember because he was from Midland and claimed to know Patrick."
"That's Wayne Belcheff, the gambler. He's also been watching Paragon's workouts. I figure he's probably watchin' all the futurity nominees, trying to figure how he's gonna lay his bets. Wayne likes the edge when he puts his money down. I read Wayne. It's the other fellow, the stranger, who concerns me. What the hell's his angle?"
"Hmmm," Dock puzzled.
"I'll tell you something else," J.P. added. "Tommy came over to see me the other night. I was already asleep on my cot in front of the stall door. I'm a light sleeper but he sure slipped up on me. I never even knew he was there until I heard someone whisper my name. I damned near jumped out of my bedroll. Remember, Tommy used to say he got along so well with Paragon because they're both black as sin? It was dark as the inside of a well digger's pocket an' I sure couldn't see anybody. By God, I'll admit I was boogered there for a few seconds until Tommy spoke again." J.P. chuckled. "Anyway, Tommy said he needed to tell me a few things. You see, Dock, when he left us to go to work for Scavarda I asked him to keep his eyes and ears open. To let me know if he picked up anything that might concern us or Paragon.
"You know, Dock, Tommy wouldn't talk to me out there on the walkway. He was worried someone might come along an' see us together talking and the word get back to Scavarda. 'Them people are tough, J.P.,' he said. Then he went on to say that he'd heard bits and pieces of talk around that bunch concerning what he said they called 'that black stud.'"
"What kind of talk?" Dock asked.
"Well, Tommy said he heard Scavarda and Yeager talking about Wall Street. Marvin was telling the old man about Wall Street's track record an' about how he traced back to Leo an' what a hot bloodline he had. Then one time when Tommy was cleaning a stall and they didn't know he was there, Marvin was telling Scavarda what Paragon's speed index was. Tommy said he knew Marvin had a fellow keepin' a stop watch on Paragon whenever we had him on the track."
"Like you say, J.P., it's beginning to come together," Dock said. "We'd better get back to the barn. We've been gone too long."