Dead Cert

 

Martin was not a compulsive gambler, but he was one of those people who seemed to live for gambling, and nothing else. He was in the betting shop six afternoons a week backing horses; down the pub five nights where he would invariably play cards or dominoes for small stakes; and on Saturday night he would usually visit a casino where he would play blackjack, sometimes for very large stakes. Sundays he didn’t gamble, not because he was the slightest bit religious, but because in the morning he had to be up bright and early to drive down to the wholesaler and stock up for the coming week.

Sunday afternoon he visited his widowed mother at the nursing home, and usually took her out to lunch. Come Sunday evening he was invariably too exhausted to even think of gambling or drinking and would sit watching TV with his feet up until he went to bed around midnight.

During the week, he left Harriet to run the shop for a couple of hours while he went over to Grimes to put his bets on. She had worked for him since he took over the business, and he trusted her implicitly. Saturdays were getting to be a bit of a problem though. Harriet never worked Saturdays, and as it was his busiest day he really couldn’t afford to be out of the shop for long, not with those two kids handling money. They couldn’t be trusted; even when he was there he had to watch them like a hawk, and although Mrs Turner had never given him the slightest doubt about her integrity, he didn’t entirely trust her either. The only people Martin had ever trusted in his life had been Harriet and his own mother. Well, only a fool didn’t trust his own mother; and Harriet, he trusted her because they had more than an employer/employee relationship. Her husband had worked for Martin until his premature death, and before him, both his father and Harriet’s father had worked for Martin’s father when he had owned the shop. Really he’d have liked Harriet to work Saturday and have a day off during the week, but she insisted she needed every weekend free, and though he’d broached the subject every now and then, she had remained adamant, so reluctantly he’d had no choice but to leave Mrs Turner in charge of the business Saturday afternoons while he got on with some real business.

He had thought about opening an account with Grimes so that he could study the form at the shop and keep one eye on the workers all the time, but he had rejected this idea on aesthetic grounds. It wouldn’t be the same as being on the spot, would it?

The small betting shop was crowded now as it was nearly time for the big race; the tannoy was blaring out a stream of price changes. Martin was standing at the raised table in the centre of the shop, flicking through the form guide of the racing press when a tall man in an old-fashioned tweed suit moved across the floor and, standing next to him, intoned in a deep, sonorous voice: “Excuse me, do you have a pen?”

Martin looked round and saw a pale-faced man with a smartly trimmed goatee beard holding out a bookmaker’s pen.

“What?” he asked.

“Do you have a pen? I’m afraid mine has seized up.”

“Oh sure.”

Martin reached into his top pocket and took out a similar pen.

“Here, keep it.”

“Thank you,” said the man, and, moving closer to the table he took a pink slip from his trouser pocket and began scribbling on it.

Martin had gone back to studying the form, but something about the man in the tweed suit made him look twice. At first he thought it was the smell, for there was a strange scent about him. It wasn’t an unpleasant smell, indeed it was quite the opposite, like roses, with perhaps a hint of lavender. It was an odd smell to associate with a man, yet there was nothing effeminate about it, nor about him, rather he seemed literally to ooze masculinity.

Although he was not at all stockily built, Martin could quite imagine that layers of solid muscle rippled up those arms and across that chest. Martin fancied he had the sort of personality, aura if that wasn’t too strong a word, that appealed to both men and women. It was a rare gift that he’d wished he’d had himself, many times, and one which some men would give anything to learn the secret or to obtain. Martin stared at the newcomer curiously, and as if sensing it, the man turned to him, at first a little nervously, then smiled and said “Are you on The Gaffer?” referring to a strongly fancied horse in the big race.

Martin shook his head, “No,” he replied, “the favourite’s a dead cert.”

“Mr Blair?” the man asked.

“Dead cert”, Martin repeated, “It’ll be a group horse next season.

The big race, which was next, was a nineteen runner handicap; Martin’s selection had been moving steadily up the handicap all season. If it won this race, and won it in style, it would move up out of handicaps and compete against thoroughbreds in pattern races. The bearded man was evidently none too well verse in the intricacies of the sport of kings, because he asked, “Oh, which group?”

“Probably a group three; it’s not that good.”

He seemed perplexed and, turning away took a toffee from his pocket, unwrapped it and put it in his mouth.

“What do you fancy in the last race?” asked Martin, amiably.

He wasn’t usually a garrulous sort, but for some unfathomable reason he felt a strong desire to talk to this stranger.

“I’m afraid I don’t back that many,” he said, “it’s such a risky business, gambling. One can lose simply everything.”

“Not if you use this,” said Martin, pointing to his forehead.

“I’m afraid,” said the stranger, turning back to him, “that doesn’t count for much. I’ve seen some of the finest brains in the world lose their last dollar on the horses. All gambles are the same: unpredictable, like the future.”

The reference to the word dollar put a thought into Martin’s head.

“Are you an American?”

“Whyever do you say that?”

“You sound foreign.” said Martin, and now that he thought about it, although the stranger had a very pale complexion, his facial features were those usually associated with dark looks, slightly Oriental, even.

“I’m not an American but I do come from...” he paused, “a long way from here”.

“Oh”, Martin said.

He was just about to ask from where exactly when the man held out his hand and said “Stan”.

Martin paused and then held out his own hand “Martin.”

Stan smiled slightly; his hand was powder dry and deathly cold. Suddenly Martin felt sorry for him. He was definitely out of place here, not the sort of person one would expect to meet in a betting shop; a casino, perhaps, but not somewhere so patently working class. Leaving class aside, this place was a dump; Martin was sure his new acquaintance had seen better days. Perhaps he had lost a lot of money through gambling. What was that he’d said about the finest brains in the world?

The tannoy blared, there had been a late withdrawal. Martin looked at Stan again, swallowed his toffee, glanced at his watch, then turned back to the form figures. Stan seemed not so much confused as flustered.

“What’s the matter,” asked Martin, “having second thoughts?”

“Oh dear, yes, and I haven’t got much time. I want to back The Gaffer but...”

“Hump it on Mr Blair; it’s a different class. Dead cert.”

Stan shook his head, “There are no certainties in gambling, my friend”.

“I’ll give you one”, said Martin.

“You will?” Stan gave him a confused yet hopeful look.

“You back The Gaffer and you’ll walk out of here empty-handed”.

“You sound very confident”, said Stan.

“Listen, it’s got no chance, look,” Martin pointed to the paper in front of Stan and ran his forefinger down The Gaffer’s form guide.

“It doesn’t act on the going, see?”

“Going?”

“The going!”

Stan gave him another confused look, and Martin shook his head in disbelief. A leg in each corner, that was all this bloke knew about the gee gees. He hadn’t a clue what he was doing. Why had he ever come in here?

“The going is hard; it hasn’t rained for a month; the horse doesn’t act on the going. It can’t win on hard ground.”

“Oh,” said Stan, “are you sure?”

“I’d stake my life on it.”

“Your life?”

“Yeah. There’s no absolute guarantee that Mr Blair will win, although I can’t see it getting beat. But this thing’s got no chance WHAT-SO-EVER, that I do know.”

“It is second favourite”, Stan protested feebly.

Martin’s face cracked into a cynical grin, “That doesn’t mean it’s got a chance, all that means is there’s a lot of money for it: mug’s money. Don’t fall for that twaddle about favourites and second favourites; that’s for the birds. You have to study form, and this horse hasn’t got the form to win a race like this, not on hard going. Stan stroked his goatee beard, “You say you’d stake your life on your horse beating my horse?”

“Too right, I would”.

“All right, shake on it.”

Stan had suddenly thrust out his hand.

“What?” said Martin.

“Shake on it, a private bet between you and me.”

Martin gave him an odd look, which was appropriate, he thought, because Stan was an odd fellow.

“All right,” he held out his hand, “it’s a bet.”

“My life against yours,” said Stan, and seized Martin’s hand in a grip of iron.

Then something happened to Martin. For a second, just a second, he felt inside not fear but stark terror. It was as if he’d done something terrible, something utterly shocking and irredeemable by shaking hands with this weird, bearded stranger. The terror was in the pit of his stomach, it was a sickly feeling as though his intestines had been churned over. It was there and gone in an instant, but although it had passed, it left behind the awareness that it had been, and that it would return.

As Stan eased his grip, Martin became aware of something else too, that the hand he’d just shaken had felt different from the first time he’d shaken it a short time before. Then it had been limp, frail almost, and dry. Now it was strong and clammy. Yes, there could be no mistaking it, it was as though he’d shaken hands with two different people. Martin looked Stan in the eye and was held fascinated. His pupils had widened and seemed to burn like black coals. Martin forced himself to think. If he didn’t know better he’d say he was drunk. But he did know better; he hadn’t consumed any alcohol since the previous night.

It had to be something else: Stan. The man was beginning to have an almost hypnotic effect on him. Martin tried not to think too much of it; some people were like that, he’d met them before. Mostly they were attractive young women who had an uncanny gift for parting him from his money.

“And now they’re going behind...” blurbed the tannoy.

“Aren’t you gonna put your bet on?” asked Martin.

“I already have”, said Stan, flashing a piece of paper in front of him. The slip was not one of Grimes’, and it was made out in red ink. Stan had just been using a black pen. Something else which didn’t fit was that the stranger had said he wanted to back The Gaffer, but that he wasn’t sure, implying that he had backed it earlier and simply wanted to put on a much larger stake, but somehow Martin doubted that. Stan had obviously been playing some sort of game with him, but what? Martin was convinced now that the bearded man had quite deliberately and cleverly started and engineered their entire conversation.

He tried to make out what was written on the betting slip, but at this point his attention was distracted as the double doors were thrown open and the room was bathed in a blinding beam of sunlight.

“Oy!” someone shouted as a gust of wind swept betting slips across the floor rustling like leaves. Martin squinted and moved out of the blinding light. He looked at Stan, who was standing bolt upright staring at the Sun. The sunlight reflected off his eyes and tiny spots seemed to dance before them, then somebody shut the door. Nobody had come in; it was probably a couple of kids mucking about outside; they were always up to no good round here.

The tannoy blared again, something about three left to go in, but Martin was only half listening. Stan seemed to be salivating, there were tiny bubbles on his bottom lip. No, they weren’t bubbles, he was foaming at the mouth. Martin thought he might be ill, then he thought someone else was probably thinking the same thing, because an old man who had been standing at an adjacent table filling out a betting slip was staring at him too.

Stan smiled at Martin again, then, as people sometimes do when they are being stared at, he sensed the old man’s eyes boring into the side of his neck. Turning slowly, he threw the starer a glance of such malevolence that the old man baulked, swallowed heavily and fumbled at his newspaper with trembling fingers. Martin watched the little pantomime as though divorced from reality. There was something weird, unreal even about what was going on. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but one thing of which he was sure: it wasn’t all in his head.

As though from a great distance Martin heard the phrase “They’re off!” and turned his attention back to Stan. The constant jabbering which always permeated Grimes on Saturday afternoons ceased abruptly as the Extel commentary began on the King William Cup. Neither Martin’s not Stan’s horse got a mention until the leaders were two furlongs from home, and when the front runner Heartbreak City weakened, and several horses came into the running, Mr Blair hit the front with The Gaffer in hot pursuit.

As the Extel commentary speeded up, the punters began cheering on their horses. Everyone in the shop seemed to have backed either Mr Blair or The Gaffer, and support was divided about equally between them.

“Now it’s Mr Blair pulling away from the pack, but The Gaffer is closing on him with every stride. Coming up to the line it’s Mr Blair by half a length, but The Gaffer is still pressing strongly. It’s Mr Blair and The Gaffer, they’ve gone past together.” During the last half furlong, Martin’s heart had been racing, now it seemed just about ready to burst. He couldn’t understand why, he hadn’t had that much on the horse. Then he realised it was not the money he’d put on that mattered, but the moneyless wager he’d had with Stan. It wouldn’t have mattered if his horse had trailed in last but only as long as the one behind it had been The Gaffer. But why? What kind of madness was this? It wasn’t a proper wager he’d had with Stan, it was only a sportsman’s bet. Whether he lost or not, no money would change hands. Some things though were far more important than mere money, and though he couldn’t understand how, this was one of them.

Martin was worried, more than that, he was afraid. He looked at Stan nervously, “Photo-finish”, he said.

“Y-yes,” said Stan.

Martin was shocked, Stan was even more afraid than he was, but of what? The old man who had been staring at Stan walked over to the wall and pretended to study the results from the previous day which had been posted there. Everyone else was standing around the Extel in eager anticipation.

“How soon will we know the result?” asked Stan.

He really was a complete novice, thought Martin.

“Couple of minutes”, he replied, then an idea entered his head, “Perhaps we could cancel the bet”, he suggested, “The bookies wouldn’t, but it’s only a sportsman’s bet between us.”

“I’m afraid not”, said Stan, “it’s not my decision”.

Martin thought this a very strange thing to say, and nearly asked him what he meant, but his courage failed him.

“Oh”, another thought entered Martin’s head, and he hurried: “What if it’s a dead heat?”

“It can’t be, it is not permitted”, said Stan dryly.

‘Permitted by whom?’ thought Martin, but he couldn’t bring himself to ask.

The two men were silent; the old man sneaked a furtive glance at the goatee bearded stranger like a guilty schoolboy.

“Martin was usually too engrossed in his own affairs to notice other people’s mannerisms, but he couldn’t help noticing this fellow’s strange behaviour. He wanted to leave but couldn’t, not till the result was announced.

‘What will happen?’ he thought, ‘What happens if I win? There’s nothing to collect.’ Then surely there would be nothing to pay if he lost. He straightened up; this was foolish, utterly foolish, it was all in his head. He must be going gaga like old Mrs Simpson down The Dog And Fox.Suddenly, the Extel blared again, “The result of the King William Handicap: Mr Blair is the winner. Mr Blair first, The Gaffer second; that’s the favourite and second favourite first and second.”

A mixture of cheers and curses went round the shop, but Martin didn’t hear them. The only thing of which he was aware was that his stomach was turning over again, this time in relief.

He looked Stan in the eyes and saw he was fighting to hold back the tears. The bearded man looked down at the worthless betting slip, screwed it up in a white knuckled fist and allowed it to drop to the floor. He straightened up, put on a brave face, then thrust out his hand.

“Well, looks like you’ve won. Goodbye.”

“You’re leaving?” asked Martin, both perplexed and strangely relieved.

“I have to; I have an appointment.”

Martin shook his hand warmly; it was as cold as ice again.

“Perhaps we’ll meet again sometime”, said Martin.

“I hope not,” said Stan.

It was an unfriendly sounding statement, but it was made, paradoxically, in a very friendly tone of voice. Stan turned quickly and left the betting shop. As soon as the door had closed behind him, the old man left the results board and walked over to Martin.

“Do you know him?” he asked.

“No,” said Martin, “do you?”

The old man gave him a horrified stare, “Wouldn’t want to; didn’t you notice?”

“Notice what?” asked Martin.

“Why,” said the old man in his broad West Country accent, “’E ’ad no shadow!”

Martin stared blankly into the old man’s face totally at a loss for words. He tried to think of something to say, but before he could, a terrific ear splitting screech sounded from outside followed by a colossal bang.

“What the fucking hell was that?” said a burly unshaven man who had just collected his winnings from the pay window.

“Sounds like a crash,” said someone else.

A few people walked leisurely towards the door. Martin stood frozen to the spot for a full minute then was suddenly galvanised into action. He raced towards the door pushing aside the small group of people who were trying to crowd through, extending themselves on tip toe and craning their necks to get a better view. Racing out into the street, Martin saw an articulated lorry jammed into the back of a Comma van. A single decker bus which had been travelling in the opposite direction had a big dent in its offside and had careered into a parked car. People were running back and forth, a crowd was already beginning to gather, and a traffic warden was talking to a policewoman, who was nodding her head to him while holding her radio to her left ear and trying to listen to him simultaneously.

As he walked past their stationary vehicles, Martin ignored the lorry driver and the van driver who were arguing vociferously about the multiple pile up, in particular about which of them was responsible for it. Martin cast his eyes to the ground looking for what he knew would be there.

“It was your fault,” said the van driver, “you were going too fast.”

“Too fast? You shouldn’t have stopped when you did.”

“If you hadn’t been so close you’d have stopped in time.”

Their voices grew louder and even angrier, and for a moment it looked as though they would come to blows. The policewoman stepped between them, “All right, you two, cool it!”

Then she looked around hopefully and said in a near shout, “Does anyone here know first aid?”

Martin looked up and saw a young man with both hands raised to his face; it was covered in blood. He had just got out of the parked car and, judging from their respective conditions, it looked as though his head had been forced through the windscreen.

“First aid won’t help him, poor devil,” came a woman’s voice.

She was close to tears, and Martin soon realised why. Lying on the ground not ten feet from where he now stood was Stan. He was stretched flat on his back with an oil soaked blanket under his head. His lifeless eyes stared blankly towards the clear blue sky.

“It wasn’t the driver’s fault,” a man was trying to tell the policewoman, “he just walked out in front of him.”

Martin shook his head. A small trickle of blood flowed from the corner of the dead man’s mouth. Probably he had suffered massive internal injuries, but the expression on his face was not one of surprise, nor even of pain. As Martin bent over the body of the unfortunate gambler he realised what the expression was; it was one of stark terror. The dead man looked as though he’d died not of his physical injuries, but of fear. He had literally been frightened to death.


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