Alistair MacLean

2The Way to Dusty Death


Harlow sat by the side of the race-track on that hot and cloudless afternoon, his long hair blowing about in the fresh breeze and partially obscuring his face, his golden helmet clutched so tightly in his gauntleted hands that he appeared to be trying to crush it: the hands were shaking uncontrollably and occasional violent tremors racked his entire body.

His own car, from which he had been miraculously thrown clear, uninjured, just before it had overturned lay, of all places, in its own Coronado pits, upside down and with its wheels spinning idly. Wisps of smoke ware coming from an engine already engulfed under a mound of foam from the fire extinguishers and it was clear that there was now little danger of an explosion from the unruptured fuel tanks.

Alexis Dunnet, the first to reach Harlow, noticed that he wasn’t looking at his own car but was staring trance-like at a spot about two hundred yards farther along the track where an already dead man called Isaac Jethou was being cremated in the white-flamed funeral pyre of what had once been his Grand Prix Formula One racing car. There was curiously little smoke coming from the blazing wreck, presumably because of the intense heat given off by the incandescent magnesium alloy wheels, and when the gusting wind occasionally parted the towering curtains of flame Jethou could be seen sitting bolt upright in his cockpit, the one apparently undamaged structure left in an otherwise shattered and unrecognizable mass of twisted steel: at least Dunnet knew I was Jethou but what he was seeing was a blackened and horribly charred remnant of a human being.

The many thousands of people in the stands and lining the track were motionless and soundless, staring in transfixed and incredulous awe and horror at the burning car. The last of the engines of the Grand Prix cars — there were nine of them stopped in sight of the pits, some drivers standing by their sides — died away as the race marshals frantically flagged the abandonment of the race.

The public address system had fallen silent now, as did a siren’s ululating wail as an ambulance screeching to a halt at a prudent distance from Jethou’s car, its flashing light fading into nothingness against the white blaze in the background. Rescue workers in aluminium asbestos suits, some operating giant wheeled fire-extinguishers, some armed with crowbars and axes, were trying desperately, for some reason wholly beyond the bounds of logic, to get sufficiently close to the car to drag the cindered corpse free, but the undiminished intensity of the flames made a mockery of their desperation. Their efforts were as futile as the presence of the ambulance was unnecessary. Jethou was beyond any mortal help or hope.

Dunnet looked away and down at the overalled figure beside him. The hands that held the golden helmet still trembled unceasingly and the eyes still fixed immovably on the sheeted flames that now quite enveloped Isaac Jethou’s car were the eyes of an eagle gone blind. Dunnet reached for his shoulder and shook it gently but he paid no heed. Dunnet asked him if he were hurt for his face and trembling hands were masked in blood: he had cart- wheeled at least half a dozen times after being thrown from his car in the final moments before it had upended and come to rest in its own pits. Harlow stirred and looked at Dunnet, blinking, like a man slowly arousing himself from a nightmare, then shook his head.

Two ambulance men with a stretcher came towards them at a dead run, but Harlow, unaided except for Dunnet’s supporting hand under his upper arm, pushed himself shakily to his feet and waved them off. He didn’t, however, seem to object to what little help Dunnet’s hand lent him and they walked slowly back to the Coronado pits, the still dazed and virtually uncomprehending Harlow, Dunnet tall, thin, with dark hair parted in the middle, a dark pencil-line moustache and rimless glasses, everyone’s idealized conception of a city accountant even though his passport declared him to be a journalist.

MacAlpine, a fire-extinguisher still held in one hand, turned to meet them at the entrance to the pits. James MacAlpine, owner and manager of the Coronado racing team, dressed in a now stained tan gaberdine suit, was in his mid-fifties, as heavily jowled as he was heavily built and had a deeply lined face under an impressive mane of black and silver hair. Behind him, Jacobson, the chief mechanic and his two red-haired assistants, the Rafferty twins who for some reason unknown were invariably referred to as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, still ministered to the smouldering Coronado, while behind the car two other men, white-coated first-aid men, were carrying out more serious ministrations of their own: on the ground, unconscious but still clutching the pad and pencil with which she had been taking lap times, lay Mary MacAlpine, the owner’s black-haired, twenty-year-old daughter. The first-aid men were bent over her left leg and scissoring open to the knee wine-red slacks that had been white moments ago. MacAlpine took Harlow’s arm, deliberately shielding him from the sight of his daughter, and led him to the little shelter behind the pits. MacAlpine was an extremely able, competent and tough man, as millionaires tend to be: beneath the toughness, as of now, lay a kindness and depth of consideration of which no one would have dared to accuse him.

In the back of the shelter stood a small wooden crate which was, in effect, a portable bar. Most of it was given over to an ice-box stocked with a little beer and lots of soft drinks, chiefly for the mechanics, for working under that torrid sun was thirsty business. There were also two bottles of champagne for it had not been unreasonable to expect of a man who had just reeled off a near-impossible five consecutive Grand Prix victories that he might just possibly achieve his sixth.

Harlow opened the lid of the crate, ignored the ice-box, lifted out a bottle of brandy and half-filled the tumbler, the neck of the bottle chattering violently against the rim of the glass: more brandy spilled to the ground than went into the glass. He required both hands to lift the glass to his mouth and now the rim of the tumbler, castanet-like fashion, struck up an even more erratic tattoo against his teeth than the bottle had on the glass. He managed to get some of it down but most of the glass’s contents overflowed by the two sides of his mouth, coursed down the blood-streaked chin to stain the white racing overalls to exactly the same colour as the slacks of the injured girl outside. Harlow stared bemusedly at the empty glass, sank on to a bench and reached for the bottle again.

MacAlpine looked at Dunnet, his face without expression. Harlow had suffered three major crashes in his racing career, in the last of which, two years previously, he had sustained near-fatal injuries: on that last occasion, he had been smiling, albeit in agony, as his stretcher had been loaded aboard the ambulance plane for the flight back to London and the left hand he had used to give the thumbs-up signal — his right forearm had been broken in two places — had been as steady as if graven from marble. But more dismaying was the fact that apart from a token sip of celebration champagne he had never’ touched hard alcohol in his life.

It happens to them all, MacAlpine had always maintained, sooner or later it happens to them all. No matter how cool or brave or brilliant they were, it happened to them all, and the more steely their icy calm and control the more fragile it was. MacAlpine was never a man to be averse to the odd hyperbolic turn of phrase and there was a handful — but only a handful — of outstanding ex-Grand Prix drivers around who had retired at the top of their physical and mental form, sufficient, at any rate, to disprove MacAlpine’s statement in its entirety. But it was’ well enough known that there existed top-flight drivers who had crashed or who had suffered so much nervous and mental fatigue that they had become empty shells of their former selves, that there were among the current twenty-four Grand Prix drivers four or five who would never win a race again because they had no intention of ever trying to do so, who kept going only in order to shore up the facade of a now-empty pride. But there are some things that are not done in the racing world and one of those is that you don’t remove a man from the Grand Prix roster just because his nerve is gone.

But that MacAlpine was more often right than wrong was sadly clear from the sight of that trembling figure hunched on the bench. If ever a man had gone over the top, had reached and passed the limit of endurance before tumbling over the precipice of self-abnegation and hapless acceptance of ultimate defeat, it was Johnny Harlow, the golden boy of the Grand Prix circuits, unquestionably, until that afternoon, the outstanding driver of his time and, it was being increasingly suggested, of all time: with last year’s world championship safely his and the current year’s, by any reasonable standards, almost inevitably his with half the Grand Prix races still to run, Harlow’s will and nerve would have appeared to have crumbled beyond recovery: it was plain to MacAlpine and Dunnet that the charred

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