Dick Francis

For Kicks


The Earl of October drove into my life in a pale blue Holden which had seen better days, and danger and death tagged along for the ride.

I noticed the car turn in through the gate posts as I walked across the little paddock towards the house, and I watched its progress up our short private road with a jaundiced eye. Salesmen, I thought, I can do without. The blue car rolled to a gentle halt between me and my own front door.

The man who climbed out looked about forty-five and was of medium height and solid build, with a large well- shaped head and smoothly brushed brown hair. He wore grey trousers, a fine wool shirt, and a dark, discreet tie, and he carried the inevitable briefcase. I sighed, bent through the paddock rails, and went over to send him packing.

'Where can I find Mr. Daniel Roke?' he asked. An English voice, which even to my untuned ear evoked expensive public schools; and he had a subtle air of authority inconsistent with the opening patter of representatives I looked at him more attentively, and decided after all not to say I was out. He might even, in spite of the car, be a prospective customer.

'I,' I said, without too much joy in the announcement, 'am Daniel Roke. '

His eyelids flickered in surprise.

'Oh,' he said blankly I was used to this reaction. I was no one's idea of the owner of a prosperous stud-farm. I looked, for a start, too young, though I didn't feel it; and my sister Belinda says you don't often meet a business man you can mistake for an Italian peasant. Sweet girl, my sister. It is only that my skin is sallow and tans easily, and I have black hair and brown eyes. Also I was that day wearing the oldest, most tattered pair of jeans I possessed, with unpolished jodhpur boots, and nothing else.

I had been helping a mare who always had difficulty in foaling: a messy job, and I had dressed for it. The result of my and the mare's labours was a weedy filly with a contracted tendon in the near fore and a suspicion of one in the off fore too, which meant an operation, and more expense than she was likely to be worth.

My visitor stood for a while looking about him at the neat white-railed paddocks, the L-shaped stable yard away ahead, and the row of cedar-shingled foaling boxes off to the right, where my poor little newcomer lay in the straw. The whole spread looked substantial and well maintained, which it was; I worked very hard to keep it that way, so that I could reasonably ask good prices for my horses.

The visitor turned to gaze at the big blue-green lagoon to the left, with the snow-capped mountains rising steeply in rocky beauty along the far side of it. Puffs of cloud like plumes crowned the peaks.

Grand and glorious scenery it was, to his fresh eyes.

But to me, walls.

'Breathtaking,' he said appreciatively. Then turning to me briskly, but with some hesitation in his speech, he said, 'I… er… I heard in Perlooma that you have… er… an English stable hand who… er wants to go back home' He broke off, and started again.

'I suppose it may sound surprising, but in certain circumstances, and if he is suitable, I am willing to pay his fare and give him a job at the other end. ' He tailed off again.

There couldn't, I thought, be such an acute shortage of stable boys in England that they needed to be recruited from Australia.

'Will you come into the house?' I said.

'And explain?'

I led the way into the living-room, and heard his exclamation as he stepped behind me. All our visitors were impressed by the room. Across the far end a great expanse of window framed the most spectacular part of the lagoon and mountains, making them seem even closer and, to me, more overwhelming than ever. I sat down in an old bent-wood rocker with my back to them, and gestured him into a comfortable armchair facing the view.

'Now, Mr… er?' I began.

'October,' he said easily.

'Not Mister. Earl.'

'October… as the month?' It was October at the time.

'As the month,' he assented.

I looked at him curiously. He was not my idea of an earl. He looked like a hard-headed company chairman on holiday. Then it occurred to me that there was no bar to an earl being a company chairman as well, and that quite probably some of them needed to be.

'I have acted on impulse, coming here,' he said more coherently.

'And I am not sure that it is ever a good thing to do.' He paused, took out a machine-turned gold cigarette case, and gained time for thought while he flicked his lighter. I waited.

He smiled briefly.

'Perhaps I had better start by saying that I am in Australia on business I have interests in Sydney but that I came down here to the Snowies as the last part of a private tour I have been making of your main racing and breeding centres. I am a member of the body which governs National Hunt racing that is to say, steeple chasing jump racing in England, and naturally your horses interest me enormously… Well, I was lunching in Perlooma,' he went on, referring to our nearest township, fifteen miles away, 'and I got talking to a man who remarked on my English accent and said that the only other Pommie he knew was a stable hand here who was fool enough to want to go back home. '

'Yes,' I agreed.


'Arthur Simmons,' he said, nodding.

'What sort of man is he?'

'Very good with horses,' I said.

'But he only wants to go back to England when he's drunk. And he only gets drunk in Perlooma. Never here.'

'Oh,' he said.

'Then wouldn't he go, if he were given the chance?'

'I don't know. It depends what you want him for.'

He drew on his cigarette, and tapped the ash off, and looked out of the window.

'A year or two ago we had a great deal of trouble with the doping of racehorses,' he said abruptly.

'A very great deal of trouble. There were trials and prison sentences, and stringent all-round tightening of stable security, and a stepping-up of regular saliva and urine tests. We began to test the first four horses in many races, to stop doping-to-win, and we tested every suspiciously beaten favourite for doping-to-lose. Nearly all the results since the new regulations came into force have been negative.'

'How satisfactory,' I said, not desperately interested.

'No. It isn't. Someone has discovered a drug which our analysts cannot identify.'

'That doesn't sound possible,' I said politely. The afternoon was slipping away unprofitably, I felt, and I still had a lot to do.

He sensed my lack of enthusiasm.

'There have been ten cases, all winners. Ten that we are sure of. The horses apparently look conspicuously stimulated I haven't myself actually seen one but nothing shows up in the tests.' He paused.

'Doping is nearly always an inside job,' he said, transferring his gaze back to me.

'That is to say, stable lads are nearly always involved somehow, even if it is only to point out to someone else which horse is in which box.' I nodded. Australia had had her troubles, too.

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