Dead Ringer

A STORY FOR CHRISTMAS: He was playing the big race in his head when a gloved hand clamped around his mouth
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The last jumps meeting at Ascot before Christmas had just finished, with the winter sky darkened by rain clouds speeding in from the west. Those punters who didn't have winnings to collect after the final race - and they were in the majority - headed for the exits before the sky could soak them, the same way the bookies had all afternoon. Six races, with not a winning favourite among them, had shaken all but the loose change from the pockets of the weary bettors.

Even so most punters were well disposed to the usual charity collectors and pan-handlers that waited outside the course, or lined the walkway down to the station. Most of these had adopted seasonal attire - Santa Claus hats with flashing lights; plastic reindeer antlers; kilts with mistletoe on the sporrans. The charity buckets rattled with coins, the bag-pipes wailed a strangled version of "Silent Night", and one man danced a jig as his portable stereo crackled with the words of another carol.

Down in the white-tiled pedestrian tunnel that led from the grandstand out to the path to the station, the cacophony was muffled. And only one chap seemed to be inclined to gamble on the generosity of the departing punters. Slumped on the concrete floor, with his back arched against the tiled wall, the man looked like he'd drunk himself to a standstill. His cashmere overcoat and leather loafers suggested he'd enjoyed better times than this. Most punters ignored him. A few tossed fifty-pence pieces into his lap. One tried to give him a drink from his hip-flask. And that's when it became apparent that the fabled gambler Jimmy "Ace Face" Gimmel was not begging, but dead.

Two paramedics found that his silk tie had been used as a noose to throttle him. As they loosened it, his tongue fell from his mouth revealing a tightly rolled wad of money wedged in his gullet. The paramedics left the police to establish that this amounted to twenty pounds 50 notes, prompting one of the coppers, who knew of Gimmel, to joke that the gambler had made a "grand" exit.

Mike Burlington hated the phone ringing late at night. He still hadn't lost his copper's instinct for dread, even though he was three years out of the force. At Scotland Yard, late night phone-calls had come to symbolise trouble - a case going pear-shaped, a suspect disappearing, or even worse, the internal affairs geezers coming in for a sniff. So even though his life had scaled down its contact with crime, a call after midnight meant only one thing. Bad news.

"Burlington..." he croaked, trying to sound as though he'd still been awake.

"Mike. Jimmy Gimmel was murdered outside Ascot this afternoon."

Burlington recognised the voice as that of Sammy Ching, one of his assistants, so there was no need to query the truth of the news. Sammy always got things right.

"How far outside?" Burlington asked.

"Not far enough. Ascot CID have been on. They want anything we've got on Gimmel."

"Lord Neves know about this yet?"

"Shooting weekend."

"What was it then - knife?"

"No. Looks like they strangled him. Stuffed a wedge of fifties down his throat to keep him quiet."

"Ask around, will you. Gimmel had enemies like shoulders have dandruff."

The next morning, Burlington phoned Lord Neves at first light. He was staying at his house in Wiltshire. Burlington was already half-way down the M4 when he phoned. As a Jockey Club security officer, Burlington's brief was to protect the integrity and the image of horse racing, a difficult enough task with so much money, some of it criminally acquired, swilling around the system. People pulled strokes, cut corners, bought information, twisted arms and occasionally more, just to give themselves an edge in the war between punter and bookmaker.

But Burlington was still able to regard racing as 99 per cent clean, which seemed a better figure than life itself. In contrast, Lord Neves, the senior steward in charge of "policing" the sport, regarded any infringement as a family slur. He had one approach to "events" - to involve the words "under" and "carpet". Had he been a chief constable, Lord Neves's clear- up rate would have been astonishing.

"Why didn't the local police move the body the few yards to public land?" Neves asked loudly as he forked down another mouthful of bronzed kipper. Burlington looked out beyond the bay window of the breakfast room to the still-frosted lawns outside. There wasn't another soul in sight. Life looked simple when it was organised like this.

"That's not what we - they - do, sir. The actual scene of a crime often yields the most clues. You can't move it elsewhere."

"But they must have known the tunnel was still Ascot Authority land? And that means a connection with HM. I know what this means when the papers get hold of it - `Murder on Royal Racecourse!' - and that's just the Telegraph!"

"Unfortunately, sir, we have a dead professional gambler, who we know was at the meeting yesterday. Unless it simply involved a row over a woman, racing will have to answer some questions."

"A woman?" Lord Neves asked, butter from his kipper oozing down his chin. "Oh, yes. Was this piece of dirt Gimmel a skirt-chaser?"

"His obituary in the Telegraph will suggest so, sir," Burlington said with dead-pan irony.

Lord Neves laughed at the idea of a low-life being afforded such decorum in death.

"That's the answer then. Leak to the press that Gimmel's death was the result of un crime passionel. I want the hounds on the wrong scent. We cannot have anything remotely resembling bad publicity with the King George coming up."

"Yes, sir. Thank you for the breakfast."

Burlington rose from his chair, and headed for the door. He turned to say that he would keep Lord Neves informed of every development - but Neves was concentrating on the precise thickness of the layer of marmalade on his toast.

Burlington drove back to his office in Portman Square, and though the building which housed racing's administrative and disciplinary headquarters was deadly quiet. Burlington checked the Sunday newspapers, none of which had picked up on Gimmel's death. It would be out by Monday though. Down the corridor, he could hear the phone in the press office ringing like a church bell before the answer-machine cut in. Burlington opened the only letter waiting for him, and found yet another mysterious but irritating message typed on a single sheet of A4 paper. It read:

"On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true

love sent to me,

Eleven Pipers Piping..."

Over the previous three weeks of December Burlington had been pestered by a sequence of such letters, each with a single line from the old song. He'd had the partridge in a pear-tree, the turtle-doves, French hens, calling birds and even the maids a-milking. What he hadn't got was an explanation for this stupid bombardment. If it was a wind-up, it was a pretty obscure one. He filed the letter with the other 10, and locked them in his desk drawer. Each of the post-marks was identical - "Lambourn", the Berkshire village that was the effective home of jump-racing with so many stables based there. Burlington guessed that an old girl-friend - and he'd jilted a few in his time - was up to some mischief.

The big, bay horse came pounding up the all-weather gallop at a good pace, snorting like a lion in pursuit of prey. The trainer Roger Cockle needed only one look to know that the best horse in his yard was in A1 condition. Shaun Enin, the stable jockey, brought the horse back at a canter, standing up a little in the stirrups. "I wish the race was today, boss, he's fit to burst," Enin panted.

"Well it's not, so just walk him back, will you, Shaun. I want something left for Kempton!"

The young Irish jockey, who'd made a great start to his first season in England with over 50 winners inside four months, gave Cockle a thumbs- up, and sat down in the saddle as he slowed the horse to a calm walk. Roger watched the horse and jockey move away to the bridle path back into town. It had been a gamble to bring Shaun over from Ireland, but the lad had come from a typically large family who were all involved in racing, either as stable lads, work riders or stud grooms. Shaun was the family star, though, and matching his innocent exuberance to the coiled energy of the stable's up-and-coming equine hero had captured the public's imagination in the run-up to the King George. So even though Cockle's yard was a small one, the trainer was proud and pleased that Drummer's Beat had been made clear favourite for the big race by the bookies.

Cockle climbed back into his rusting Jeep-style vehicle and set off back to the stable. As he moved carefully down the winding lane that ran on to the road, a silver-coloured Mercedes sped around a corner, and braked into a slide to avoid a collision. Cockle, already in a state of anxiety about his horse, gripped the steering wheel and let out a yell. Meanwhile, the driver of the Merc was inspecting his vehicle for damage. A heavily built man in a distinctly urban overcoat, he turned across to Cockle with a smile. "Sorry about that. Mud on the road," he called, walking across.

"Going a bit quick too, if you don't mind me saying so," said Cockle.

The man approached the open window of the jeep, and looked around. "Yeah, definitely better to go slower these days. Never know what's round the corner, do you? I mean, if your horse went slow at Kempton in the King George, you might find a hundred grand coming your way..."

"You bloody what?" Cockle asked nervously. "Who are you?"

But the man just walked away.

Burlington met up with Sammy Ching in the betting-ring at Lingfield. Most of the big players had long since left for Barbados, bookie and punter alike. But there was enough gossip doing the rounds of those left behind for Ching to have come up with some details. A former gambler himself, Ching had "taken the cure" after he'd crossed one of his countrymen's gangs in Chinatown. The little finger of his left hand had been sliced off with a meat cleaver, after which Ching had opted for the straight life.

"He had just one bet on Saturday," Ching reported to Burlington. "Five grand at 6-4 with Billy Bice."

"What on?" Burlington asked.

"Pan's Piper, the beaten favourite in the fourth."

"Jesus Christ!" Burlington exclaimed.

"What?"

"Eleven pipers piping..."

"You what?"

"What's got beaten over the past few weeks? Favourites, second favourites, big tips?"

"Golden Goose was turned over at Cheltenham last Saturday..."

"Six geese-a-laying," Burlington said without a smile. "And what about Milk Maid at Towcester on Thursday - beaten at odds-on. I want you to go back through all December's results and look for the connection between a beaten horse and a verse from the song."

"Game Bird lost at Newcastle in the first week... a partridge in a pear tree?"

"Whoever's stopping them is down to the twelfth day - twelve drummers drumming..."

"Drummer's Beat!"

"Right - the favourite for the King George. This mustn't get out, Sammy. We sort this ourselves. This is personal..."

Shaun Enin attended Mass on Christmas Night and said a few prayers for his horse Drummer's Beat, asking God to turn a blind eye to venal trappings that would be associated with him the following afternoon. The horse doesn't gamble, went the logic of the prayer, so please let him win. Later, Shaun allowed himself a quick half of Guinness at Lambourn's Catholic Club, before setting off for his cottage. He desperately wanted to sleep well, and an early night might rid him of the butterflies that were already fluttering around his turkey- deprived stomach. He was already beginning to play the big race in his head when a gloved hand appeared out of the darkness and clamped around his mouth.

Burlington and Ching got to Kempton Park by 10 o'clock on Boxing Day morning and summoned their team to a briefing in the empty weighing-room. "Someone's out to get the favourite, Drummer's Beat. I want two men with the horse from the moment he arrives on course. Nobody goes near his box except his lad, his trainer and his owner."

Four hours later, the horses for the King George filtered into the pre- parade ring, still with their rugs on their backs. Burlington waited until the horse had been saddled and taken into the parade ring proper before heading across to the bookmakers, hearing whispers from some of his men as he passed. "11-4 and shortening, the favourite. Two bets of 10 grand." "Small change for the rest." "Just gone 9-4."

Burlington scoured the Faces in the crowd. The men with tightly rolled wads of big money in their podgy hands. They knew him, knew he was watching. None of them looked away.

Into the parade ring came the jockeys. Shaun Enin looked pale but confident as he strode across to greet his horse, the trainer and the owner of Drummer's Beat, Lord Neves.

"He's in great nick, Shaun. Have him handy and he'll win."

"Yes, sir," Enin said with a serious face. "Sir?" Cockle asked with a laugh. "Must be serious!" Shaun didn't join in the laughter.

Burlington returned to the rails bookmakers, where some of the biggest bets were being struck. He kept his ears on these and his eyes on the betting ring. Suddenly a face of a different sort emerged at one of the bookies stands. Burlington saw a finger point to the second favourite on the board, and huge wedge changed hands. It was Rouf. Mickey Rouf. Fifteen years for armed robbery, and Burlington was the man who'd collared him.

Burlington tried to get across, but Rouf was swallowed up in the crowd. "What did you take?" he screamed at the bookie. "Fifty grand on Nice Work at 9-2."

The horses were lining up and a huge roar went up as they set off. All eyes were on the race, but Burlington's scoured only the crowd. Out on the track, the 15 horses were picking their way around the first circuit. Drummer's Beat was handy on the outside. Clear of trouble. Nice Work tracked him a few lengths back.

Burlington worked his way down to the running rail and looked back over the crowd. Although Rouf had been convicted, none of the proceeds of his robberies had been recovered. He had obviously emerged from prison as a rich man. Burlington guessed that someone with fifty grand to bet might be in Kempton's glass-fronted restaurant, and he made his way up there.

Inside the tiers of punters at their tables were beginning to get excited. The race was into the final three furlongs. Burlington gave it a brief look - Nice Work was leading Drummer's Beat by about two lengths. Rouf's bet looked a cert. Burlington scanned the frenzied faces as the last two fences were taken. Screams of excitement and the muffled roar of the crowd beyond the glass merged to create a massive wave of sound. Drummer's Beat was fighting back, jumping upsides Nice Work at the last. Now both jockeys were swinging their legs and pumping their arms to give their horses vital momentum on the run-in. Shaun Enin, though, was a blur of motion on Drummer's Beat, and he drove the favourite home by a length, then stood up in the stirrups to salute the crowd.

Burlington looked for the disappointed faces and finally glimpsed Rouf making his way out of the restaurant. Burlington gave chase. If Rouf had lost, somebody in his scam had let him down and that meant revenge. Burlington hurried down the steps and burst out on to the concourse at the back of the stand. Hundreds of race-goers were heading for the winner's enclosure to salute Drummer's Beat. But there was Rouf, on his way out to the car park.

The thousands of cars became one giant maze as Burlington tried to keep up with Rouf who, as he had done for most of his life, ducked and dived, to disguise his whereabouts. Burlington climbed on to the running board of a huge people-wagon, and got a sight of Rouf climbing into a silver Mercedes. Burlington ran to the exit and yelled at the attendant to close the gate, and the Mercedes slithered to a halt as its escape was thwarted.

Rouf stepped out of the car, smiling confidently. "You've got nothing on me, Burlington. I lost."

"So who pays for that Mickey? You went to a lot of trouble to set this up - who carries the can?"

"Bit of sport."

"That's not how you felt towards Jimmy Gimmel, was it?"

Rouf's face darkened. Burlington called up Ching and the other members of his team on the walkie-talkie.

Rouf's right arm went inside his overcoat. Burlington dived at him and knocked him to the ground. The two men rolled around in the mud, but with Rouf unable to get his gun out, Burlington was able to pin the race-fixer down. As they lay there exhausted and panting, Burlington became aware of a muffled banging noise. He stood up and kept a foot on Rouf's neck, while he filched the pistol from his waist-band. The noise was coming from the boot of the car. Burlington took the keys from the ignition and opened the boot. Inside was Shaun Enin, looking terrified. Burlington helped Enin out of the boot.

"What happened in the big race?" Enin asked.

"You won," Burlington said, and they looked at each other.

"Two turtle doves," Rouf laughed. "His twin brother's only a work rider but he's obviously been schooling too well."

"You got Seamus to stand in for me?"

"Told him to lose or I'd kill you. Obviously doesn't like you too much."

Burlington held the jockey back.

"So now your horse will lose the race when it gets out that a `ringer' rode it, and I'll have my four- hundred-and-fifty big ones. You want that sort of stink, Burlington?"

Burlington bundled Rouf into the back of the Mercedes, and told Enin to get into the front seat. Burlington got behind the wheel and signalled for the attendant to open the gate.

"Where we going?" Rouf asked.

"Got a meeting at Ascot...the cop-shop."

Burlington turned on the radio, where they were interviewing "Shaun" Enin about his great triumph. And he said he wanted to dedicate this King George victory to his family...

Comments