Front Runner: A Dick Francis Novel

Front Runner: A Dick Francis Novel

by Felix Francis

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British investigator Jefferson Hinkley is back in this compelling Dick Francis thriller by the New York Times–bestselling author of Crisis.
In his role as an undercover investigator for the British Horseracing Authority, Jeff Hinkley is approached by a multi-time champion jockey to discuss the delicate matter of losing races on purpose. Little does he know that the call will set off a lethal chain of events, including the apparent suicide of the jockey and an attempt on Hinkley’s own life. Never one to leave suspicious events alone, Hinkley begins investigating the jockey and the races he may have thrown. But there are others out there who intend to prevent his inquiry from probing any cost.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780698148765
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/13/2015
Series: A Dick Francis Novel
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 123,419
File size: 721 KB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Felix Francis, a graduate of London University, is an accomplished outdoorsman, marksman, and pilot who has assisted with the research of many of his father's novels. The coauthor and author of numerous Dick Francis novels, he lives in England.

Dick Francis was born in South Wales in 1920. He was a young rider of distinction winning awards and trophies at horse shows throughout the United Kingdom. At the outbreak of World War II he joined the Royal Air Force as a pilot, flying fighter and bomber aircraft including the Spitfire and Lancaster. He became one of the most successful postwar steeplechase jockeys, winning more than 350 races and riding for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. After his retirement from the saddle in 1957, he published an autobiography, The Sport of Queens, before going on to write more than forty acclaimed books. A three-time Edgar Award winner, he also received the prestigious Crime Writers’ Association’s Cartier Diamond Dagger, was named Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America, and was awarded a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List in 2000. He died in February 2010, at age eighty-nine, and remains among the greatest thriller writers of all time.

Read an Excerpt

The display on the digital thermometer to my left read105 degrees—105 degrees Celsius, that is, 221 degreesFahrenheit. Sweat ran off the end of my nose in a continuous stream and I could feel the heat deep in my chest as I breathed in the searing air. I’d been in saunas before, but never one this hot.

“So what do you want?” I asked. My companion in this hellish place didn’t answer. He simply stared at the floor between his feet. “Come on,” I said.

“I haven’t come all this way for my health. It’s far too bloody hot in here. You wanted to talk to me, so talk.”

He lifted his head.“At least you’re not in one of these damn things.” He tugged at the black nylon sweat suit he was wearing. As if the heat alone wasn’t bad enough.

“Maybe not, but I didn’t come here to be slow-roasted.”

He  still  didn’t talk.  He  just  looked at me.  Dave  Swinton, twenty-nine years old and  already eight times champion steeplechase jockey. At five-foot-ten, he had a continuous struggle with his weight, that was common knowledge, but owners and trainers were often happy to accept a touch overweight in order to have his exceptional skill in the saddle. And for good reason—the stats showed that he won almost a third of the races in which he rode.

“Off the record?” he said.

“Don’t be silly,” I replied. I was an investigator for the British Horseracing Authority, the organization responsible for regulatory control of all Thoroughbred racing in the United Kingdom. Nothing I saw or heard to do with racing could be off the record.

“I’ll deny I said it.”

“Said what?” I asked.

“I’ve been in this bloody oven now for over ten minutes and I’m starting to look like a lobster. Either you tell me why I’m here or I’m gone.” I wondered why he’d been so insistent that we should talk in his  sauna.  I had thought it was  because he  needed  to shed  a pound or two before racing  at  Newbury  that  afternoon,  but maybe it was actually to make sure that I had no recording equipment hidden about my person. As a rule, I used my iPhone to record meetings, but that was in the pocket of my jacket, which was  hanging  up on a  peg outside,  along  with the  rest of my clothes. Dave went on looking at me as if still undecided.

“Right,” I said. “I’m done.” I stood up, wrapped the towel I had been sitting on around my waist and pushed open the sauna’s wooden door.

“I lost a race this week.”

I put one foot through the doorway. “So? You can’t win them all.” 

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “I lost it on purpose.”

I stopped and turned  to him. I knew most of the Rules of Racing by heart. Rule (D)45.1  stated that a jockey was required, at all times, to have made a genuine attempt  to obtain from his horse timely, real and substantial  efforts to achieve the best possible placing. To lose a race on purpose was to willfully flout that rule, an offense that could carry a penalty of ten years’ disqualification from the sport.

“Why?” I asked.

He didn’t answer. He simply went back to studying the space between his feet.

“Why?” I asked him again.

“Forget I ever said it.”

“I can hardly do that,” I said. Winding back time wasn’t possible. Just as  uninventing the atom bomb wasn’t ever going to happen. I looked down at him, but he went on scrutinizing the floor.
“Can’t we get out of this bloody heat and talk about this overa glass of iced beer?”

“I can’t drink anything,” he replied sharply without moving his head. “Not even water. What the hell do you think I’m doing this for? I’ve got to lose two pounds to ride Integrated in the Hennessy.”

“Won’t you be dehydrated?”

“Usual state for me,” he said, trying to produce  a laugh. “I’ve been wasting every day since I was sixteen. I can’t remember what a square meal looks like. Nor a beer. In fact, I haven’t had a proper drink for years; alcohol contains far too many calories. Not that I miss it much, I don’t like the taste.” He laughed again, but just once. “Why do I do it? you ask. That’s a bloody good question.” 

He stood up and we both went out of the wooden box into the coolness. I wondered how many people had  a sauna in the corner of their garage, not that there wasn’t still plenty of room for a couple of expensive cars as well, a silver Mercedes saloon and  a dark green Jaguar XK sports coupé, both adorned with personalized license plates. Dave flicked off a big red switch next to the door.

“It must cost a fortune  to heat,” I said.

“I claim my electricity bill against tax as a business expense,” he said, smiling. “This sauna is a necessity for my job.”

“How often do you use it?”

“Every day. I used to go to the one in the local gym, but then they turned down the temperature—something to do with health and safety.” He peeled off the nylon sweat suit and stepped naked onto a scale.

“What the hell is that?” I said, pointing at an ugly purple-and- black ring on his back.

“Something landed on me,” he said with a smile. “Hoofprint.” He looked down at the scale.“I’m still too heavy,” he said with a sigh.  “No lunch for me today, to go with my no breakfast.”

“But you surely have to eat. You need the energy.”

“Can’t afford to,” he said. “According to his bloody owner, if I can’t do a hundred  and forty-four pounds stripped by two this afternoon, I don’t get to ride Integrated, and he’s one of the best young chasers in the country. He’s incredibly well handicapped for the Hennessy, and if I don’t ride him today and he wins, I can kiss good-bye to riding him anytime in the future—maybe start kissing good-bye to my whole career.” 

He  could kiss  good-bye  to his  career anyway  if he’d  been purposely losing races.

“Tell me about the race you didn’t win,” I said.

 “I need a shower,” he replied, ignoring me and going into the house.

“You can use the one in the guest bathroom, if you like. Top of the stairs on the right.”He bounded up the stairs and disappeared into what I pre- sumed was his bedroom, closing the door firmly behind him.Not for the first time I wondered what I was doing here.

“Come now, Jeff.” That’s what Dave had said intently downthe line when he’d called me at ten to seven that morning. “At once. I need to talk to you. Right now. It’s vital.”

“Can’t we talk on the phone?” I’d asked.

“No. Absolutely not. Far too important. This has to be done face-to-face.”

Dave Swinton was one of the very few members of the racing fraternity that I called a friend. Mostly, I avoided social contact with those I was supposed to police, but, two years previously, Dave and I had been stranded for twenty-four hours together by an unseasonal ice storm as we tried to return home to England after the Maryland Hunt Cup steeplechase north of Baltimore. He was there as a guest rider and I had been invited to oversee the introduction of a new  drug-testing regimen for American steeplechase horses.We  had ended  up spending  a  freezing  night in an upstate country hotel with no heat or light, the power lines having been brought down by the ice. We had passed the night huddled under blankets in front of a log fire, and we had talked. Hence,  I’d  come when  he’d  asked,  giving up a  precious Saturday-morning lie-in to catch an early train from Paddington  to Hungerford and  then a  taxi  to Dave’s  house  just outside Lambourn. He had dropped a bit of a bombshell with his claim to have lost a race on purpose, but if he refused to elaborate, I’d have made a wasted journey. I went into his kitchen and gratefully drank down two large glassfuls of water from the cold tap. And still I was thirsty. How Dave could drink nothing after a session in that sauna was beyond me. I followed Dave’s directions to the guest bathroom  and had a shower but still had to wait downstairs for more than twenty minutes before he reappeared dressed in a dark green polo shirt, blue jeans and running shoes, his standard work attire.Whereas most top jockeys still dressed in suit and tie to go to the races in order to impress the owners and trainers, Dave Swinton had long forgone such niceties. Nowadays, Royal Ascot and the Derby meeting apart, racing in general was a more  casual affair, and the current  champion jockey was the most casual of them all.

 “I’m going to Newbury now,” he said, picking up a carryall that was lying in the hallway. “I want to run the course before the first.”

I looked at my watch. It was coming up on ten o’clock.“I came by train and taxi,” I said. “Can you give me a lift?”

“Where to?”

“Newbury  racetrack  will  be fine,”  I said.  “I’ll watch theHennessy and then take the train back to London.”

“Why don’t you drive like  everyone else?”  he said,  clearly irritated.“I’ve no car,” I said. “I don’t need one in the city. I’ll come with you.” 

He could hardly say no, but I could tell that he wasn’t that happy. Whatever  he had decided to tell me at seven o’clock that morning, he had clearly changed his mind since, and half an hour of us together in his car was not on his agenda, friends or not.“OK,” he said grudgingly. “Are you ready?”

He drove the Jaguar at speed out of Lambourn up Hungerford Hill, the only sound being the roar of the car’s powerful engine, but if he thought I wasn’t going to say something, he was much mistaken.

 “Tell me about the race you didn’t win.”

 “Please, Jeff. I told you to forget it.”

 “I can’t,” I said.

“Try.” mHe drove on in silence past The Hare public house and on toward the M4 junction, overtaking a line of slower vehicles with ease.

“Which race was it?” I asked. He ignored me. We turned  eastward, accelerating on to the freeway.“Come on, Dave, you asked me to come all this way because you had something to tell me that couldn’t be said on the phone. So here I am. Speak to me.”

He concentrated hard on the road ahead and said nothing as the Jaguar’s speedometer climbed rapidly past a hundred  miles per hour.“Are you in some sort of trouble?” I asked, although he certainly would be if what he’d told me were true.He eased up on the power and pulled over toward the left. For a nasty moment, I thought he was going to stop on the hard shoulder and chuck me out, but he didn’t. He just drove sedately along in the inside lane at a mere  eighty-five.

“Jeff, can I speak to you off the record?” he asked again.

“You know I can’t agree to that. This is my job.”

“It’s my bloody job that I’m more worried about.” We took the exit off the freeway at Newbury and I sat and waited quietly while he negotiated the traffic lights at the inter- section.

“Look, I’ll keep what you say confidential if I can,” I said, encouraging him to go on. “But no promises.” He must know that I was obliged to report  any breach of the rules to the BHA Disciplinary Committee.

He sighed deeply. “I need your help.”

“Ask away.”

“I’m being blackmailed.”

“Who by?” I asked as calmly as I could.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Someone who knows more than they should about my financial affairs.”

“And aren’t your financial affairs in order?”

“Yeah,  of course  they are.”  He  paused.  “But,  you know, working out the bloody tax is complicated. Maybe I take a few shortcuts.”

“By not declaring certain things?”

“Yeah, maybe. But why should I pay tax on gifts?” It depended if the “gifts” were actually payments for services rendered.

“How much were these gifts that you didn’t declare?”

“Not much,” he said. “Not compared to what I do declare.” Dave  Swinton  was,  by far,  the  highest-earning  jockey in British racing. He was the public face of the sport, with a mass  of endorsements and sponsorship deals. His was the image that stared out of the Racing Needs You! posters of a recent widespread campaign  to encourage  the  young to give  it a  try. His  ever- present green polo shirts had the distinctive swoosh logo of a top sports  manufacturer embroidered  on the left breast above  his name and there were advertising badges sewn onto each sleeve. He  certainly  earned far more  from commercial  endorsements than he did from his riding.

“How much?” I asked again.

“About two hundred.”I laughed. “But that’s not enough to worry about. Just include it in your next return. No one could blackmail you over that, surely?”

“Two hundred thousand.”

“Ah.” The laughter died in my throat.

“Yeah. But I declare more than a million.” He paused   as he overtook  a line of traffic waiting at some lights, swerving across into the correct lane to turn left at the very last moment. “And then some bastard calls me and tells me to lose a race or else he’ll go to the tax authorities and spill the beans.”

“And you’ve no idea who?”

“None,” he said. “Otherwise, I’d have killed him.”

“I don’t think that would be particularly helpful.”

“Maybe not, but it might make me feel better.” He drove on in silence until we arrived at the racetrack.

“Which race did you lose?” I asked again as we turned intothe parking lot.

“I had twenty-eight rides and ten winners last week,  so I lost eighteen races.”

“Don’t mess with me, Dave,” I said. “You know what I mean.” 

He didn’t reply. He pulled the Jaguar into a space in the jockeys’ parking area.

“Do you want my advice?” I asked.

“Not really,” he said, leaning his head down on the steering wheel.I gave it to him anyway.

“Go to the revenue and tell them you made an error of omission on your tax return  and you want to correct it. Pay the tax. That will be an end to it. I’ll try and forget what you’ve told me.”

“And if I don’t?”

“Then you’d be a fool. If someone has that information, they will use  it. They may  not go to the authorities  directly, but they will use it nevertheless. Perhaps they will try and sell it to a newspaper. You’d be right in the shit. Much better that you go to the tax man before they do.”

“But I shouldn’t have to pay tax on gifts. It’s not like they were earnings.”

He sounded as  if he was trying to convince himself rather than me.

“Go and ask your accountant if you need to declare them.”

“Bloody accountants,” he said, sitting back in the seat. “Youdon’t want to tell them anything if you don’t want the tax man to know it. In spite of the fact that it’s me that pays their bill, my lot seem to work exclusively for the government, always telling me I can’t claim for all sorts of things I think are essential for my job.”

“Get a new  firm, then. And do it now.”And maybe, I thought, it was one of his accountant team who knew about his tax-return omission who was trying to make a bit of extra cash on the side. 

“How much money did the blackmailer demand?” I asked him as we walked toward the racetrack entrance.“

That’s what was odd,” Dave said. “He didn’t ask for money, he just said that I mustn’t win the race.”

“Which race?” He didn’t answer.

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