Damage USOccupation: undercover investigator for the British Horseracing Authority

I stand in the shadows at the back of a race-program kiosk near the entrance to Cheltenham racetrack, scanning the faces of the crowd as they flood through the turnstiles.

It’s the first day of the annual Cheltenham Steeplechasing Festival and, in spite of bad weather, a crowd of fifty thousand is expected. Everyone has an umbrella or a rain-hat of some kind – ideal conditions for the unwelcome to hide amongst the masses.

I know by sight all those who have racecourse-banning orders but I’m on the lookout for one particular individual that our intelligence branch has suggested might come to Cheltenham today.

I spend much of my time half hidden, scanning faces, watching out for those who have no place in racing.

Damage UKMy task would be easier if I knew none of the people funnelling through the entrance. Then I’d just have had to look for someone familiar. As it is, I know about a quarter of those passing in front of me: owners, trainers, jockeys as well as other regular racegoers that I’ve seen many times before. One of the reasons I have this job is because I have an uncanny knack of remembering faces.

The human swarm begins to thin out as the first race approaches.

‘They’re off!’ The public address announces the start of the first race.

I almost miss him.

As the race comes towards an exciting finale with the crowd cheering, the man rushes through the end turnstile, a red scarf wound around his neck and mouth, and with a battered trilby pulled down hard over his ears. It is the eyes that give him away.

I slip out of the race-program kiosk and scurry along behind him, keeping about ten yards back.

He turns right towards the concourse between the parade ring and the grandstand. There is purpose in his progress as if he has a specific agenda rather than merely wandering around.

Suddenly, he stops completely and turns round to face me.

Bugger.

I go past him without breaking step, looking not at him but at the iPhone in my hand.

He won’t know me, I am sure of it.

I hardly recognized myself that morning when I looked in the mirror. I believe that I am most effective if those I am pursuing don’t know what I really look like. Hence I use disguises, wigs and various degrees of facial hair, glued in place with latex adhesive.

A good disguise is all about distracting people’s attention away from one’s eyes. Give them something else to stare at and they might remember that feature, but they won’t recognize the man beneath.

Today I sport a well-trimmed goatee with collar-length dark hair under a brown woollen beanie. I purposely don’t want to look like one of the ‘establishment’, but equally I need to blend into the background.

I walked on twenty strides and then stop, half turning back. I place my cell to my ear as if making a call and silently take two photos of the man.

He starts moving again and I stand quite still talking to no one on my phone as he walks right past me. I wait a moment, then follow.

We are moving against the human traffic that is spilling out towards the winners’ circle now that the race is over, but he presses on into the stream, forcing his way forward as I struggle to keep up.

I follow as he goes into one of the bars beneath the grandstand.

The place is packed with long queues at every counter but the man is clearly not here to get a drink. Instead he weaves his way right through and out onto the now almost empty viewing steps beyond.

I hang back a little so as not to alert him to my presence.

I watch as he stands for a moment, moving his head from side to side as if searching for something before setting off again down the steps. He moves swiftly towards where the lines of bookmakers are sheltering from the rain under their umbrellas.

He is now about twenty yards away and, as I watch, he takes his right hand out of his coat pocket. And his hand is not empty.

‘Knife! Knife!’ I shout loudly, rushing towards him.

My shouts are swept away by the wind and there is nothing I can do but watch as the man goes straight up to one of the bookmakers and slashes his throat. There is no warning, no words at all, just a clean swipe of the blade across the bookmaker’s unprotected skin, which turns instantly from pink to bright red.

The whole thing has occurred so fast that even those standing close by seem not to realize what had happened until the bookmaker in question topples face-first onto the wet tarmac, the blood gushing from his neck like a scarlet fountain.


You can read more about Jeff in Damage, the 8th book written and/or co-authored in the “Dick Francis horse racing” mystery series, published by Putnam. The first book written and/or co-authored is Dead Heat.

Meet the author
Felix Francis is the younger son of literary legend, MWA Grand Master and three-time Edgar winner, Dick Francis. Felix has taken over the writing of the ‘Dick Francis’ novels and has recently finished DAMAGE, his eighth, which was published October 7, 2014. Felix lives in England with his wife, Debbie, and their three Irish setters.

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