Sara at the races
The Carrington Racecourse is one of the few venues in my hometown of any note. It holds five race meetings a year, the biggest of which, by far, being the Carrington Gold Cup. It attracts race enthusiasts from across the country. The roads in town are gridlocked when it is going on and hotel rooms are booked months in advance.
The drop off point was already packed by the time my dad's car pulled into it. Countless people dressed in their glad-rags were being shepherded in by a bunch of very flustered stewards.
"Remember, I'll meet you both here at six. I want to get out quickly to avoid the traffic" my dad instructed
"Whatever dad," my twin brother Chris muttered under his breath.
"We'll be there," I replied firmly. I had been invited to a post-race party in town, and there was no way I was going to let my brother make me late.
As I opened the car door my dad said, "Enjoy yourselves, and keep out of trouble."
"I'll be on my best behaviour, promise," Chris said as he stepped out.
"I wasn't talking to you." I saw my dad give me a knowing look.
Just before I shut the door behind me I said, "It's a day out at the races. What could possibly happen?"
Yeah yeah, famous last words and all that.
Chris and I walked through into an open area behind the stands, and began looking for our respective groups of friends. Everywhere was already packed out. Some people looked like they'd already had a bit too much to drink.
Seeing the expensive outfits the ladies were wearing, I made sure my own outfit still looked presentable. Like everyone here I had bought my dress specially, and I was very pleased with my choice. It was a silk, spaghetti strap dress with the hem knee length, and coloured a gentle shade of purple. It was completed by a pair of black, ankle strap sandals with a four inch heel. My shoulder length brown hair fell straight down and frayed out at the ends, due to a good hour's worth of straightening and styling this morning.
What? Just because I'm a girl detective doesn't mean I can't spruce myself up occasionally.
My brother, wearing a dark suit with a bright purple tie and matching shirt, watched everyone bustle past with a bored look on his face. "Dunno why everyone goes nuts over horses."
"What exactly are you doing here then?" I asked in frustration. When I saw his gaze being drawn to a pair of short skirted blondes with more fake tan than skin I added, "Well, ask a stupid question."
We walked into the paddock, containing the square in which the horses were paraded before each race. "Where are you meeting your friends then?" Chris asked, looking about for his own group of mates.
"They said they'd meet me round here somewhere..."
I was cut off by a sudden cry of, "Sara, Sara over here!"
I then saw the rest of my gang fighting their way through the crowds. Harriet reached me first, wearing a one piece dress with a black belt and black, high heeled pumps. The bright red colour of her dress mixed brilliantly with her flame coloured hair, which she had curled for the occasion. Abigail was again as fashionable as possible, wearing a dress with one shoulder strap, on which was crafted a black silk flower that she wore like a rosette. Her outfit was white at the top with a black skirt. On her feet were dark, ankle strap, peep toe heels, and despite the warm weather she was wearing opaque black tights. Her normally long blonde hair was fixed into a tight, expertly crafted bun.
But I have to admit, the show was well and truly stolen by my best friend Rachel. She wore a light blue, shoulder-less dress with the knee length hem at a diagonal slant. Complimenting this a pair of high heeled sandals, held in place by blue ribbons that wound their way up her calves. Her wavy, jet black hair fell over her shoulders, with specially curled strands falling either side of her face.
Upon seeing her Chris began acting quite agitated, shifting on the spot and checking his hair was still as styled as possible. "Hi, you look nice," he blurted out in a surprisingly timid voice.
Rachel responded to his tame compliment with one of her own. "Thanks. You look...nice too."
"Loving your dress Sara," Abigail announced.
"Well can't let you lot get all the attention. Anyway, has our secret weapon got any good tips?"
I was referring to Harriet who, as the daughter of a stable owner, had plenty of inside
information from the racing world. With a knowing smirk she said, "we have to go for Benjamin's Biscuit in the Gold Cup. Don't be fooled by how he's currently third favourite. He's a dead cert."
"Shall we put our money on him before the odds are halved?" I suggested as I unbuckled my bag to check my spending money. Everyone agreed and we all set off in the direction of the betting booths.
Now I know what you're thinking. That this is all part of some grand plan of mine to deal with shady goings on at the racecourse. Well, actually, I do have a life outside of being a detective. Today I wanted no snooping, no criminals, no being tied up and having to escape at the last second. I just wanted to enjoy my day out with my mates.
That plan was thrown out the window when we were almost trampled by a rampaging horse.
We heard the people screaming first, then saw the crowd dispersing ahead. Only then did we see the chestnut coloured horse speeding towards us, its hooves clattering against the tarmac.
The crowd was much denser at this point, and we were right in the middle of it. We pushed and shouted as us and several hundred other people tried to get out the way. Rachel cried out as the mass of people pushed her right into the horses path. But at the last minute Chris grabbed her by the waist, and hauled her out the way. The distressed creature leapt over the wooden paddock fence and ran around in a circle, bucking like fury and calling out in distress.
Within seconds the vet appeared, running to the paddock with a tranquilizer pistol in his hand. Steadying himself, he took aim and fired. He scored a direct hit, the dart embedding itself into the horses neck. The effect was instantaneous, and the poor creature fell to its knees before rolling over.
As the vet jumped over the paddock fence to examine it, Abigail summed up how we were all feeling by saying, "What the hell was that about?"
"I don't believe it," said a very shaken looking Harriet. "That's Benjamin's Biscuit. I've seen him in action twice before and he's never done anything like that."
"Well good job no-one seems to be hurt," I remarked. "And that we didn't spend all our money on him, and Chris you can let go of Rachel now."
Both Rachel and Chris had both been oblivious to how his arms were still wrapped around her. When I pointed it out they both sprang away from each other like they'd received an electric shock. Rachel began to blush while Chris returned to awkwardly messing with his hair.
"Oh my God, Benjy!" a girls voice suddenly shouted over the commotion. Seconds later a girl my age barged into me in her attempt to reach the paddock. When she saw the drugged Benajmin's Biscuit lying on the grass she clasped her hands over her mouth in shock. "What the hell happened?" she murmured.
The girls name was Pandora, a girl with bleach blonde hair who went to the posh private school just up the road from my college. She was from a very, very rich family with a strong tradition in breeding horses. It didn't take a genius to work out that Benjamin's Biscuit belonged to her.
I was then barged into a second time. "Ok, what's going on here?" said a stern sounding woman in her mid forties, dressed in a crisp, black suit. I didn't recognise her, but was reliably informed by Harriet that her name was Joyce Wright, the race organiser.
The vet, a balding, bespectacled man well over six feet tall, finished his examination of the unconscious horse and told her "I don't think the horse has received any serious damage, but as to what made it bolt I can't say."
"He's never done anything like this before!" Pandora pleaded. "Someone must have done something to him. You have to launch an investigation..."
"Nonsense. I can find no sign of physical harm on the creature," the vet said briskly.
"And an investigation is out of the question" Joyce Wright barked. "We have a tight schedule to adhere to. I would suggest you take greater care over your horses, if you want to avoid being reprimanded in future."
I have to say I'd never exactly been friends with Pandora, but seeing how upset she was, and the stern comments she received from Joyce Wright and the vet, began to make my blood boil. Something must have happened to spook Benjamin's Biscuit, and yet neither of these two were prepared to do anything about it. I eyeballed Joyce Wright as she turned on her heel and walked away with her head held high.
Doing so meant I could see quite clearly when she was approached by a completely bald man dressed in an expensive tail-suit and top hat. He leant over and whispered into her ear, at which she hissed something back in return. They were too far away for me to even attempt to hear what they had said, so all I could do was watch as they sauntered off back into the crowd.
"I have to agree with Pandora," Harriet remarked, snapping me back to attention. "I've never known any horse, let alone one of the favourites, act like that before any race before."
"You think someone deliberately spooked him? That someone is trying to fix the race?" Rachel gasped.
"Only one way of finding out!" I said, instantly regretting how clichéd I sounded.
My brother gave am exasperated moan. "Oh don't tell me you're going to do what I think you're going to do?"
An hour later we were doing what Chris didn't want us to tell him we were going to do. Having a good, old fashioned, snoop.
We were in the parking area for the large, expensive horse boxes used to transport and house the horses before racing. Rachel, Abigail, Harriet and myself were the only ones around. Chris, who still disapproved of all my girl detective antics, had left us to go find his mates, convinced we were going on a wild goose chase. All the trainers, jockey's and indeed the horses had long abandoned their trailers, though we could still hear the murmur of the crowds from where we were searching.
"Just what exactly are we looking for again?" asked Abigail, as she skipped around piles of horse muck that lay in between each of the trailers.
"Anything that might tell us why Benjamin's Biscuit nearly killed us," I replied, though secretly wondering myself whether this was all a waste of time. Finding something here would be the proverbial needle in a haystack. I could feel the hot sun beating down on my bare shoulders, while the points of my heels sunk into ground still soggy from last nights rain. My three companions were having similar difficulties. Rachel in particular seemed reluctant to get her beautiful ribbon heels dirty.
But we all pressed on regardless. Deep down, none of us can resist a mystery. I suppose you knew that though. You wouldn't be reading about our adventures if we could.
"Here it is!" Harriet announced, reading the words stencilled into the side of a very expensive looking horse box. "Bluebell Stables, Carrington. That's where Pandora lives!"
I don't know what we expected to find, but we began looking anyway. The box was locked so we couldn't get inside. So we rummaged about looking for signs of a struggle, or for any evidence that explained why a race horse had suddenly gone mental.
As she stepped over another ripe pile of horse dung, Abigail found some.
"Look at this!" she exclaimed, picking something up off the ground and beckoning us to come over. She was holding a medical syringe, and a big one at that. There was no way a human would ever need one so big, but for a horse...
"Could you use this to administer performance enhancing drugs into a horse?" I asked Harriet.
"You don't mean...surely not Benjamin's Biscuit...?" Harriet trailed off, now thinking what we all were. Was Pandora really involved in an attempt to cheat by pumping horses full of drugs?
"Someone's coming!" Rachel hissed suddenly, having heard footsteps on a nearby gravel path. Moving as fast as our heels would allow we ran around the horsebox and hid behind the front bumper. Seconds later the vet appeared, looking extremely nervous and constantly looking over his shoulder. He didn't see me peering around the front of the truck, but instead scanned the ground looking for something.
I stared at the syringe Abigail was clutching tightly, and wondered, with a knot forming in my stomach, if that was what he was searching for.
"What the hell happened this morning Basil?" said a new voice.
Daring to look for a second time I saw the vet being approached by the tail-coated man I'd seen talking with Joyce Wright. His round, chubby face looked like it had already seen too much sun today, and he spoke with a proper east-end gangster accent. Clearly, I thought as the knot inside me gave another nervous wrench, this wasn't a bloke to be messed about with.
The vet was scared too, and wringing his hands he said "I don't understand. I used exactly the same dosage as usual. It's never affected the horses so early before."
"You mean to tell me that your little miracle drug is not working as well as it should do?"
"It's just that we never properly tested it. Yes we had success at the Barningfield and Crassford races, but it's natural for different horses to react differently to the drug."
I hid behind the trailer, listening intently to every word. My friends were all open mouthed, wondering just what we had stumbled into.
"You had better hope the other three favourites go rogue during the race, as planned. Do I need to remind you how much money I stand to lose if Merry Morris doesn't win the Carrington Gold Cup?"
"The drug should act on them as normal, and halfway through the race the horses I injected become frantic and disorientated. But I must say...this is getting very risky. I mean after Benjamin's Biscuit's reaction people will become suspicious."
"And the officials will find exactly what they found the other times, absolutely nothing. And if for some reason they discover the drug they won't come looking for us. It will be the horse owners who get the blame."
"Relax Basil. You stand to make a fortune today. I suggest you pocket your winnings, then lie low for a while, until the heat dies down. Come on, we should return to the stands before people notice we're missing."
I could barely breathe. I had just inadvertently learned of one of the biggest doping scandals to have ever hit the racing world. Drugging the rival horses, not to make them win, but stop them from finishing. I would call it genius if it wasn't so horrific.
But we had four witnesses who had heard every word, and a piece of concrete forensic evidence in Abigail's hand. All we had to do was tell the race officials and stop the race before someone got hurt.
Sounds so simple doesn't it? Well things got a tad more complicated when I heard a pair of muffled yelps from behind me. Rachel and I whirled around and saw a massive, tree trunk of a man, with his right hand over Abigail's mouth and his left over Harriet's. The two startled girls fought and struggled against his grip, but neither could break it.
Before Rachel or I could do anything about it we heard someone say "Though we should probably deal with this gang of nosy snoops first." I whirled around again and stared into the bright red face of the top-hat man, who was giving us a rather unpleasant looking smirk.
"You know, I've always wondered just where you villains get all your rope from?" I snapped.
"We're surrounded by stables and horse boxes. Where do you think we're getting them from?" top-hat man replied, as he continued to tie my ankles together. The rope he was using was particularly coarse, and bit uncomfortably into my bare skin. That didn't stop him completely encasing my feet in rope, even wrapping some around my heels and underneath my soles to prevent me kicking my shoes off. Not that it would have mattered. The way me and my gang were secured we really weren't going anywhere.
We had been bustled into the back of top-hat man's own personal horse box. It was state of the art, with electronic lowering doors, thick walls and enough space to fit at least three horses. Plenty room to store four trussed up eighteen year olds.
Our hands had been bound behind our backs, and then we were sorted into pairs; Abigail and Harriet, Rachel and myself. We'd been made to sit back to back, with our bound wrists pressing against each other. Then our upper bodies had been almost completely encased in long, winding ropes. From our waists, underneath our breasts and around our bare shoulders, Rachel and I were well and truly welded together.
As top-hat man finished binding my ankles, while his personal thug did the same to Rachel's, I glanced over at the already tightly trussed Abigail and Harriet, bound just like us. Abigail glanced up at her captors fearfully, but Harriet wasn't going to let them go without giving them a piece of her mind.
"You guys are sick you know that?" she snarled. "Horses are living creatures, not something to be exploited for money. And you think tying us up to stop us talking is going to earn you any brownie points..."
"I don't really care!" top-hat man interrupted. "All I care about is the feeling of my wallet bursting from the seams, as it tries to deal with all the twenty pound notes I'll be stuffing into it later. That's a sensation I don't want four meddling girls to ruin for me."
"People will notice we've gone you know!" I growled at him.
"By the end of today it won't matter whether you're missed or not. After I collect my winnings I'll be taking you all on a one way trip to some associates of mine in the middle-east. I'm sure they'll appreciate having four new beauties to play with."
"No!" Rachel gasped, straining against her bonds. I could feel her hands wriggling against mine as she tried to free herself. I grabbed her wrists with my own bound hands to reassure her. We weren't out of this, not yet anyway.
Right on cue the vet returned. "All I could find was this. Had to steal it from the dining area," he explained as he held up a long, white, linen tablecloth.
"That'll do nicely" top-hat man remarked as he tore it into eight similar sized strips. We all knew what was coming well before he knelt beside me with two strands of fabric in his hand. "Are you going to make it easy for me?" he asked smugly.
"Yeah you can sod off you complete bbbbbgggggmmm!" My outburst was effectively silenced by him stuffing my mouth with a piece of cloth he had rolled into a ball. Swiftly he tied a knot in the second strand which he forced between my teeth. He fixed it tightly behind my head, so the strands tugged remorselessly against the sides of my mouth. Behind me I heard Rachel groaning as tree trunk man did the same to her. I could then only watch as Abigail and Harriet were treated to a knotted cleave gag each. Abigail accepted hers without even a whimper, but Harriet was so uncooperative that tree trunk man was forced to grab her cheeks and prise her jaw open for top-hat to stuff her mouth.
'We must look a sight,' I thought glumly, picturing the four of us in our posh frocks all tied up and gagged in the back of a horse box. It would have been quite absurd had our situation not been so dire.
"Well must dash," top-hat remarked as he walked down the ramp leading into the trailer, the vet and his goon following. "I have an appointment with a large gambling payout, and I'd hate to be late. Just sit tight and think of home, because once the Gold Cup has concluded you won't ever see it again!"
"Nnnnnnmmmm!" Rachel and Abigail chorused as Harriet began thrashing like one of their drugged horses. I simply stared as he pressed a button on the side of the truck. The ramp then began to lift up automatically, sealing us inside.
"Tata ladies" top-hat waved just before the door clunked into place, hiding him from our sight.
'Yeah this is a right pickle you've got into now Sara!" I mused as I began struggling. Having faced death traps at the hands the mysterious Mr Wright before I was no stranger to situations like this, but in some ways this one was even worse. Worse because a crime was about to be committed, which I was powerless to prevent. Worse because of the fate I would face if I couldn't get free. And worse because, this time, my three best friends shared my predicament.
Seeing Harriet and Abigail straining for freedom, and feeling Rachel's heavy breathing against my back as she did the same, spurred me into action. There was no way I was going to let this freak get away with doing this to us.
But after struggling for what seemed an eternity, I was close to admitting defeat. We tried everything. Trying to loosen our own bonds, shifting over to help out each other, looking for something to help us cut our way free, but nothing worked. We all remained stringently bound. I swore into my cleave gag, cursing at how damned uncomfortable these ropes were against the areas of exposed skin.
The only noise in the trailer came from our muffled grunts, the rustle of our dresses against the metal surface on which we were squirming, and the clop of our heels on the floor as we stretched our legs out. Occasionally we could hear the roar of the crowd, as the race meeting officially got underway. From where we were trapped I tried to figure out what race number it was. I had lost track of time, but I knew that when the final roar went up, for the Carrington Gold Cup, it would essentially condemn us to a life of slavery.
"Cccccmmm hhhmmmm ssssrrrrrggggmmm!" Harriet grunted at me, still thrashing about like fury. "Wwwwwnnnn ggggtttt tmmmm ggggggnnnnttt mmmmmtttt mmmmpphhh hhrrrrmm!"
"Mmmmm nnnmmm!" I moaned in reply. "Cccccnn yyymmmm ggggtttt llllsssssmmm?"
"Nnnnnmmm," said a very desperate Abigail. "Tthhhhnnnn rrrrppppsss rrrrrmmm ssssmmmm ttttnnnnnttt!"
Rachel didn't join in with our muffled conversation. She had been very still for a long time. Then her shoulders started to judder up and down and I heard the sound of sobbing from behind me.
'Dammit Rachel don't cry!' I thought as I listened. The reason for this was because hearing my lifelong friend so upset was enough to bring tears to my own eyes. I shut my eyelids in an attempt to stall them, and found myself praying for a miracle.
It was at that precise moment I heard the sound of footsteps outside.
The four of us looked at each other in amazement, before we began making as much noise as possible. I screamed into my gag and thumped my feet against the floor, while my friends all did the same. It was enough to get the attention of whoever was outside, and we heard the scurried footsteps running over. There was a clunk as the release lever was pulled, causing the ramp to descend. We all blinked as the box was filled with bright sunshine, as we came face to face with our rescuer.
"I suppose I should be surprised to see you all like this," Chris remarked with a relieved looking smile.
I gave a happy sigh. My idiot brother had come through for me, right when I had needed him the most. Now he could get me untied so we could stop the...hang on, why was he going over to Rachel first?
Pulling out her gag Chris asked her "you alright?"
I could hear Rachel sniffing as her tears of fear turned to tears of relief. "Yeah, yeah I'm ok now. How did you find us?"
"I guess being a good sleuth runs in the family," I heard him reply.
"Wwwllllmmmm yyymmmm nnnnttttmmmpphhh ssssss?" I shouted at him in exasperation, trying to get him to speed up our rescue. We had a race to stop!
To this day I'm not sure quite how we managed it. It took a lot of arguing on our part, of insisting we were not drunk and by showing them the painful ropemarks around our bodies, in order to get the race even delayed. It was enough, because as the horses waited for the race to start some began acting up as the drugs took hold. When the three other favourites bolted and ran off like Benjamin's Biscuit they realised we were telling the truth.
Top-hat, whose real name was Clive Dudgeon, owner of an international gambling syndicate worth millions, mysteriously disappeared from his booth just after the race was cancelled. He didn't get far. He was caught by security trying to leave via a pedestrian exit. We were informed of his subsequent arrest as we recovered from our ordeal in the swankiest part of the racecourse.
"On behalf of everyone here I would like to thank you all for bringing Dudgeons corruption to light," Joyce Wright said as we were all checked over by paramedics. "The racing world is better now that he is gone, and while I am sorry you had to go through such an ordeal I am glad justice prevailed."
"No thanks to you," I muttered audibly.
Joyce's eyes narrowed. "What on earth could you mean?"
"You could have stopped this race before any of this had happened. When Benjamin's Biscuit bolted you ignored the possibility that something was wrong and decided to carry on as usual. I wonder whether Dudgeon shared your view. After all I did see you speaking to him just afterwards."
Joyce stared at me angrily. "If you are accusing me of anything, I would like to see some evidence first," she told me.
I gave her an angry glare back. "Oh I'm not accusing you of anything. You could have said anything to him I'm sure. Absolutely anything!"
Joyce hesitated, but decided against pursuing the subject. "Get some rest Miss Philips. And good job today." With that she stormed off.
"Charming lady," Chris muttered under his breath.
I gave a weak laugh. I wanted to tell him how brilliant he had done today. How proud I was that he was my brother. But I didn't get the chance, as at that point he was jumped on by a girl with bleached blonde hair.
"Oh my God, you did it Chris!" Pandora exclaimed as she embraced him tightly. "I knew something was wrong, I just knew it. Thank you for catching that awful, awful man."
"Yeah...well...Sara and her friends did most of the..." Chris began, but she swiftly interrupted him.
"You must come up to our private room to celebrate. Come on, it's just up here!"
Chris gave us a long stare, his eyes lingering over Rachel in particular. "Actually I think I should stay with my sister and her..."
"Oh they'll be fine for a couple of minutes. We'll be right back, promise!" She tugged at his arm pulling him towards the exit. Chris tried to hesitate, but I noticed that he didn't exactly struggle too hard against the pretty rich girls grip.
Abigail gave a stretch of her aching muscles. "All's well that ends well, right guys?"
"Yeah" I muttered half-heartedly, as I watched Joyce talking to a band of reporters.
"Yeah" Rachel muttered half-heartedly, as she watched Chris being dragged through the exit.