Read Mortal Lock Online

Authors: Andrew Vachss

Tags: #Collections & Anthologies, #Mystery & Detective, #Fiction, #Suspense, #Thrillers, #General

Mortal Lock (5 page)

“Okay,” I said to him, going along. “Could you tell me what’s so special about those horses over there?”

“Those are harness horses,” the old man said, talking like he was in church. “Harness horses, you understand? Not thoroughbreds, like they have over to Aqueduct or Belmont. Not thoroughbreds,
standardbreds
. What that means, they’re all bred to race a standard distance. One mile.”

“And the jockeys sit in those little carts—?”

“Not jockeys,” he said, waving his hand like he was brushing some dirt off his sleeve. “Drivers. That’s where this whole thing started from: horses doing
work
. Some guy’s driving down a country lane, hauling a load, okay? Another wagon rolls up next to
him. One guy looks at the other, and,
bang!
you got yourselves a race.”

He talked the way a man does when he’s just told you something important, wants to make sure you get it. Me, I got it, all right. You can see the same thing at stoplights every night, only with cars. But I just nodded, so he’d keep talking.

“And they do it the same way today,” he said. “You see that big convertible over there on the back stretch? That’s the pace car. It starts moving, nice and slow. Then a gate comes out of each side, like a butterfly opening its wings. It keeps moving, so all the horses can get lined up behind that gate. When the car crosses the starting line, the gate folds back up. That’s the signal for the horses to go. The car keeps going until it gets away, then it pulls off to the side.

“A rolling start, see? Not like those
thoroughbreds
,” he said, almost sneering the word. “Those, they start them out of little cages, like they was fucking greyhounds, chasing a fake rabbit.”

“So the trotters, they’re like Old School, huh?”

The old man gave me a sharp look, trying to see if I was jerking his chain. After a minute, he gave up. I may not know anything about horses, but I learned how to keep my face flat a long time ago.

“Those horses out there; you wanted, you could trace every one of them all the way back to the original stud. Hambletonian was his name, and every trotter you see today carries his bloodline. He was racing way before the Civil War, that ‘Old School’ enough for you?”

“Damn!”

“And when they’re done racing, those trotters you see out there, what do you think happens to them?”

“They get killed?”

“Killed? You mean, like with those greyhounds? Nah. Some of them, the big winners, they use for breeding. The rest of them, well, they keep right on working. Those fancy carriages you see
in Central Park? You know, the ones for tourists? Who you think pulls them? Those Amish people, down in Pennsylvania, where you think they get the horses, pull their buggies? They got some programs where they even get adopted. That’s probably the best deal of all.”

“The regular racehorses, they don’t—?”

“ ‘Regular’ racehorses?” he said, like he was mad about something. “You mean, like the ones you see on TV, get movies made about them?”

I just nodded; I didn’t say anything. That’s always the best move when it looks like someone’s going to lose it. I learned that one when I was just a little kid, even before I started getting locked up.

“You never been near a track in your life, but you heard of Secretariat, am I right?”

“Yeah. I mean, everybody’s—”

“Sure. But I say, Nevele Pride or Une de Mai, I might as well be talking about fucking Martians, huh?”

“I guess so. I mean—”

“Thoroughbreds, that’s all anyone knows. Let me tell you something, kid: Those nags, they’re nothing but toys for rich men. That’s why those spindly-legged things are always breaking down. They ain’t from rugged stock,
working
stock, the way trotters are.”

“But they’re faster, aren’t they? I mean—”

“A track star could outrun a prizefighter, too. But what happens when the runner gases out, got no breath left? Your trotters, they’re the true tough guys in the business. Go out forty, forty-five times a year and
work
for their money. Race in the rain, race in the snow. Race in a damn hurricane, you let them. They pull whatever you put behind them, too. You don’t have to be no midget to do it—some of those drivers are as big as you are. And you don’t have to be from Saudi-fucking-Arabia to own one, neither.”

“I don’t want to own one. I just want to win some money on them.”

“Uh-huh,” the old man said. Meaning, whatever was really going on, it wasn’t his business. “All right, here’s how it works. Winning money on the trotters is part handicapping, part investment, and part luck. If the race is clean—and, a lot of them, they’re not no more, not with exotics on every race—the edge goes to the man who really loves the horses. You got to have a feel for them. That takes—”

“What’s ‘exotics’?” I interrupted. I know it’s not polite, but he was losing me, and I wanted to slow him down so I didn’t miss anything.

“Combo betting. Like a trifecta, that’s one example. To hit one of those, you have to pick the horses who come in first, second, and third, in that order. Long odds, big payoffs.”

“What’s wrong with that?” It sounded okay to me. That’s the way life is—the bigger the risk, the bigger the payoff.

“What’s wrong with it is that big money always brings out the guys who like shortcuts. Those kind of people, the ones I’m talking about now—all they have to do is pay two, three drivers to pull their horses—hold them back, make sure they don’t finish in the money, okay? Then they bet the other horses in every possible combination. Long as they make sure the pulled horses are short-priced, they’re guaranteed a big score, every time.”

The old man lit a cigarette, hunching his shoulders and cupping his hands, even though there was no wind.

“They used to call a race like that the Big Triple. Usually had only one a night, on the last race; keep the crowd from leaving,” he said. “Now, they got one on damn near
every
race. Superfectas, you got to pick the first
four
horses in the exact order of finish. High-Fives … well, you get the idea.”

“Yeah,” I said. And I did. There was a casino at the track—not a real one, just slots, mostly—and it was packed to the gills with gamblers. Not horse-players, gamblers.

“Look at it like this,” the old man said. “The owner of the winning
horse gets
half
the purse; the horse that comes second, his owner gets half of what’s left, and so on … all the way down to fifth. So if you own a horse, he can get you a check even if he never wins a race. They do it that way because it’s better for the game. It costs just as much to feed a horse that never wins a race as it does to feed a world champ, so the idea is to spread the purse money around, help the owners out, keep more of them in the game.

“Now the driver’s take is ten percent of whatever his horse earns in the race. Let’s say the purse is ten grand. That means five g’s for the winner’s owner, and five hundred for the driver, okay? So what you do, you tell the driver of the best horse, here’s a couple of grand for your
self
, you do the right thing. No big deal. All you got to do is make sure your horse, it’s not gonna be his night, see?”

“If that’s the way it is, how come
you
bet on them?”

I thought that was a good shot I’d just landed, but the old man didn’t even blink. “You stay away from those kinds of races. That’s something you have to learn. Some guys, they strictly play the stakes races,” he said. “A stakes race means the owners have to buy their way into them, keep putting up more and more money as the season goes along. The
stake
, see? You ante up, that lets you sit in. But you have to keep calling to stay in the pot.

“Some of those races, the purse gets so big, you could
never
get to the driver. It’s not just that the driver’s in for a fat check if he gets his horse home—any driver gets seen tanking in a big race, he’s on the permanent shit list. You train one of the top horses, you
know
what he’s supposed to do out there, and you watch
close
. So even if the driver doesn’t get nailed by the track, the trainer, he’ll know.”

“A big race, like the Kentucky Derby?”

“Yeah,” he sighed. “Like the Kentucky-fucking-Derby. Only for a trotter, that would be the Hambletonian. Named for the original, see?”

“I never—”

“I know.” He spit over the rail. “You never heard of it.” He took
a breath, like he was taking control of himself. “Listen,” he said, “you think the trotters don’t run for big money, too? That Hambletonian I just told you about? Last year, the purse was two million, okay? That sound like chump change to you? They got all kinds of races for six figures, and a few go over that. There’s plenty of money in this game, you got the right horse.”

He sounded like a guy apologizing for something, but I didn’t say that. I didn’t say anything at all.

“You couldn’t pay a driver enough to pull in one of those big races,” he said. “And finding three of them crazy enough to try, forget it.”

“So why wouldn’t they cheat in the other direction?” I asked him. “Isn’t there a way to make them go faster?”

“You mean like when they stick a garden hose down their throats and pump them full of baking soda? Sure. That’s what they call a ‘milkshake’—it stops their muscles from locking up so they still got plenty of zip down the stretch. But you mostly see that used on thoroughbreds, not trotters.”

“How come? They’re all horses, right?”

“No! That’s what I’ve been telling you. Okay, look, they call all standardbreds ‘trotters,’ but it’s not like they all trot. Some of them are pacers. Trotting and pacing, those are different gaits. But you got to hold that gait. If you start running, you’re out.”

He held up his hand to stop my next question, then he showed me what he was talking about, using the first two fingers of each hand: “Trotters move their outside front leg and inside rear leg at the same time; pacers move both outside legs, then both inside legs, like sidewinders, see?

“The big thing to remember is what I told you, they got to stay on whichever gait they pick. If they break stride, start galloping, the way the ponies do, you got to take them off to the side, settle them down, get them back to trotting or pacing before they can get back into it.

“That happens, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, their race is done right there. That’s why you never want to hit a trotter with a speedball. He’s likely to get all excited, start running. That’s when you can tear up your tickets.”

“But there’s other ways, right?”

“With all the drugs they let them take now, who knows?” the old man said. He tapped a fresh cigarette out of his pack, looked at it for a second. Then he said, “Listen, you don’t have to come around here with this fairy story, okay? I got asked to do a favor, and I’ll do it. You want to pick up enough so you sound like you know what you’re doing, let people think you’re a handicapper, I can teach you enough. But you want to really look the part, you got to put in more than a few days, understand?”

“Sure.”

“I can’t be here every night. It’s a long drive from where I live. But I can come maybe two, three times a week, until you’re ready, fair enough?”

“You’re the one doing the favor.”

“That’s right. Now, I got some books at home. About harness racing. When I come down Monday night, I’ll bring some for you to look at. You willing to do that?”

“Yeah,” I said, surprised. People don’t ask me to read books. “Thanks.”

“In the meantime, just hang out, watch the races.
Only
watch, for now. You start betting before you’re ready, you could get lucky, think you actually know what you’re doing. Worse, you could get hooked on the action. Then you’ll never learn nothing.”

“Okay,” I told him.

It was early the next morning by the time I got back to my room. Motels are better than hotels—you can park right outside your room, and the desk clerk doesn’t need to see you come and go.

I used one of the prepaid cells I always carry to make the kind
of calls you make in my line of work. They never ask you for a credit card number, just an address.

The hooker they sent over was like they all are.

2

“Never fall in love,” the old man told me a week later. “That’s certain death for a handicapper. It’s okay to have a couple, few horses that are like your guys, sure. You follow them, root for them, all that. But when it comes to betting on them, you got to make sure they’re placed right, first.”

“How do you do that?”

“Class is one way; you can see if the horse is going up against tougher company than usual. Or if he’s in soft. But, mostly, you got to watch the conditions. See this race here,” he said, pointing to the form. “It’s a ten K condition layout, only for non-winners of eight thousand, last six outs, okay?”

“And even the winner, he only gets half the purse.”

“You listen good,” he said, like he hadn’t expected it. “That’s right. And remember, the horse comes in second, he takes half of what’s left. All the way down to fifth.”

“So, six races not to win eight thousand dollars, they couldn’t be winning too often.”

“Or,” the old man said, smiling a little, “they were kicking ass, but the purses were real, real small. Sometimes, an owner don’t expect much from his horse, so he keeps him at the small tracks.”

“Small tracks, small purses?”

“Yeah,” he said, handing me the program. “You got it down. So show me, which one of these is in cheap?”

“I think … this one,” I said, putting my finger on a horse who won five out of the eight races they showed on the form, but the purses were all under two thousand.

“Maybe. Maybe so. Next thing is to look up the track,” he said, taking the program from me and turning some pages. “That’s Bangor, way the hell up in Maine. Speed rating for that track is two oh four, according to this little program you bought. What’s it for here?”

I looked where he was pointing. “It says, ‘Yonkers, one fifty-nine.’ ”

“Good! Now this here one we’re looking at, he’s been going in two oh two and change when he wins up there. And that’s a real slow track. What’s that speed translate to down here?”

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