I was standing right next to Herb Kovak when he was murdered. Executed would have been a better word. Shot three times from close range, twice in the heart and once in the face, he was almost certainly dead before he hit the ground, and definitely before the gunman had turned away and disappeared into the Grand National race-day crowd.
The shooting had happened so fast that neither Herb nor I, nor anyone else for that matter, would have had a chance to prevent it. In fact, I hadn’t realized what was actually going on until it was over, and Herb was already dead at my feet. I wondered if Herb himself had had the time to comprehend that his life was in danger before the bullets tore into his body to end it.
Probably not, and I found that strangely comforting.
I had liked Herb.
But someone else clearly hadn’t.
The murder of Herb Kovak changed everyone’s day, not just his. The police took over the situation with their usual insensitive efficiency, canceling one of the world’s major sporting events with just half an hour’s notice and requiring the more than sixty thousand frustrated spectators to wait patiently in line for several hours to give their names and addresses.
“But you must have seen his face!”
I was sitting at a table opposite an exasperated police detective inspector in one of the restaurants that had been cleared of its usual clientele and set up as an emergency-incident room.
“I’ve already told you,” I said. “I wasn’t looking at the man’s face.”
I thought back once again to those few fatal seconds and all I could remember clearly was the gun.
“So it was a man?” the inspector asked.
“I think so,” I said.
“Was he black or white?”
“The gun was black,” I said. “With a silencer.”
It didn’t sound very helpful. Even I could tell that.
“Mr. . . . er.” The detective consulted the notebook on the table. “Foxton. Is there nothing else you can tell us about the murderer?”
“I’m sorry,” I said, shaking my head. “It all happened so quickly.”
He changed his line of questioning. “So how well did you know Mr. Kovak?”
“Well enough,” I said. “We work together. Have done for the past five years or so. I’d say we are work friends.” I paused. “At least we were.”
It was difficult to believe that he was dead.
“What line of work?”
“Financial services,” I said. “We’re independent financial advisers.”
I could almost see the detective’s eyes glaze over with boredom.
“It may not be as exciting as riding in the Grand National,” I said, “but it’s not that bad.”
He looked up at my face. “And have you ridden in the Grand National?” His voice was full of sarcasm, and he was smiling.
“As a matter of fact, I have,” I said. “Twice.”
The smile faded. “Oh,” he said.
Oh, indeed, I thought. “And I won it the second time.”
It was unlike me to talk much about what I now felt was a previous life, and bragging about it was even more uncharacteristic
"Do you want a hand with that?" a voice shouted from behind me. I stopped pulling and turned around. It was the man in the cream linen suit. He was about fifteen yards away, leaning up against the metal fence between the betting ring and the Royal Enclosure. I hadn't noticed him as we'd packed up, and I wondered how long he'd been there watching me. "Who's offering?" I called back to him. "I knew your grandfather," he said again while walking over to me. "You said," I replied. But lots of people knew my grandfather, and nearly all of them hadn't liked him. He had been a typically belligerent bookie who had treated both his customers and his fellow bookmakers with almost the same degree of contempt that they clearly held for him. He had been what many might have called a "character" on the racetrack, standing out in all weathers at an age when most men would be content to put their feet up in retirement. Yes, indeed, lots of people had known my grandfather, but he'd had precious few friends, if any. "When did he die?" asked the man, taking hold of one side of the handle. We pulled the trolley together in silence up the slope to the grandstand and stopped on the fl at of the concourse. I turned and looked at my helper. His gray hair was accentuated by the deeply tanned skin of his face. I reckoned it wasn't an Englishsummer tan. "Seven years ago," I said. "What did he die from?" he asked. I could detect a slight accent in his voice, but I couldn't quite place it. "Nothing, really," I said. "Just old age." And bloody-mindedness, I thought. It was as if he had decided that he'd had his allocated stretch in this world and it was time to go to the next. He had returned from Cheltenham races and had seemingly switched off inside on the Friday, and then he had expired on the Sunday evening. The post-mortem pathologist couldn't say why he had died. All his bits had apparently been working quite well and his brain had been sharp. I was sure he had simply willed himself to death. "But he wasn't very old," said the man. "Seventy-eight," I said. "And two days." "That's not old," said the man, "not these days." "It was old enough for him," I said. The man looked at me quizzically. "My grandfather decided that his time was up, so he lay down and died." "You're kidding?" he said. "Nope," I said. "Absolutely serious." "Silly old bugger," he said, almost under his breath. "Exactly how well did you know my grandfather?" I asked him. "I'm his son," he said. I stared at him with an open mouth. "So you must be my uncle," I said. "No," he said, staring back. "I'm your father."
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