The old wooden tower looms over the racetrack, an eyesore that is too famous to tear down. To Wes Harrison, it is more than an architectural curiosity; it is a bitter reminder of Ginger North, the track employee who, three decades earlier, leapt from the tower to her death. Around the track, she is a legend, something to reminisce about in between races, but to Harrison, Ginger North is much more: she was his mother. A troubled ex-cop, Harrison drifts into the world of the racetrack as a way of connecting with his mother’s spirit. Armed with a few old case files, he takes a job on the grounds, seeking answers about Ginger’s death. Standing in his way are certain people—jockeys, trainers, grooms, and owners—who do not want the truth to come out. Conflict is natural among those who work with horses, but at this track, the competition could be deadly.
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About the Author
John Dunning (b. 1942) is an American author of mysteries. Born in Brooklyn, he moved to Charleston, South Carolina, with his family in 1945. After failing to graduate from high school, Dunning held a series of odd jobs, first in Charleston and then in Denver, including work at a glass shop and at various racetracks, before taking a position as a copy boy with the Denver Post. He published his first mystery novel, The Holland Suggestions, in 1975, and went on to write several more books, including Denver (1980) and Deadline (1981).
After a dispute with his publisher, Dunning quit writing to open a secondhand bookstore, Old Algonquin Books. He returned to the mystery field with Booked to Die (1992), which introduced the bibliophile homicide detective Cliff Janeway, who would go on to star in four more novels. Dunning is also an expert on old-time radio, and has published several reference works on the subject.
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Looking for Ginger North
By John Dunning
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1980 John Dunning
All rights reserved.
THE NIGHT BEFORE I arrived at Pacifica, I dreamed of knives: cold steel with razorsharp edges, slashing in toward my eyes. A tiny red dot appeared, grew larger, quivered and pulsated, then oozed into the last remaining cracks of light. I clawed at the red, trying to clear my eyes, but it only smeared and streaked. The first pain caught me high on the right shoulder; I turned and a second pain ripped across my back. I had the sensation then of being on the floor, face up, with some shadowy figure poised above me. The shadow moved quickly and the pain seared across my throat.
I sat up with a jerk.
There was no figure; there was no blood. I was in a seedy hotel room in downtown San Francisco. The bedding was rumpled and snarled; most of it was on the floor.
I lay there for a long time in the dark. Across the street, the monotonous, flashing light of a dive winked regularly through the torn shade on my window.
What an incredible dump.
My skin felt tingly all over. The thought of bedbugs suddenly made me flinch. But I didn't get up.
Footsteps sounded in the hall. Laughter. The drunken chatter of a man and a woman, stumbling into the two-buck room next door.
Normally I was not a heavy dreamer. I had to be pretty damn upset about something to let it into my dreams. In fact, I'd had no more than two or three dreams that I could remember in any detail the next day. But all of them had meant something to me.
One had been prophetic.
Three years ago in Vietnam, I had dreamed of getting shot. As I recalled that dream, my hand came down from behind my head and touched the lumpy scar tissue that still covered my thigh. Now I had dreamed of getting stabbed.
Big deal. One had nothing to do with the other. I knew well enough where the knives had come from: two old murders that had suddenly hit very close to home. Police files can be pretty graphic, and stabbings were the worst of the lot I shuddered.
By now I was thoroughly chilled and wide awake. I would not sleep again. So I got up, packed my bag by the light of the bar across the street and left. Loud noises were coming from the room next door as I locked up and tiptoed down the hall. Suddenly I remembered how long it had been since I had been with a woman, even for as much as a glass of wine and an evening of talk.
I walked up Mission Street just as the black was changing to gray in the east.
The stablegate was still busy at ten o'clock. I had a late breakfast in a diner just up the street—a typical racetrack joint called The Payoff—and waited. I scanned through the Daily Racing Form, then read it carefully, studying the names of jockeys in the morning line and the winners of yesterday's races. One or two I knew vaguely, maybe well enough to nod to in passing, maybe not. You can never tell about jocks. One of these kids had raced in New Orleans last winter, when I was just starting out. A punk kid then, and probably still a punk. A young punk always talking about making it big in New York or California.
So he had made it to California. Big goddamn deal.
Except for the crude wooden tower above the grandstand, it might have been New Orleans all over. But the tower was becoming a landmark in racing circles: a running gag, even two thousand miles away in Louisville, I had heard of it. It was a weird piece of local California history, a dash of color, a trademark like Churchill Downs has its steeples. I had first seen it in the early morning; an atrocity that seemed to hang like a vulture above the press box. It clashed with the newer facilities under it and forced you to wonder why on earth they would save it. It was built like the sentry tower of an old frontier fort, with an inner room and an outer railed deck that lacked only the sentry. It made me want to laugh.
Just now, sitting over my too-runny eggs, laughter would have hurt too much. Instead, I fished into my khaki jacket and came up with my contact. The name on the paper was EDDIE WALKER, in big bold letters. Under it, in my own cryptic shorthand, were other names: ANDY O'BRIEN, CONRAD MARKER, BILLY NORTH. I knew them all well now, could even imagine what they looked like. But I fidgeted with the paper, more to ward off the boredom than to memorize the names. After a time I paid for my uneaten eggs and hiked back up the street to the stablegate. A cold wind had come up; rain was a possibility. The grandstand looked stark and brooding from this side of the infield, like something out of an old black-and-white movie. It was after eleven and traffic through the stablegate had slowed somewhat, but it was still fairly heavy for the last week of a race meet. It didn't really matter. I'd been around racetracks long enough now to know that all decent horsemen had finished their work hours ago. Probably most of them were sleeping. That was where I would find Eddie Walker—flat on his ass asleep, after a hard morning's work.
The hell with him. I was tired of waiting.
I checked in at the stablegate. The guard looked beyond me, while an open-bed truck stacked high with hay and straw and bearing the words WESTERN FEED on its doors drove through. The inside of the stablegate was just like any other: a small, smoke-filled brick building that stood in the center of the only road into the stable area. The guard was busy for a minute, checking windshield stickers as a new wave of cars came through. When he came in, I told him to page Eddie Walker, who, I had heard, was working for Andy O'Brien.
He looked me over, motioned me to a chair and took up the microphone.
"Eddie Walker, to the stablegate."
His voice rang through the stable area like a commandment. I opened the door and waited outside in the fresh air, watching the gaunt faces behind the stickered windshields as the cars passed through.
It must have been ten minutes later when Eddie came. I thought he looked like your typical guinea: his walk was a shedrow shuffle, developed from years of rolling under stall-door webbings and shuffling between stalls, though he was probably only in his early thirties. His shoulders drooped; his shoes were old and hadn't seen a coat of polish for weeks. Eddie wore jeans so faded they were almost white; his shirttail hung over his belt and flapped in the breeze. He wore a battered cap. Halfway up from the barn, someone called his name. He turned, glanced back and waved. I saw the footpick—the mark of grooms everywhere—sticking up from a back pocket.
Eddie came the rest of the way without stopping. He began to appraise me from a distance of twenty yards. I wondered what he saw: probably a battered man, about his own age, dressed in rugged clothing, combat boots (they wore better than any shoe) and with a two-day growth of beard. A man not unlike himself, Eddie would be thinking. If so, that was okay with me.
I saw intelligence in Eddie's eyes. If there was ambition there, it was either hidden or smothered with neglect. Eddie looked like another guy I'd known, in my early days at New Orleans. That guy didn't give a damn either.
"You call me?" Eddie said.
"My name's Wes Harrison." I offered my hand. Eddie took it without committing himself. "You know a guinea named O'Fallon?"
"Mark O'Fallon, sure."
"He told me to look you up. I'm looking for work. O'Fallon said you could help."
"Where's he at now?"
"He was still at the Fairgrounds when I left last week. I told him I was coming here, looking for work with O'Brien, and he gave me your name."
"Because he's the best there is. That's what I heard anyway."
"You should'a come last week. We lost our foreman last week."
"Who's foreman now?"
"I am." A slight smile started around the corners of Eddie's mouth. It vanished immediately.
"So O'Brien must still need somebody."
"How long you been on the racetrack, Harrison?"
"Little over a year."
"Then you know how long jobs like that last. Hell, O'Brien had somebody the next day."
"What about Billy North?"
That snicker flashed again. "He's always full up. Tell me something, are you really looking for work, or do you just want to hitch on with a big stable?"
"I'll take what I can get."
"Okay then, let's go up to the kitchen and talk. I might be able to figure out something for you."
Eddie nodded to the guard and motioned me down from the stablegate. We walked side by side to the back-stretch cafeteria, located exactly in the center of the stable area, where barn C-4 would have been. He let me buy without protest, and neither of us spoke until we had settled into a corner table with the two steaming cups before us.
"Tell me about yourself," he said. "You say you been on the racetrack just over a year. But you ain't a helluva lot younger than me. Getting started pretty late."
"I've see lots of guys drift into racetracking in their forties and fifties—guys a lot older than either of us."
"Those guys are winos and drifters. They're just looking for a place to crash. We all know they'll be gone after the first payday. Most of the time you can tell a guy like that. First question he asks you is does the old man pay off once or twice a month." Eddie sipped his coffee and watched me with cool eyes. "You didn't do that. You asked about working for the old man because somewhere along the way somebody told you he's the best there is. Usually you get young kids asking that question. They've just seen an old Mickey Rooney flick, and now they want to be a horse trainer."
I smiled. "You're trying too hard. I'm just looking for a job. Hell, I could say all that same stuff about you, if the thing was reversed. Maybe there isn't any such thing as a typical guinea."
"Yeah, maybe. Let me just ask you one question then, Harrison, and I'll let it go. Are you a cop?"
I shook my head.
"You know, I had a lot of dealings with cops before I went on the racetrack. I was in trouble a lot as a kid. I got to where I had a nose for cops. Right now my nose is working overtime."
"I was a cop once. But that was a long time ago. I've been a lot of things since those days. Right now I'm just a guinea looking for work."
He looked unconvinced. "That's all, huh?"
I paused just long enough. "It's almost all. There are some people here I want to look up. But that's a personal matter, not professional."
"And nobody's going to get busted."
"Not by me."
Eddie drained the last of his coffee. "Okay. Harrison, if O'Fallon says you're okay, that's enough for me. I know one trainer who needs a groom right now. You got an objections to working for a dame?"
"Not if her checks are good."
He motioned with his head, stood up and motioned again for me to follow. We went out through a rear door, emerged into a bustling, busy tow ring, where two walking machines were walking six horses. Eddie cut across into the E row, walking fast now, and I had to hurry to keep up. He went under the shedrow at E-6 and went quickly past the long row of stalls, stopping at the end of the barn. "She ain't here," he said, pointing to the open stall door. "Probably up at the track. Want to wait?"
In the tow ring, a girl was walking a blanketed horse. She and Eddie avoided each other, the girl tending to her horse while Eddie stared at the dust he was kicking up with his foot.
"She still uses a hot walker," I said. "I didn't think anybody used people to walk horses anymore, since they invented those goddamn machines."
"She does and O'Brien does. O'Brien hates the machines too." Eddie glanced quickly at the girl in the tow ring, then looked at me. "One more thing you ought to know," he said, changing the subject abruptly. "If you take this job you'll probably get harassed a little by one of the guineas in our shedrow. Guy named Norman Poole. You ever heard of him?"
I shook my head.
"He's a pretty good guinea; I guess that's why O'Brien keeps him around. But he's a pig-eared prick, and the less you have to do with him the better."
"I'll remember it. Who's the girl?" I nodded toward the young woman walking the horse.
Sudden anger boiled behind his eyes. "She's just a racetrack whore," he said, so softly that I had to lean closer to catch it. "The less you have to do with her the better too."
The girl had stopped long enough to roll the blanket back, so that now it covered just the horse's flank. She let the horse have two sips of water, then came around the tow ring again. Her eyes met mine for perhaps three seconds, and I found there a faintly familiar look, like someone I had seen in a recent dream. Yellow hair flowed down her back. Her lips, drawn in a tight bit of a pout, did not change. She looked young and innocent, not a day over eighteen.
"You mean a whore in the literal sense?" The question sounded stupid even as I was saying it.
Eddie stared at me. "Yeah. That kind of whore."
"She doesn't look old enough."
"How old do you have to be? She's about twenty-eight. Look, would it bother you if we talk about something else?" He looked beyond me. "Sandy's coming back."
I looked where Eddie was looking. Somehow I expected the owner to be an older woman, a backstretch battle-ax with one breast and a glass eye. But the woman was roughly the same age as Eddie—my age—thirtyish, maybe a year or two either way. She came into the tow ring on a pony horse, leading a thoroughbred by a lead-shank. She was wearing guinea's clothes: jeans, a flannel shirt and boots. Her auburn hair was just visible under her jockey's helmet.
"Eddie," she said, nodding. "Want to hold a horse for me?"
He stepped into the tow ring and took the leadshank from her. She dismounted and began to sponge the thoroughbred's back with hot water, while Eddie clicked his mouth and held the horse's head.
"I brung you a guinea," Eddie said after a while.
She eyed me with some suspicion. "What's he done?"
"You can ask him that. He did tell me he used to be a cop, so watch it." There was a hint of amusement in Eddie's voice, and again that slight snicker began at the corners of the mouth. "Good friend of mine in New Orleans sent him over. I think he's probably okay."
For a long time she didn't say anything. She sponged the horse till it glistened and steamed from neck to tail. Then she covered it with the same wool blanket the hot walker had just taken off the other horse. "We'll be putting that one in in a minute," she said to me. "Then I can let Chris take this one and we can talk."
"I'll shake down your stall for you," Eddie said. He broke open a bale of straw and bedded the horse's stall about eight inches deep. Soon the walker, Chris, brought her horse in, and took over walking the hot one. Eddie waited with me at the tack room door.
"Harrison, this is Miss Sandra Farraday," he said as she approached. "She's probably the only libber on the back side."
Miss Farraday did not laugh. "Now we're even," she said to me. "Why don't you shove off, Eddie."
"Good idea. Drop over to the barn after feeding time tonight, Harrison; we'll have a few beers. We're in F-7, one over and one up."
When he had gone, Sandra Farraday went into the tack room. She took off her hard hat and threw it into an open trunk at the foot of the bed. When she sat on the bed she faced the door, and her thick, damp hair fell down around her shoulders. "It's getting to be more than I can do by myself," she said. "And I've got two more head coming in next Monday. Boarders, but they should be good runners. They'll help pull me out of the red." She looked up and her eyes opened wide, as though she had been talking to herself and had forgotten I was there. "So yeah, I do need the help. And you need the job, right?"
I thought of the eighty dollars in my wallet. "You could say that."
"How do you feel about working for a woman?"
"I thought we didn't have to ask questions like that anymore."
She smiled for the first time. Her smile was young and tired and pretty. "I can see you've been around on the outside."
"I've had a few jobs."
"Yeah, I'll bet you have. And not all of them racetrack jobs, either. Born and bred racetrackers still don't like working for a woman. At least they don't like working for me."
"Maybe you're too sensitive."
"Maybe so. I'll tell you this much: I don't like men trying to train my horses for me. I've had enough of that kind of nonsense, and if you remember just that one point we'll probably get along okay. I've paid my dues in this business, and if you go to work for me, I'm the trainer and you're the hand."
"I'll pay you every first and fifteenth; a hundred dollars a month for each head, and you'll probably rub four. I'll take care of the other two. I'll pay twenty-five dollars' stakes when we win—your horses or mine. Who have you worked for?"
Excerpted from Looking for Ginger North by John Dunning. Copyright © 1980 John Dunning. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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