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Freddie's Dead

A green and gold Audi swept through on orange lane under the yellow fluorescent lights of West Hamley's clubroom to take the final round of the Flick Hickster Open by a two-lap margin. The tension in the watching crowd slowly dissipated as the drivers began to shuffle off the rostrum towards the trophy table. As Clem Clempson handed over the cup to the popular winner Jeff 'the Jet' Beck, Beck turned round and called to his pal 'Fast' Freddie Frampton. 'Hey Fast. What are you standing there for? Come on over.' Fast made no response. He remained alone on the driver's rostrum, controller still gripped in his hand and a blank, concentrated stare on his face. 'Over here, Fast. The race is over! You were third. Better than last year. Come get your prize!' Jeff called again, a slight edge of concern in his voice now. Cindy Crawford got up from her marshalling position at turn one and tapped Fast gently on the shoulder. He began to move, slowly at first, then with gathering speed as he toppled forward like a felled oak across the entire track. The crash stopped the loud babble of conversation in the clubroom like the pause button on a video. Fast Freddie lay motionless across the main straight and turns four and five, his nose wedged in the apex of the hairpin at turn six. He was stiff as an RSJ, the controller still clenched in his fist and plugged into the socket of peuce lane. Cindy leant gently across him, her long blonde hair falling across his pale cheek. 'He's…he's dead!' she shrieked. 'But he just came third in the main' said Clem.
'Alright, alright. I'll handle this.' An authoritative voice cut through the shocked silence. A trench-coated figure in a battered trilby hat worked it's way through the crowd. 'Inspector Thumb. Scotland Yard Slot Car Division. You may know me as…..the Scalextric Detective!' 'Er, no, actually. Do Scotland Yard actually have a Slot Car Division?' replied Clem, desperately trying, in his capacity as club chairman, to keep some sort of calm. The squat figure in the seriously out-of-date suit ignored the question and strode toward the prostrate figure of the now not-so-fast Freddie Frampton. He rolled the corpse over with professional detachment, and revealed a small but nonetheless intrusive dart projecting from his chest. 'Of course there is a Slot Car Division. And this is why it is necessary. Murder! Sergeant Argent! Arrest that man!' An apologetic Geordie voice piped up from a slim man in an equally out-of-date suit who was hovering closely behind Thumb himself. 'Which man, sir?' 'The murderer, of course, you idiot!' 'Yes, Inspector, sir, but who's that?'
It seemed a very reasonable question. Inspector Thumb was at that moment, however, going through agonies of self-doubt. His job in Slot Car Division was in fact a very minor one, and he worked in a very small office at the end of a very long dark corridor deep in the bowels of new Scotland Yard. Very few people knew of his existence as he worked on cases involving fake Scalextric Bugattis, stolen Auto Unions and smuggled Alfas, occasionally prosecuting manufacturers for producing out-of-scale models, and issuing fines for depictions of tobacco liveries. He'd come out that night with his faithful sidekick Sergeant Argent purely as a visitor to what he thought would be an entertaining club night. Now he was in the middle of a murder case. He had to act decisively, show his superiors that he was in no way inferior to other officers in other more important departments of the Met. He could- he must- handle this himself. He stood up straight and gestured vaguely, half hoping that Argent might have formed some sort of idea himself. 'Him, of course. Isn't it obvious?' 'The race controller, sir?' replied Argent with a puzzled air. 'But sir, the dart was in Freddie's chest, and the race controller is sitting ten yards away to his left with six drivers between them covering the line of fire and was surrounded by five people when the crime was committed, and, and well, sir….it's just impossible, sir!'. Thumb suddenly realised he'd pointed in completely the wrong direction. Ballistics and all that. The dart must have been fired from the other side of the room. Oh well, he thought, recalling his detective training- the important thing is to make an arrest quickly and let the forensic boys come up with the evidence later. They can nail anyone with their fancy scientific equipment. All he had to do now was stick to his guns and sound decisive. 'No, it's no good. You're under arrest, my lad. What's your name?' The race controller's reply nearly felled Thumb as dramatically as Fast Freddie. 'All right. I'll come quietly. My name's Lowell, George Lowell. Everyone knows me. You don't need to cuff me, I won't make a fuss. I don't know how you worked it out so quickly though. You got me bang to rights. If I'd known there was going to be a cop in the club I wouldn't have tried it. But you have to admit it was a good plan.'
Well, it was always worth a go, thought Thumb amid the general shouts of admiration and bafflement. They didn't teach me that technique at detective school- random chance. Pure guesswork. Spin-the-bottle crime solving. I should try it more often. Then he heard Argent's voice intrude on his reverie. 'I don't get it, sir. It makes no sense to me at all. How did you work it out?' Fair question. Thumb could hardly say he didn't. He thought quickly and turned to the race controller, still sitting coolly at the computer in the corner, surrounded by racers, club mates and spectators. 'Better make a clean breast of it son. It'll go better for you at the Old Bailey if you put it all clearly in your own words, now.' The words came to him from some dimly remembered black and white Ealing film comedy, but they seemed to do the trick.
'Well, Inspector. I've been thinking about how to do for Freddie for some time now, and I thought my plan was foolproof. I didn't anticipate a famous detective witnessing everything though. Anyway. I came up with the weapon first. A vet's tranquilliser dart filled with superglue. It results in instant and permanent paralysis of the whole body. The next trick was to administer it without being seen. My solution, as you have obviously worked out, Inspector, went like this.'
'As the drivers lined up for the final, as part of my pre-arranged job as race controller, I ducked under the track to make last minute checks on the computer connections and power lines. From under the track I drew a bead on Freddie, who was stood in position on the rostrum, ready for the start. I fired a dart upwards into his black, black heart. As the superglue coursed through his veins, Freddie froze in position, already quite dead. No-one noticed, as I anticipated. The dart gun was silent, and Freddie stayed on his feet, wedged between the track and the back wall. The trajectory of the dart would keep me in the clear, once I was back at the race control. But the masterstroke, as I thought it before you spoiled things, Inspector Thumb, was the computer override I installed on Freddie's lane. It enabled me to drive his car from the computer, giving everyone the impression that Freddie was still alive and competing in the race, while I sat out of the way and, or so I thought, beyond suspicion, over at race control. The perfect alibi, and a room full of witnesses. No one would ever suspect. Well, I managed the race quite well, bringing the late Freddie Frampton into a respectable third place. All I had to do was nip under the track again at a convenient moment and remove the computer line to peuce lane and I would be home and dry. The perfect murder. But I reckoned without you, Inspector Thumb. Curse you!'
'Just as I thought' bluffed Thumb. 'Just one thing. Why did you do it?' A querulous murmur went up amongst Lowell's friends and club mates. 'It's simple, Inspector. He stole the flags off my Aston Martin Marshall's car.' A collective gasp swept the room. 'Yes. The proudest part of my vintage collection. An absolute mint boxed Scaley Aston, completely original showroom condition. A couple of months ago I took it out of the box for the first time in a year, to show some visiting Japanese collectors. They laughed out loud. At my favourite car. Hysterical derisory Japanese giggling. It's an unbearable sound Inspector. But they were right. My fab Aston had scratty little flags made out of paper and cocktail sticks. I nearly died of shame. After the Japanese had gone, clutching their sides in apoplexy, I remembered the last time I had taken it out of my cabinet. It had been to show Freddie. And I had left him with it while I went to make a pot of tea. Then six months later, Freddie claimed he'd found the original flags for his own Aston in the bottom of his old bits box, and he was selling it to the Japanese for a small fortune. I challenged him about it, but he just laughed. 'Prove it' was all he'd say. Lowell paused for a few beats, then added darkly, 'a quick death was too good for him.' Thumb drew a long heavy breath, as did the rest of the assembled members of West Hamley Slot car Club. Some whistled between their teeth. Some murmured and nodded to each other. They seemed to agree. Thumb straightened himself to his full but unimpressive height. 'Justifiable homicide, they call this. You have nothing to fear Lowell. Tell the judge just what you have told me, and no jury in this Scalextric-loving land will convict you….. But if they do, I happen to know there's a very good eight-lane sport track at Wormwood Scrubs these days.'
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