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The Pale Racer

Some while ago I arrived at West Hamley Slot Club for Friday night practice earlier than usual. I was hoping for a quiet run with a new car, and I was a little put out to find someone already there and occupying orange lane, my favourite. He was driving so intently he didn't look up to acknowledge me. I didn't recognise him, but I'm quite new at the club, so I wasn't too bothered, although it was unusual not to get some sort of friendly welcome even from the oldest and most senior members. After a while some of the other regulars began to arrive, all greeting me in reassuring fashion, and nodding briefly to the lone driver on orange as they made their way to the set-up benches at the side of the clubroom. One by one, the cars hit the track, drivers wordlessly welcoming each other as they took up the vacant positions on the rostrum. The quiet air of 'getting down to business' only lasted a short while though. 'Wow!' came a sudden yelp from race control, the computer now fired up and running under Jim Page's watchful eye. 'New outright lap record already tonight. 7.98sec. Orange lane. Who's on orange?' All the drivers but one turned their heads to one side. 'Congratulations, er… Sorry, I didn't catch your name…' Coxie Cooper-Archer, the club secretary, turned to the quiet figure on orange lane. 'I didn't throw it' came the surly response from the mystery driver, his concentration unbroken as his car swept past yet again. 'New record. 7.87. Orange lane again'- Jim's voice broke a slightly awkward silence. 'Hi, Jim. How am I doing on blue?' Coxie called out, turning away from the stranger. 'Yeah…8.45's your best so far tonight.' 'Great' replied Coxie, stopping his car and turning to the quiet guy at his side once more. 'Listen. I'm not the best on this track by any means, but I've been racing here for ten years, and no-one's ever beaten eight seconds before. You're good, chum.' 'I know. And I'm not your chum' came the curt and rasping reply. Without shifting his icily unfocussed stare, the stranger yanked his throttle lead from the plug board, scooped up his stationary red and gold Cosworth-Spice SE-90 and slouched away towards the gents. As soon as the door swung shut, everyone stopped and looked at each other. 'Who the heck was that?' asked Geoff Beck. 'I don't know… He was already here with Clint when I arrived' said Phil Lynott. 'Hey Clint' called Alvin Lee form the pits. 'Who is he?' I just shrugged. 'No idea. He was here when I arrived too. Must have let himself in. I assumed he was one of you veteran racers I hadn't met before.' 'This is no good' said Coxie. 'How did he get in? I'm going to find out.' Coxie strode towards the toilets just as the door began to creak open. Coxie positioned himself right in front of it ready to confront the interloper. But as the door swung wide, a tall figure was revealed, and a jolt passed around the small crowd of racers gathered behind Coxie. The man was at his full height, a shock in itself as we realised he had been crouched low at the driver's rostrum, his chin tucked into his collar and his eyes shielded by a low peaked baseball cap. Now the cap was pulled back, revealing a bloodlessly white face from which sharp blue eyes scanned the crowd unflinchingly. But what grabbed our attention was his collar. Which was white. And backwards. 'Good Heavens!' Coxie blurted out. 'We've never had a Vicar in the club before.' 'Who said I was a Vicar?' growled the stranger. 'Well, er, priest, monsignor, curate, bishop, rabbi, whatever…' Coxie trailed off in a rare state of confusion as the tall guy stared straight at him, unperturbed. 'Just ask him, Coxie. You know what we're all thinking.' Steve Hillage nudged Coxie's arm. 'Yes. Absolutely. Right.' Coxie cleared his throat while the stranger looked on, unmoved and inscrutable. 'I don't know who you are, chum- I mean, sir, but you're fast. You have a good car. And it's the Phostrogen Cup on Saturday. We're up against Loose Chippings again, and they've beaten us to a pulp for the last three years running. Literally. They're ruthless. Dirtiest drivers in the league. They'll thrash us, and we can't afford to redecorate the clubroom again. Unless someone can teach them a lesson. And that someone could be you.' There was a long pause as the stranger looked slowly round the room before returning his relentless gaze to Coxie. 'I know' came the slow V8 rumble of the stranger's voice. 'I'll be here.' And that was all he said as he turned and walked slowly to the exit, his Cuban heels clicking sharply on the concrete floor. With one milk white hand on the rusting door handle, he turned slowly back towards us. 'Just one thing. Paint all the lanes red' he said. Then he was through the door and gone. Coxie raced after him, but by the time he got to the door there was no trace of him anywhere down the long, high-fenced lane that led back through the industrial estate. 'How the hell did he do that? I didn't hear a car starting- did any of you lot?' Coxie panted as he re-entered the club. We looked at each other nervously. 'What did he mean?' asked Alvin. 'Paint the lanes red is what he meant, stupid' replied Steve. 'But why? How will we know how to…?' Jim's voice trailed off as enlightenment dawned on one face after another. 'The vicar, or whoever he is, has a plan' said Coxie decisively. 'Jim, Steve, Clint… race day tomorrow. Get some tins of red paint.' 'Rudest vicar I ever met' said Jim.
There were a few things going on in the back of my mind, for sure, so I made one phone call myself before Coxie arrived the next morning to open up the club on race day. Every member of West Hamley Slot Car Club was ready and waiting at the door, pit boxes in hand, and expectation high. There was also a slight but noticeable element of naked fear in the air. Loose Chippings had a terrible reputation as cold hearted, ruthlessly competitive racers. They stopped at nothing to win and left a trail of broken cars and shattered drivers in their wake. Every dirty trick in the book was second nature to these guys, but the only people who had ever challenged them had found themselves cold and naked at the end of a bleak country lane at midnight, or superglued to Hammersmith Flyover. No club was safe, but no-one dared close their doors to them.
Coxie shouldered the doors open and flicked the lights on. The sudden flare illuminated the whitewashed walls and the dull grey of the track snaking it's way round the perimeter. But now the stark surroundings contrasted glaringly against all eight lanes, newly traced with fresh blood red paint.
A distant rumble grew into a roar, then a hiss of hydraulic brakes and the squeal of bald tyres as the Loose Chippings Battle Bus drew up outside the club. Its doors swung back, hitting the sides of the coach with an echoing clang, seven wide and swarthy figures emerged, and a cold chill gripped the heart of every West Hamley racer. 'Where's the Rev., Clint?' asked Coxie, a sudden flash of panic in his eyes. I looked around and saw one particular face I was happy to see, but no sign of our mysterious vicar. 'Don't panic, Coxie, he'll be here' I said. But I knew we were dead meat.
The first heat was up. Four simian lunks from Loose Chippings were creaking the floorboards under the driver's rostrum. Three West Hamley guys were trying to make themselves as small as possible between them, and seven cars were on the line. One lane lay empty. The Loose Chippings cars were easily distinguishable- four camouflage Panzer grey Le Mans Cunningham 'Monstres', dotted with paint chips of all colours picked up from previous collisions and worn as badges of pride. 'Hang on a minute.' The shock of hearing one of the Chippings drivers speak was like being addressed from behind the bars at London Zoo. 'The lanes are all red. How are we going to know when….?' 'It's this years colour, dear boy. Didn't you know?' A familiar low baritone rasp cut across the Loose Chippings driver's protest as the tall stranger appeared out of nowhere. His dog collar gleamed under the fluorescent strip lighting and he stood tall and straight, his red throttle grasped casually at hip height contrasting vividly with his white hand and jet black Edwardian cut suit.
'O.K. Heat one' called Jim from race control, with immaculate timing. He counted down and eight cars swept down the main straight in absolute line abreast. Only five emerged from the first corner. Three West Hamley cars had been squeezed out by the opposition in typical fashion. Just one remained on the track shadowing the Chippings chariots. It was the Reverend's crimson Spice. Hapless marshals cried out. 'Which lane are you on?' 'Red' came the inevitable answer. 'Which red?' the marshals called back. In the confusion the five remaining cars careered round the track, but the vicar was playing a cat-and-mouse game with the enemy. As one grey monster came up on his inside preparing to tailslide his car into the scenery, he would brake hard and let the Cunningham spin high into the wall. 'Which lane, chief?' 'Red' 'Which red?' As desperate marshals fumbled with the cars the race turned into a destruction derby. Only the dog-collared stranger kept it in the slot, quietly reeling off the laps, while frustrated Loose Chippings drivers flattened the plastic shrubbery with flailing out-of-control cars. Heat one went easily to the mysterious priest. In heat two, Jim Page and Steve Hillage caught on to the idea. Driving steadily, they kept on the track while the Neanderthals from Loose Chippings understeered themselves off the track one by one in crazed and frustrated attempts to wreck the home team. The marshals quickly got the idea too, and as each dull grey car tanked into their waiting hands, they recited their mantra in increasingly ironic tones; 'What lane?' 'Red' 'Which red?' Thud. 'Sorry. Obviously not that red, then.' Heats two, three, four… all fell to carefully driven West Hamley cars.
The Loose Chippings team were staring defeat in the face for the first time. The final would be a West Hamley freeze-out. Half the Chippings cars were already shattered and the drivers were looking for blood. 'Where's the vicar?' growled one from beneath his overhanging brow. 'I want to talk to him.' The stranger materialised by his side immediately, causing the Chippings driver to rock slightly in his sixteen-hole Doc Martens. 'Yes, and what can I do for you my son?' His opponent said nothing, but suddenly lunged at the stranger's throat. 'You set this up, you, you-' But the Chippings driver staggered back in surprise and a flash of recognition. The dog collar had come away in his hands, and the stranger stood briefly frozen in shock, before his own hands leapt up to cover his neck. He looked rattled for the first time, but stood tall and walked slowly to the door, his powerful presence opening a path through the crowd. His hand fell to the door handle, and once again he turned abruptly on the stacked heels of his red leather boots. 'Remember red lane' was all he said before he disappeared for good into the twilight.
His work was finished. The final was a done deal. Geoff took first place, to get his and the club's name on the coveted Phostrogen Cup for the first time. The Loose Chippings crew trailed off into the night, their knuckles dragging a furrow through the empty crisp packets, Twix wrappers and crushed Styrofoam cups that littered the floor, a tired and broken team that would never darken our track again. The stranger was long gone, too, but as our celebrations subsided, talk turned again to the mystery vicar. 'I think I can provide you all with some help there.' A familiar voice broke through the hubbub, and a familiar trench-coated figure bustled into the centre of the crowd. He raised his battered trilby slightly, and replaced it. 'Thank you for inviting me here Clint. This is indeed an intriguing mystery we have all witnessed. Who was that clerical man? Well. I have brought a file with me from Slot Car Division, which provides not only an answer, but also a very significant question.' 'Glad to see you Inspector Thumb,' broke in Coxie. 'And very wise of you to call him Clint. I was so wrapped up in this I couldn't think straight myself. So what do you have for us, Inspector?'
'A fascinating story, I think. When Clint told me about his car, a Spice-Cosworth SE 90 in red- an unusual and distinctive choice of prototype- I went straight to my files. And found this. The car was built and raced by one Max Nerf, of the Loose Chippings Slot Club.' He paused for effect. 'Clint's description of the man fitted exactly with what was in the file, and this is his race record.' Here, Thumb cleared his throat and began to read from his written reports. 'Five years ago, Max Nerf was thrown out of his own club, an event which ruined his entire professional and personal life. His winning run in the Phostrogen Cup of that year was found to have been boosted by an extra six volts channelled into red lane, which he had drawn in the semis. Thrown out of his family home by his wife, also a prominent member of Loose Chippings, his protestations of innocence gained a certain credibility with Slot Car Division when Mrs Nerf moved in with the new Loose Chippings team captain only weeks later. Nerf himself fell into a solitary existence, reduced to taking in laundry to make a living. Despite repeated applications, his case was closed on 13th of November that year.' 'But why, Inspector. What happened then?' asked Coxie. 'This is the curious part.' Replied Thumb, his brow darkening and his lips pursed. 'I knew the stranger was Max Nerf for sure when that Loose Chippings driver grabbed him by the throat and his dog-collar slipped. I noticed something then, which somehow chills me to the bone.' 'Go on, Inspector, please go on!'
'I shall now read from the Coroner's report' continued Thumb, in a darker tone. 'Coroner? Who died then?' interjected Coxie. Thumb picked another sheet from his file and cleared his throat. 'The conclusion of the chief medical examiner is that Mr. Max Nerf died from strangulation. The deep striations around his throat correspond precisely to the flex of the Rowenta Steam Iron which the deceased held in his hand at the time of death. There is no evidence of any other person or persons unknown being present in Mr. Nerf's flat at the time, but the bar of sunlight soap found beneath the deceased's right foot and the partially collapsed ironing board enabled the investigating officers to build a clear picture of the circumstances of Mr. Nerf's death. He evidently slipped on the soap whilst ironing, and became fatally entangled in the electrical flex as he fell. During the fall, he struck his right frontal cartrix against the corner of the ironing board, producing the abrasions observed on the corpse. This caused immediate loss of consciousness, which prevented him from disentangling himself from the flex. On a personal note, may I say that I have seen too many young men lose their lives in this way, and recommend immediate legislation to prevent inexperienced males from becoming involved in the dangers of housework.'
Thumb closed his file decisively and sat down. 'You mean to say we've been racing with… with a dead man?' said Alvin, barely hiding the nervous quaver in his voice. 'I am not susceptible to supernatural flim-flam' replied Thumb, 'but neither am I fond of exhumations and post-mortems. So in this case, I am prepared to accept the possibility that…' Thumb was interrupted by a scream and a clatter. Geoff had been sitting in a corner, quietly clutching the Phostrogen cup to his chest, still enjoying his moment of triumph. Suddenly he yelped and jumped up, letting the trophy crash to the floor. 'It's hot!' he shouted. 'It's burnt my shirt!' Sure enough, a wisp of smoke was rising from a black mark directly over his heart. I reached down and picked up the Phostrogen cup, which was indeed, distinctly warm. But beneath the names of the previous winners, where the names of Geoff and the rest of the West Hamley team were due to be engraved the next day, figures and letters were already etched deeply into the nickel plating. Beside today's date, the winner's name glowed red hot. The name was 'Max Nerf'.
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