Playboy Fiction: The Great Cummerbund Steeplechase

Winning the annual steeplechase is everything in Stirrupshire.

We were riding the full championship course, all four kilometers, and it was late in the day when a rhythm had been achieved and the noble steed Far Cry was rolling like a poem. I was thinking perhaps we’d have a chance this year at the steeplechase championship, when we came up through the Kendrick’s swale and crossed Biggleston Woods, through which you have to duck twice, and Far Cry took the low stone wall there. Our team had had a magnificent outing, and I had ridden last following the measured and powerful flow of Graham Hoosh on Curdler and Felicia Rungbell on Pegasus and the dear Wilda Bloom on Sawtooth. There are times riding when it feels as if your mount has floated up to a stopping in the sheer air and the earth is galloping apace underneath you. It felt like we had flown most of the way. In the final kilometer I had pushed Far Cry to the front and as we jumped the wall, it was I who saw the body before Far Cry had come to ground, and when he saw it he stalled on his front feet as if to reverse and he sent me up his neck to the bridle, but I held on. Pegasus stopped short of the wall and the other two horses pulled up and stood there like students of the scene and I saw their eyes go wide and their nostrils flare. It was as if they knew. It scared Pegasus and Curdler and Sawtooth and Far Cry so that we had to dismount there in the last shadows of Flogmeadow and walk them home, horses sweating in the mist.

It doesn’t take long for people in a village like this one to become alarmed, seriously alarmed and frightened, when the authorities, such as they are, commence throwing the word exsanguinated around. Just to hear it once is a full helping, and Constable Oldchair and Mr. Measlie, the parish medical examiner, and Roderick Loose, who writes the monthly newsletter, and the postman and every bad elbow up and down the bar at the Ivory Fetlock and every person who ever leaned against a fence in our timeworn shire has had the awful word in their mouth and said it then only to throw more disturbing fear into our sweet country air. Since coming across this dead bloke who looked vaguely familiar and much like he was sleeping with the little wall as his pillow, my three riders are nervous and the horses are jumpy, and not in the way they need to be for the coming annual steeplechase championship. If the town would just stop with that word. “Exsanguinated, the body was exsanguinated.” “Oh yes, they found him where he must have hit his head on the pony trail wall, which killed him dead, as it would, but did you know what was funny about it was that he was exsanguinated.” “It’s not every day you find a citizen dead in the woods having been exsanguinated.” We’ve had citizens die in every season in Stirrupshire. Their hearts give out bringing in the milk or they get full of Rimstill’s bitter, which everyone knows is stiff as whiskey, and they fall in the creek, which is mainly a rock gully most of the year. Or they have a stroke being chased by some of the aggressive squirrels that have emerged in the district. We’ve had inebriated, but we’ve never before this character knocks himself into the next world had exsanguinated. Not a drop of blood in him. Everybody in town has been out to the spot where the trail widens and enters the wood to see where the blood should be and there is no blood. “Where’s the blood?” someone will ask. Honest to Venus, Mars and Jupiter, I’d never heard that sentence before while trying to sneak in a second pint at the Fetlock, and then all of a sudden instead of talking about our fine equestrian team and our chances in the most important horse jumping competition in these hills, you hear some weary expert saying, “Where’s the blood?” And suddenly there’s the sleepy journalist Roderick Loose with his notepad open writing down such remarks, which is poor form in a public house, if you ask me. I know for stone-wall certain that it is a question for which everyone has a theory. No one, for the last two weeks, has said, “Dunno, mate, where is the blood?” Everyone has an idea if not two. Rimstill moves up and down the bar, the bar towel over his shoulder, and he must hear it all: “Oh, he was killed over in Saddleshire and transported here”; “Oh, he’s not human and had no use for blood. There’s aliens among us. Just look around the pub”; “The blood evaporated. He’s part of an experiment from the secret labs at Moldshire. You could see the secret government stamp on his neck.”

That last one might have a bit in it. I found the body, leading the three members of our championship steeplechase team. The man, who was dead and pale as froth, did have a big angry canker on his neck, something the size of a large circular fist, which I took as where he may have struck himself. The mark itself became a topic that raged like a rubbish fire, and our citizenry decided it was either the wax seal of the devil or a rash from toxic chemicals being stirred up at Moldshire. The government put an agricultural station over there and it gets blamed for something once a month—aliens, stolen passwords, crop circles, fluoride.

“Now, Mr. Blinken, what did it look like?” Rimstill and his towel had stopped across the bar from me and looked into my face for clues. He was wiping a glass and speaking loud enough for others to hear. “Was the mark bloody and such as if made by a pocket-knife or was it as they said some kind of imprint from the exsanguinating machine?”

I love a pint and I know the world wants me to have a pint, and I love the Ivory Fetlock and its old scarlet carpets and the walnut bar burnished by better men than me drinking worse beer, but the conversations in this dear close were almost putting me off my libations. Almost. I wiped my lip and told Rimstill, who had asked, and dreary Roderick Loose, who was leaning in with his notepad once again (I’d already spoken to him at length on two occasions while grooming the horses in the barn), and Felicia Rungbell, who rides steeplechase with the team (a strapping 30-year-old who mourns her lost fortune every day in her repeated tale of how her father was robbed of his title by brigands in Shlopferdshire and the manor house in which she was a golden child is now full of some nasty branch of her nasty family), that I’d not heard of the exsanguinating machine (which was happily quite true), but I could not bring myself to say the phrase, and so I told them that the mark on the neck of the deceased appeared to me to be some kind of brand or impression, and yes, it had appeared angry but not bloody.

“That’s because there was no blood!” Felicia Rungbell cried again.

“Was there some mark or someone’s initials in the marking?” Rimstill asked. He was ardent for clues. Everyone was ardent for clues. I had had my fill of clues. I did not want to find a dead man in the bridle path. I did not want to have our horses think every time they jumped at that wall, which would be part of the weekend’s championship tournament, the culmination of a year’s work, there would be some crude cadaver sprawled exactly where they should come to ground. I didn’t want the riders fearful. I didn’t want Wilda Bloom to resign the team and go back to her father’s place in a town in Wales with a name too long to put on an envelope. This last was my greatest worry. If Graham Hoosh quit, or Felicia, we could replace them in two days. Wilda had already told me the magical promise: If we won this year, she would be my bride. We needed to win this year! I had made a little joke about bridle path and bridal path and Wilda had smiled, and I told her we would win at all costs, that she now in fact was the prize. If this puts a glimmer in my ardor, so be it.

“There was no signature and a flourish, Mr. Rimstill,” I told him, and the bar at large, “no esquire cut into the flesh, just the red circle with marks around the inside like, I suppose maybe, a clock.” And as soon as I said it I regretted it because the word clock rang up the bar and back and the theories tripled and I knew what I would hear next even though I had my lovely pint glass tipped up and I was at my nectar once again, knowing now this was a three-pint evening. 

“And what time did it read?” Mr.Rimstill asked, determined to be as good a detective as he is brewmaster, though that would be a long climb.

“Time for another pint,” I said and slapped down my coins before he could draw it for free and I’d be obligated to another chapter of our interview.

Now the pub door broke open and the bells rang loudly as Gann Lanolin rushed in swatting at her skirts and we all knew she’d had a close one with our rodents. When she was sure she was unattached, Gann looked up at the room and said, “Chased by squirrels! Do they have this atrocity in any other bloody shire? Draw me a pint, Mr. Rimstill, if you’d be so kind.”

There’s one stained glass window in the Ivory Fetlock and it’s above the front nook, the tiny booth where many an evening after practice I have sat with Wilda Bloom, our number two in the steeplechase, although number one to me, drinking Rimstill’s elixir and smelling of horses. The window is a stirring classic of a red horse flying a lavender river in a golden sunset, the facets all gleaming like jewels, or maybe not jewels but whatever such a picture could be made of to be so warm that it reaches for your heart. Wilda is the one person in the village of Stirrupshire who hasn’t said the word exsanguinate, and in fact when I joined her tonight on the blue velvet cushions of the booth, she expressed again her sadness at the death of the man, who has turned out to be a riding instructor from Lathergloom who was a jump judge in last year’s marathon steeplechase championship. In fact, he was the head of the judges’ panel.

“The news is that it wasn’t an accident,” Wilda said. “But who would kill a judge?” I looked into her face, always a pleasure, but this time I was looking for fear. The dear girl seemed brave. The village has become a beehive of nasty language and speculation, there have been reports of creatures in the woods, shadows moving through the thickets, big shadows creeping down Loobermarl Lane and gigantic forms slipping silently through the heath, and along the sides of the old barracks, shadows even at night when it is difficult to generate a shadow, though it seems that now we have more shadows than ever. Don’t go out at night, people are saying. Something besides the giant squirrels is afoot in Greater Stirrupshire, but what?

“Did you hear?” Graham Hoosh said, coming over. “I think he was the tall man, very slender, who oversaw the final jumps at Closedown Arena, right?”

“I don’t know,” I said. But I knew. He was the finish judge. His name wasRandolph Nooper and he was a lifelong jump judge and a nitpicker from a long line of them, a champion of fault-finding and cavalier of cavilery, who would never deduct one point when he could deduct two. He would take points if your horse blinked in the takeoff or landing or just running the chase, and he set the timbers in the final area on the stanchion edges balanced on a narrow half an inch so that a heavy shadow would make them tremble and fall. He was known as “Teeter”Nooper because of these cruel adjustments. I was sorry for his demise, but I didn’t like him.

Graham went on: “He was old-school. Judging was in his blood.”

“That’s all gone now,” I said. I couldn’t help myself. “There’s none left.”

The Fetlock’s bells rang and in came Yowden Oldchair, the constable, famous for having in his 17 years in that post arrested one person, and that being his father, for the crime of keeping squirrels for fighting, which he was in fact doing. The animal rights people marched Constable Oldchair to the pens behind the old man’s house, and so the squirrels, some big as dogs and mean, were set free and old Mr. Oldchair went away for two and a half months. The experience and the subsequent phone calls about marauding squirrels and squirrel attacks have sort of spoiled the job for Yowden, though he was happy to keep the salary and uniform allowance. But by Saturn, Mercury and Earth, he now had a case, what with this dead jump judge in the mortuary over at Mount Abrasion. The whole pub quickened to a holy silence when he came in and then they saw his face and it got even more quiet.

“You’re pale as the dead man,” Rimstill told the official.

“There’s been a body in the jumping pond,” Yowden Oldchair said. “Discovered just an hour ago.” His little eyes grew dark in his big blanched face and he staggered back a step as if hit with a broom. He sat suddenly next to Wilda, and that’s when Wilda broke the spell and joined the crowd by saying a word everyone in the room was thinking: “Exsanguinated, wasn’t he?”

“It’s a she,” the constable said.

“Bloody hell,” Lorry said. 

“No blood,” the constable said back to every waiting face in the room. “Just hell.”

There is no way to properly state the importance of the Great Cummerbund Steeplechase Championships, which are the famous annual meets of flying horses on the colossal four-kilometer course, which spans three shires, one county, two rivers and four towns. It means everything hereabouts. The price of a pint is determined and whether we can walk through the high street in Edendredge or have to slip along the cattle fence by the river and whether anyone in our town can wear lavender and green, even by accident, out in public, and it decides whether Feint Saint Noxious will be spelled Feint or Fient for the entire year. The amount wagered by race day is uncountable, but you know as a fiduciary fact that there’s a sheaf of slips in everyone’s pocket. Bragging rights they call it, but it’s more than that; it’s all the rights. It’s who we are.

And having lost last year, narrowly, the pressure on our four riders has doubled and then doubled again, and would have doubled twice more in these final weeks had it not been for the bloodless bodies piling up in the vicinity. Instead of everyone picking at my shirtsleeves in the Ivory Fetlock with tips about how to handle the big fence at Wickenpurge or the mud landing after the Hedges (or worse, the many offerings to cheat I get as the steeplechase nears), I was relieved finally to have something else as a topic of conversation. I heard exsanguinated a few more times than I’d like, but it was better than having Colin Moonagen saying that after we leaped the turning gate at Feedout Commons first, he would start it afire. He said it to me four times last year and he’s a bloke who always smells of kerosene.

The other thing we did after last year’s loss was send out to find these fine flying horses. We went down the bloodline of grooms and found the princess of horses, Esbernisha Wygossi, who is part horse herself the legend says, and if that is true then you could see it would be her jaw and that bottom row of teeth. We sent her deep into Europe with her instinct and a blank check. Procuring these horses in Romania or near it meant our village will not pave the high street this year or next and that the squirrel roundup is also going to have to wait two years. But if we win, we will lord it over all of our neighbors for a full year, 365 delicious, hard-earned, long-time-coming days, totally worth it. A little mud on the high street and keeping an eye out for aggressive squirrels when one goes to the grocer and back is a small price to pay for our being able to wear our lavender vests anywhere we damn well please.

We, on the select squad of riders for the tender village of Stirrupshire, take our mission seriously. We need to win and we practice like demons. The four horses are all sleek giants, three stallions and the mare, and they are tended to like the pasha’s children. They eat oats with gypsy gravy, something Esbernisha mixes up twice a day, a stew that smells like the air before a storm, and for the two months prior to the Great Cummerbund Steeplechase there is a liniment shortage all the way to Scotland. These animals get more massages than the Woopercoop Manhandlers, who won the Burnthills Rugby Cup last fall. 

As with any great contest there have been moments of sabotage. Six or seven times in recent weeks, the daybreak groom has found Far Cry and Pegasus andCurdler and Sawtooth standing in the garden browsing the carrot ferns at dawn, all of them totally run out and pasted with sweat. This happened after we installed big galvanized latches with wooden pegs. Somebody had pulled the pegs and whittled them into splinters. Someone is trying to wear out our brilliant horses.

I have a strategy supper at the pub with the team: Felicia, Wilda and Graham Hoosh, the best riders I have ever known, even going back to Pony Colony when I was at school. I must say we had a civil meal (Rimstill’s baked potato soup), talking about our plan for handling the high gates over the hills where some of the timber fences are five meters. It is our strength, the tall stuff, and we know it. These new horses fly, just as Esbernisha said they would. When she described them, she held her hand out and flew it before our faces like a hawk or an eagle or, I suppose, a bat. Regardless, it is key to clear the high gates. We’re free of a wicked, nitpicking judge, but we’ll still need to fly. Half the horses in the steeplechase canter around those gates, ignoring the wings, and such a detour earns five demerits.

Then while we were eating, the bells on the old doors of the Ivory Fetlock rang and in walked Constable Oldchair, setting his feet down like Talbot Crane playingHamlet, one then two, and the bar heard the signal and quieted for the lesson. You can tell the constable was enjoying the crime wave. More people had talked civilly to him in the last fortnight than for years, and he was thinking that these bodies might mean folks would forget the savage squirrels, but I could tell him right now that is not going to happen. You can’t go out of the house anywhere in Stirrupshire without seeing someone being chased by the large furry bastards. Rimstill’s got liniment and bandages in the cabinet in the loo and goes through dozens a week.

“A little news then, my friends,” Oldchair said. “The lady we found in Purvis Pond last Monday deceased and completely exsanguinated,” the constable paused and turned stage left and then stage right, finally facing the bar and bringing his fingertips up and together in a perfect church roof. Now he was old Montgomery Chaff playing The Ancient Barrister. Who knew that this lawman had been so often to thetheater? “Well, she turned out to be Gladiolis Duff from Saddleshire, where she taught primary school for 30 years before becoming a dress judge for the Great Cummerbund Steeplechase. Last year, maybe some remember, she was there at the stables with her clipboard when the mounts went out.”

“Was there the mark of the devil on her neck?” Roderick Loose said.

“There was a bloody carbuncle on her white throat,” the constable said, lifting his chin and putting his hand against his own neck. Now he raised that hand and held it out and slowly swept the room, a move I saw last when poor old Lear tried to negotiate with the elements. “We suspect foul play.” That last phrase he whispered loudly. No one had ever said such a thing hereabouts, ever, and our village dates from the 12th century.

“Now, who among you knew Mrs.Gladiolis Duff?” Constable YowdenOldchair continued. This was his shining hour. Five hands went up and four of them confessed to having been in Mrs. Duff’s finishing class years before. Dear Wilda Bloom offered, “Mrs. Duff taught us the way to fold a proper handkerchief and how to use a bookmark and never dog-ear the corner of a page.”

“She was a fine sort,” Yowden pressed. “A good woman. And just what did she teach you, Mr. Blinken? Do you dog-ear the corner of a book page?”

“I never have,” I told the constable. He had moved near me, as if this part of his performance would soon require a dagger. “I care for my books. I mark my place with 10-pound notes, sometimes two.” This drew a laugh from the pub crowd, which infuriated the official before me, and he jumped back as if shocked and snatched a sheet of paper from his jacket pocket not unlike a drawn knife and he waved it in the air, again like good King Lear in that wind, and he rattled it like a tambourine and then held it top and bottom before me like a short scroll of the last laws.

A horse person always knows when there is a horse behind him, and halfway out Loobermal Lane I became aware of a horse at my back.
“Perhaps what Mrs. Gladiolis Duff taught you, Mr. Blinken, was how to iron the crease in your riding trousers, which, on this judge’s sheet from last year’s steeplechase she seems to have honored you with four demerits.” Constable Oldchair now stood still like Mazzelcramer playing King Henry IV, his chin held so high it seemed he was addressing unseen multitudes in the ceiling. His declamation was breathtaking and we were all, even me, captured by it. “She was the dressing judge, remember? And you saw her as she walked around you in the starting arena and she checked here and here and here and here, where your exquisite riding clothes fell short of the mark. These demerits burned into your heart like sizzling brands, didn’t they, Mr. Blinken? Four burning wounds! And you remembered them every day as the year turned and every day as the Cummerbund Steeplechase again approached, and it was enough to fuel your insane rage toward this kindly hanky-folding spinster.” Well, we’d never had such a speech in the Ivory Fetlock since Marjorie Fodder came and retrieved her husband three or four years ago and she recited the first four pages of “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” and I don’t know what other people do, but accused or not, I applauded. We all did. Then, when it grew quiet again, I said: “The demerits disappointed me, but I didn’t kill the lady, or anybody really. I’m sorry for her death and,” then I joined the ranks of the sensational in Stirrupshire by adding, “her exsanguination.” “Don’t you say exsanguination to me, sir,” the constable was still speaking in a stentorian register. “Where were your whereabouts on Wednesday last?” The constable played his trump card, I suppose. “Because Missus Fintree, your landlord, doesn’t remember seeing you come in.” Then, despite his proximity, I stood up at the pub and was now face-to-face with Yowden Oldchair, who said to me, “Where are we going, Mr. Blinken?” “It’s my shift at the barn,” I told him. “We need to guard our precious horses. We have a steeplechase to win.” This garnered again a little polite applause and allowed me to avoid further attention and slip out the door.

A horse person always knows when there is a horse behind him, and halfway out Loobermarl Lane I became aware of a horse at my back. I turned in the dark and saw only the lights of the village, a glint and a gleam, and the yellow squares of the windows of the vicar’s house. It was just supper time. Then I felt a gust of wind and smelled a horse, very close, and I felt a shape above me, occluding the new stars, and I heard the noise Far Cry makes deep in his nose when we change gaits, a little pip, a high groan. I called his name, Far Cry, and felt again only a blast of air and the dark shape I sensed was gone. I stood there like a dolt for a full minute, like a man in a trance, and then I ran for the barn, cutting across Doister’s fennel field and over the back rail fence. The big barn doors were wide open and straw floated in the dark. I checked each stall for our precious champions and each stall was without its horse.

I banged on the plank door ofEsbernisha Wygossi’s cottage soundly enough that dust drifted out of the thatched roof. “Mr. Blinken,” she said upon opening the door. She was in a white blouse covered with a brown shawl and her red skirt had bells in the hem. “What is it?”

“Esbernisha. Where are the horses?”

“I just stepped in. They’re in the barn.”

I looked at her calm face. “They’re gone!” I said. “Can you please saddle old Hazzard for me?”

She was quick with the horse, and I knew where I had to go. There was only one judge left. Riding old Hazzard, whom I’d been on a thousand times, was a stark difference from riding our new mounts. He moved steadily but there was no flight in it, and for that I was thankful. I rode the bridle path down past the school, hurrying, rattling all my bones, and into the dale and then we had to walk up the serpentine to the pass at Rathernather and finally down into Saddleshire, our rival township, which I loathe and where the rumor is they have more churches than congregants. Dropping into town from there you can see 11 steeples. Mr. Melbourne Yeastie lived in a little brick house, the last on the hay lane. As I cantered up, I merged with two other horses, which surprised me, as they were occupied by Constable Yowden Oldchair and pale Roderick Loose, the diligent scribe.

“Hurry,” I told them.

“Hurry, indeed,” the constable said. “And what for? This jumping judge, Mr. Yeastie, is now safe from the likes of you, I’d say.”

“Don’t write that down,” I told Roderick. “Let’s find Mr. Yeastie.”

“He’s at late tea, I would think,” said Yowden. “Like all good townsfolk.”

The hack Roderick Loose was at the cottage door, knocking, and then we saw him disappear into the lighted place.

“Didn’t you think, Mr. Blinken, that I was onto you? How you’d methodically gone down the list of hated judges and was knocking them off one by one and that Mr. Melbourne Yeastie, who was once mayor of Saddleshire, would be next on your murderous agenda?”

“I came to warn him,” I said.

“Well, let’s go in then and warn him,” the constable said, leading me into the neat little domicile.

“Out back, Yowden,” the newsmanRoderick Loose called. Suddenly there was a great noise on the roof as if there was a row in the attic, but such a house did not have an attic and I could smell horses beyond ours and I heard that little yelp that Far Cry makes when he’s working. Suddenly, I knew all about it.

We went into the back garden and found Mr. Melbourne Yeastie flat on the stone terrace, glowing white but quite dead. The mark on his neck was glorious, red and raised, and seeing it this way, I could discern the tooth marks.

“He’s still warm,” Roderick said.

“How did you do this?” ConstableOldchair asked me. “By what magic? Just tell me how.”

“I didn’t do anything,” I told him. “I was with you.”

“You applied your exsanguinating machine and killed Mr. Yeastie.”

“I exsanguinated no one,” I said. “Ever.” I turned to the scribbler Roderick Loose and told him: “Write that down.” After the first casualty Roderick had ceased asking people how to spell exsanguinated.

“Well, he’s been exsanguinated.”

“He certainly has,” I agreed. “But I rode over the hill to warn him.”

Oldchair folded his arms. “I guess you did,” he said. “But what on earth has happened here?” The constable now looked like an actor in a silent comedy, where a house has fallen in and the problem of putting it back up has him vexed anew. I could see where Mr. Yeastie had been having his soup at the wooden table in his little kitchen when he got up thinking he heard horses in his garden. It would have been a cruel surprise to see those four equine faces when he opened the door and then all those teeth. 

Now the dark air above us was empty and I knew we were safe. The horses had flown back to their sorceress and were eating fresh oats in their warm barn, a late meal to go with their morbid cordial. 

This is when I saw a sheaf of blue betting slips sticking out of Roderick Loose’s ratty notebook and another packet of the things protruding from the constable’s riding jacket pocket. 

I pointed. “Have you bet on Stirrupshire?” I asked.

“Of course,” Yowden said to me.

“Good,” I said. “Keep those tickets. Tomorrow night at the Fetlock I have a powerful feeling that you’ll be buying.”


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