London 1949. Speedway fever runs high. Its stars are the working class heroes of a Blitz-torn city emerging from the ravages of war. With cash in their wallets and hoards of adoring fans, these dirt-track chancers enjoy a life of speed, celebrity and sex. But as Bermondsey Bullets defend their league title, they are rocked by the death of star rider Des Fenton in a mid-race smash. It's the start of a new and dangerous chapter for stadium security boss Reg Calloway, as he's dragged into the dark side of life at the track, with echoes of his own troubled wartime past.
We're very excited about this new book from debut author DDC Morgan and we think you'll agree the Fahrenheit designers have knocked it out of the park with this vintage cover which perfectly evokes the excitement and nostalgia that bursts from every page of this very special book.
With just ONE WEEK till publication, we're delighted to share this exclusive extract with you...
BLOOD & CINDERS by DDC MORGAN
When Des Fenton hit the barrier at seventy miles an hour, his bike had bucked him, thrown him and snapped him like a twig. This wasn't meant to happen to Des. Dashing Des had the luck of the devil. He was Pattie Moxon’s lucky star. In twenty years of speedway riding he'd never copped more than a few broken fingers. Des was good. Des was the Bullets' ace. Quick off the tape, king of the first bend. Nothing could touch him. Until tonight.
He had hit the barrier head-first, crumpling like a jack-in-the-box in reverse, before flopping face down onto the cinders. The stretcher bearers of the St John Ambulance knew it was a bad one. They sprinted across the centre green and over the track towards the prostrate rider, looking fearful. Pattie, the Bullets' boss, followed close behind. She too knew it was bad. She'd been in the business long enough. She threw her fur coat to the ground and knelt by Fenton's side as the St John's men examined him. One of them looked up at her and shook his head.
The heat had started well. Fenton was first off the tape, taking the lead on the first bend and holding it like it was his divine right. His teammate Ray Simpkins was a hair's breadth behind. He hugged the star's rear wheel like a hound at heel until their two wheels touched in the third lap. Fenton and his motorcycle spasmed as one, as if shocked by a high voltage current. Twenty thousand fans let out a collective gasp that bounced off the stadium walls. His wife let out a shriek that could be heard above the crowd. She scrambled out of the VIP box and ran towards the scene in quick faltering steps. She’d seen him come off before, but this wasn't the same. This one was bad. A speedway wife knows the difference.
Ken Kilminster knew the difference too, as he quickly ushered his photographer onto the track, hoping this might be the story that would make his career as a speedway correspondent. As the first flashbulb popped, it lit up Simpkins standing at the edge of the track watching, a cigarette dangling from his lower lip.
Simpkins had been twitchy that night. Uptight and tetchy. Something on his mind. Something that had been building for a while. Fenton clapped him on the back and wished him luck before the heat. Simpkins had blanked him. Now he stared blankly in the glare of the floodlights, as the ambulance crew eased Fenton's limp body onto the stretcher and covered his face with a blanket. He watched Pattie consoling Fenton's wife, who was gasping hysterically, her hand to her cheek and tears welling in her eyes. He saw Kilminster, notebook in hand, his pudgy fist squeezing a pencil stub as he captured the moment in shorthand. And he watched the stretcher bearers lift Fenton into the ambulance and slam the doors, leaving no doubt that this was Dashing Des's last race.
A hush descended on the stadium, the cheering and chanting of the crowd turned to ghoulish whispers as the ambulance drove slowly over the centre green towards the main gates. Simpkins flicked his cigarette butt towards it as it passed, spat the cinder dust from his mouth and walked back towards the dressing rooms. 'Not your night, was it Des?' he muttered under his breath.
Reg Calloway wished the morning over. He’d seen enough burials for one lifetime. He’d spent the past hour waiting for a break in the proceedings so he could smoke. When he lit a Navy Cut he realised he had company.
‘Did you know Des well?’
‘Only as a name over the tannoy.’
She leaned in to accept a light, letting the small veil of her mourning hat brush his cheek. He caught her scent but couldn’t name it. It was a long time since he’d bought perfume for a woman.
‘A great loss to the club,’ she said.
‘Not to mention to his wife. I hope he was insured.’
Dashing Des, star rider of Bermondsey Bullets, always drew a big crowd. Today was no exception. They had lined the streets from the stadium to the cemetery. Fifteen thousand had turned out to watch the funeral procession. Men, women, children. So many women, all made up and in their best coats. Dashing Des was the Bullets’ ladies’ man. Roguish good looks chiselled into a well-worn face. All flash suits and too much brilliantine. He’d walk onto the track before each fixture in top hat and tails, a red carnation in his lapel. He looked swell and had a swagger to match. The crowd would sing Putting on the Ritz as he plucked the button-hole from his lapel and threw it into the stands. The women would reach out to snatch it. They were all Des’s girls.
‘I value my riders, Mr Calloway. They’re all insured. And the club will make a contribution to the widow.’
‘Very generous, I’m sure. What is it they call speedway promoters? Merchants of manslaughter?’
‘They know the risks. And they live well. They enjoy the spoils.’
Calloway stole a glance at her. He put her past thirty and then some, like him, but she wore it well. Clothes from town, hair too he reckoned, and good shoes. Very good. Nothing you’d find on the local women. Shoes were always a tell. They set off her calves and ankles. She noticed him looking but didn’t react. She was Patricia Moxon, speedway aristocracy. He was a glorified commissionaire.
He had walked in false solemnity ahead of the cortège. He didn’t know Fenton in anything but name and he cared little for the Bullets. But as track security officer he was obliged to join in, taking his place alongside the promoter, the pit crews and the county commander of the St John’s Ambulance. The procession reached the cemetery, the Bullets flanking the hearse in race jackets and leathers. They rode slowly, revving staccato to stay steady. Calloway counted six, three riders a side, plus Fenton in the hearse. One rider missing from the team of eight.
In the four months since taking the job, Calloway had grown to hate the stadium. It was a tinny colosseum for a shilling’s worth of vicarious danger to punctuate a dreary existence. Fans came from the docks and the railways and the Peek Freans biscuit factory, scarves around their necks and rattles in hand, ready to sing oft-sung anthems to their adopted heroes. Their four-stroke gladiators. Their champions of the cinders. A pint or two in the Dun Cow before the races, then saveloy and pease pudding from George’s Hole in the Wall on the way home. A ritual to blot out the grimness of life on the ration.
Calloway watched Fenton’s widow as she dismounted the funeral car. Tight-jawed, more numb than sorrowful, her tailored black two-piece worn like armour to shield emotion. It was the onlookers who cried tears, perhaps for Des Fenton, more likely for loved ones lost to the war, to the Blitz or to the hardship of their tenement lives. Their collective grief on this crisp April Saturday had purpose. Have a good cry, love. Get it all out. Dashing Des’s reckless demise was the spark to ignite a tankful of hurt.
As the final mourners passed through the cemetery gates, a woman stepped forward from the crowd and fell in line. About twenty, with a doll face and dyed-blonde hair, she wore a dark grey suit with a full skirt over rounded hips and a narrow-waist jacket. She wore it well but wore it local. This was New Look style through the shop windows of the Old Kent Road. Too full in the shoulders, padded in the bust, with clumsy stitching that lacked the finesse of its couture inspiration. The birdcage veil of her pillbox hat hid little of her common good looks. She gave the crowd something new to gawp at. She held her head proud, her small lips pursed with a hint of defiance.
The riders peeled off and parked their motorcycles in two neat lines flanking the cemetery road. They removed helmets and bowed heads. They snuck looks at the young woman and exchanged glances with their teammates. All except Simpkins. His head hung lower than the others, his eyes fixed on the damp bitumen of the road.
Calloway watched Patricia Moxon and the widow exchange the meaningless words the situation required. Hushed and insincere but better than morbid silence. Only then did Fenton’s widow notice the young blonde who now stood at Calloway’s side. The widow’s eyes flashed through her veil. Her body squared up as dignity fought the urge to advance. Patricia Moxon gripped her arm, the meaning clear. Don’t, love. Whoever she is. Calloway looked sideways at the young women. She stared purposefully into the middle distance with parade ground detachment. Oblivious, the undertakers’ men beckoned the riders to the hearse to lift the coffin. It broke the line of hostility from the widow to the blonde. The county commander of the St John’s Ambulance sighed, relieved that a scene had been avoided. Calloway caught his eye and raised a quizzical eyebrow. The commander shrugged. Pat Moxon saw the exchange. She flickered disapproval.
The proceedings were dismal, the eulogy long and inauthentic, the priest working to a script prepared from the customary fag-end biography of a man he knew little of. The widow wept a little but her composure held out. Calloway was grateful.
Between the eulogy and the lowering of the coffin, a grey mist drifted in from the river and under its shroud, the young woman had withdrawn unnoticed. Calloway looked for her among the headstones and the vulgar statues that mocked them, but she was gone.
‘Who was the bottle blonde?’ he asked when the formal proceedings were over.
Patricia Moxon shrugged, as if indifferent to his question. ‘Perhaps she’s the other woman.’
‘So there is one?’
‘They’re speedway stars, Mr Calloway. Odds on there’s another woman, on the side or just for the night.’
‘Nice boys then.’
She considered this, drawing on a cigarette she held between well-manicured fingers and exhaling with deliberation.
‘They enjoy taking risks. It goes with the job.’
Calloway glanced back up the cemetery road. The undertakers’ men were rearranging the floral tributes and the grave diggers shovelled earth into the hole. He could see their breath as they panted from the exertion. Spring had yet to clock on for its shift. Moxon pulled the collar of her fur coat tight against the chill. A handsome woman, Calloway thought, and expensively dressed, but in a way that said she wasn’t born to it. The lady Pat enjoyed new money. Beneath the couture there was a grafter.
The riders buckled helmets and mounted their bikes. Matchless, Triumph, the mighty Vincent, marques etched in gold and chrome polished mirror-bright. Their four-cylinder engines pounded brutally through the hush as the Bullets left the cemetery two abreast. Moxon and Calloway stood aside to let them pass.
A car was waiting outside the cemetery gates, its engine running. Moxon gestured to it. ‘Where do you live? I’ll drop you off.’
The invitation seemed premeditated. Calloway tried to duck it.
‘No thank you, ma’am. I’d prefer to walk.’
She snorted. ‘Don’t be silly.’
She held the door for him. He accepted and eased his big frame into the back seat. It felt awkward going first. He was used to holding the door for ladies. She flicked a gloved hand, waving him to the far side of the seat before sliding in next to him. The driver asked for instructions. Calloway gave his address. He caught a look of disapproval on Moxon’s face. She must have known his street. The driver nodded with a shortfall of enthusiasm. He was thin, shabby and smelled of coal tar soap. He gripped the wheel with nicotine-stained fingers, nails chewed short. His Burton’s suit was ready for retirement. Calloway knew this type. A demobbed drifter down on his luck. Someone you wouldn’t lend money to.
‘Does he drive you everywhere?’
‘Good lord, no,’ she said, removing her beret and shaking her hair loose. ‘The Bullets are good but they’re not that good.’
‘Why the chauffeur today?’
The title was generous.
‘An excuse for a quick exit. I didn’t want to hang around for the wake. I’ve seen them drink, and worse. Best I don’t hang around. What the manager doesn’t see, if you get my drift.’
The car swept past Saturday shoppers along New Cross Road, a bustling normality against the strange rubble landscape that was post-war London. The Kinema was showing Hollywood movies again, now the tax dispute with America was over. Now showing: The Sands of Iwo Jima. Coming soon: I was a Male War Bride. Still suffering the hangover of war yet revelling in the glory and the romance.
The car swung a sharp right at the Marquis of Granby. Pat Moxon leaned into Calloway on the turn. He felt her warmth through the flannel of his suit and caught her scent again - jasmine and roses.
‘I need to talk to you, Mr Calloway. I suppose you’d call it a security matter.’
‘Someone been skimming your turnstile take?’
‘Something rather delicate, about the team. I’d appreciate your help.’
The driver caught a look at them through the rearview mirror, his interest piqued. Calloway returned the look. The driver read the signal and feigned disinterest.
‘I work for the stadium, ma’am. This sounds like a club matter.’
She slipped off her shoes, then leaned forward in her seat to massage her feet. They were small and neat, her painted toes visible through the sheer silk of her stockings.
‘I lease the stadium, Mr Calloway. I’d say you work for me.’
‘Then I’d say you share me with the greyhounds on Saturdays.’
She laughed and sat back in the seat, toying with the expensive-looking pearls around her neck.
‘Come to see me on Monday. We can’t talk now in any case.’
The driver shuffled in his seat. Calloway tapped him on the shoulder.
‘You can drop me here. I’ll walk the rest.’
The car pulled up alongside the curb, just short of the turning into Calloway’s street. Patricia Moxon looked out of the side window with seeming disinterest, as if noticing the place for the first time. Calloway sensed she knew the area well, but it would be unbecoming of speedway royalty to admit it. It was an unloved street, bombed into unintended blocks and connected by cleared sites, the rubble on some still to be removed. The exposed flanks of party walls lacking their neighbours bore a clumsy patchwork of paper and paint. Fireplaces floated in pairs at each floor level, like the plaintiff eyes of vagrants. It was a street of single rooms and lightless basements.
‘Are you married, Mr Calloway?’
He climbed out of the car, placed his big hands on the dusty roof and leaned in to reply.
‘Put it this way. If I broke my neck like one of your riders, there’d be no widow to mourn me. And no other woman.’
She smiled with what might have passed for warmth.
‘You should do something about that.’
He turned away. ‘Goodbye, ma’am.’
‘Goodbye, Mr Calloway.’
Calloway glanced backwards as he walked towards the dilapidated street and caught the driver sneering.
They were filming at the track. A Pathé news crew had set up close to the inner boundary. With speedway stars back in the ascendant, there was appetite for newsreel in the cinemas. The crew was meant to interview Des Fenton. Pat Moxon had substituted Bert Webber, her number two rider since young Billy Riley started losing form at the start of last season. Webber didn’t have Fenton’s swagger, nor his rough diamond looks, but he was cocky and tenacious. The director had him making repeated broadsides, trailing dirt then stopping in front of the camera. The show-off in Webber was enjoying himself. The cameraman had to wipe the lens with each take and the producer tutted, picking cinder specks from the Harris tweed of his overcoat.
Webber removed his helmet for the interview and the director had him perch casually on the seat of his motorcycle while he answered questions. They rehearsed some lines beforehand with Pat providing the words for her rider. Webber removed a glove and scraped his hand across his head to sweep his hair back. He was no matinee idol. He was a snaggle-toothed grease monkey, wiry and bow-legged like a jockey, with the dull parchment skin of a chain smoker. But his hair was thick and lustrous and his eyes were steely and keen, his pupils darting shiftily like beetles on a hot plate.
‘Oh yes, there’s money in speedway racing and a good rider can make five thousand a year if he gets the breaks. It’s a risky old game and you’ve got to have guts, but I wouldn’t swap it for the world.’
He spoke the lines in a self-conscious monotone, oblivious to the rhythm of punctuation. Patricia Moxon coached him off-camera between the retakes. With each successive take he would fluff the lines, each time in a different place.
Reg Calloway leaned on a stand rail and watched the scene play out. A female member of the Pathé crew was adjusting Webber’s scarf, untying the outlaw-style bandana favoured by the riders and knotting it into a rakish foulard. Webber wriggled like a child whose mother had spat on a hankie to wipe the smut off his face.
The frustration on the small rider’s face grew with each successive retake. The producer feigned patience, but it was wearing thin.
‘I’d be alright if it wasn’t for that fucking camera putting me off me stroke.’
Moxon’s voice echoed off the empty concrete stands. ‘We’ll have less of that language Bert Webber!’
Webber jumped, as if some all-seeing goddess of speedway had spoken.
‘I’ve warned you before. None of your effing and blinding on my track. Otherwise you’ll go straight back where I found you.’
Calloway crossed the stands towards her. ‘So where did you find him?’
‘The arse end of Rotherhithe, via The Hammers for a couple of seasons. They might tolerate his uncouth ways at West Ham but I’m not having it here.’
Webber gave it one last take before dismissing himself with a shrug and wheeling his machine towards the starting line.
‘Still, he won the London Cup in forty-seven. Fearless little fella. An old-style leg trailer. It’s a miracle he still has all his limbs.’
‘Missing a finger, though.’
‘You’re observant. And two toes on his left foot. But that’s small change for a rider like him.’
The film crew were setting up for cutaway shots at the side of the track. Webber was summoning two of the Bullets’ crew, gesturing that he needed a push-off.
‘They tell me Bob Danvers-Walker is going to narrate it,’ said Moxon. ‘I hope he does a better job than poor Bert. Do you follow the news, Mr Calloway?’
He nodded. ‘On the radio and in the papers. I’m not one for the news theatres.’
‘I don’t blame you. Full of courting couples and queers. Still, good luck to them. It’s not like there’s many places they can do it.’
She was blunt, Calloway gave her that.
‘You wanted to talk to me.’
She didn’t respond. She was distracted. Two riders were ripping up the track with practice laps and Moxon was seeing something in their riding she disapproved of. He waited for her to answer. His impatience showed and she noticed.
‘We’ve not spoken much have we, Mr Calloway?’
‘Not much, ma’am, no. I look after the stadium. You look after the club. It suits me that way. I’ve not much time for the antics of these maniacs.’
She flicked her cigarette onto the stand and ground it into the concrete with her heeled shoes.
‘You make me wonder why you’re here at all.’
He had wondered the same thing himself in the few months since taking the job. But he knew the answer. Peacetime didn’t suit him and opportunities to make a living were scarce. God knows the war hadn’t been kind to him, but the past three years had been worse. He’d stuck with the army until forty-six. He had had no place else to go at the time. After the episode in Nuremberg, there had been no choice but to leave.
‘I look after the pen, ma’am. Don’t expect me to love the animals.’
‘Some of them are beasts at that. But I like that in a man, Calloway. It suits me well. This game’s about aggression as much as skill.’
‘I think I’ve seen enough aggression, ma’am.’
She offered him a cigarette, which he accepted. She had a man’s cigarette case embossed with the initials PRM and a matching lighter. They looked expensive but not ostentatious.
‘You’re right. I did want to talk to you.’
She turned to lean back on the railing. She closed her eyes and inclined her head to face the mid-morning sun, which had broken through the cloud. A wolf whistle cut through the noise from the track. Without opening her eyes, Pat said: ‘Get back on that bike, O’Donnell. You’ve been slow off the tape for the last two fixtures. You of all people need the practice.’
The rider O’Donnell was stretched out on the upper tier of the stands in full leathers, taking the last drags of a cigarette held inwards between his oil-stained thumb and finger.
‘But baby, the view from here is too damn good.’
‘You’ll get a view of the back of my hand in minute. Get your overpaid Yank arse down to that starting line or you’ll be back in Pasadena before you can say Chattanooga Choo-choo.’
The rangy American put on a show of looking hurt, then lolled his way down each tier of the stands blowing kisses at his boss. She shot him a look, the kind a foreman gives when he’s caught an apprentice smoking on his shift.
‘They’re still overpaid and over here then, ma’am.’
‘And the other, I’ve no doubt, Mr Calloway.’
She watched O’Donnell as he straddled his bike like a western hero saddling up and shouted instructions for his push start to the track crew.
‘I brought him over in forty-six. I needed some glamour in the team. His face has been advertising shaving soap since we won the league.’
‘I’ve seen the posters. Do you take commission?’
‘He gets to keep his fee. It pays for his lifestyle. He’s got expensive tastes that one.’
She watched the American ride laps, pulling Looney Toons faces at the crew on the home straight.
‘Outwardly they behave as if nothing’s happened. But Des Fenton’s death has rattled them.’
‘Surely that’s not surprising.’
‘You’d think not, but this is a tough old life and not without its tragedies. Riders take the rough with the smooth. Deaths are few and far between, thank the Lord, but when they happen, well there’s a sort of heroic acceptance of the inevitable.’
‘But not this time?’
She shook her head. ‘They’re talking.’
She lit another cigarette and took a long and deliberate drag on the hot tar. ‘They’re poring over the details. The track conditions, the speed Des was coming out of the turn, why Ray Simpkins was on his tail the whole time.’
‘It’s the Bullets’ first fatality. They’re bound to be rattled. Anything show up on the club’s investigation?’
‘The track conditions were fine. We’d laid new cinder over the summer and the depth was tested at the start of the race. Deeper than the requisite six inches. The chief mechanic confirmed both bikes were in proper condition when they left the pits. Des Fenton was in good shape too. The trainer confirmed it. So was Simpkins.’
Moxon had installed a gym at the stadium and put the Bullets on a fitness regime. A former Charlton Athletic trainer put them through their paces twice a week and kept fitness records.
‘Have your insurers investigated?’
‘Yes, and the association. Neither found anything untoward.’
She turned and looked across to the track. The American rider was performing tricks for the cameras. She drew on the cigarette and exhaled hard.
‘I’ve been around this business a long time, Mr Calloway. This is something different.’
She paused for a moment, as if reluctant to continue. ‘They’re saying Des Fenton’s death wasn’t an accident.’
The statement hit him like a punch to the guts.
She ignored the question. He pressed her. ‘Who is saying this to you?’
‘I can’t tell you. I was told in confidence.’
‘You were told that Ray Simpkins ran Fenton off the track deliberately? That’s a serious allegation. It’s a matter for the police.’
‘I don’t want the police involved. I want it not to be true.’
Calloway let this sink in. He changed tack. ‘What’s Ray Simpkins saying?’
‘He’s keeping his head down for the most part.’
‘Was there something between Simpkins and Fenton? Bad blood?’
‘Competition certainly, but that’s not unusual. And they were different types. Fenton was gregarious. The life and the soul. Simpkins is quieter, a bit surly when he wants to be. The chippy type.’
‘Did he resent Fenton’s success?’
‘Not so you’d notice. They were business-like around one another, but wouldn’t call them pals.’
‘Always like that?’
‘They became distant over the last few fixtures, maybe since the end of last season.’
‘You don’t run a man off the track for being distant.’
‘Maybe not, but I need to know more, Mr Calloway. If something’s not right, I need it dealt with and dealt with quickly.’
She looked towards the track at the practicing riders. ‘I can’t have a jinx on the club, not this season. I’ve too much to lose. I need you to make some enquiries.’
‘Why do you think they would talk to me?’
‘You strike me as the persuasive sort. And I’ve asked around about you, what you did in the war. There’s more to you than filling the fire buckets and locking the gates.’
She didn’t know the half of it, he thought.
‘I work for the stadium not the club. If there’s anything in this, which I doubt, it’s club business.’
It wasn’t the answer she wanted.
‘What do you earn, Calloway? Don’t bother answering, I’ve read your personnel file. It takes you a month to earn what my riders can make in a night. If you help me, I’ll pay you what I pay them, from now until the end of the season.’
Calloway snorted. ‘Worth that much to you?’
‘For the right result.’
‘And what if I get the wrong result?’
‘Then we’ll need to fix that.’
He was inclined to leave it right there. But Patricia Moxon could be persuasive too. She was all persuasion from where he stood. She worked hard at it. From the fit of her dress to the height of her heels, her boldness of speech and her confident tone. Even the studied way she held a cigarette.
‘I’ll make some enquiries but I won’t take your money. I’m not one of your prize stallions and I won’t be bought.’
‘It’s good money, Calloway.’
‘I’ve no need for it.’
She raised an eyebrow. It was plucked to the width of a pencil point. ‘You could spend it on proper digs. I don’t see you as the “furnished room for single gentleman” type.’
‘It suits me fine.’
He stubbed his cigarette against the metal stand rail. O’Donnell clunked past them in lead-soled boots and sat on the stands a few yards away. He ran his fingers through the pile of helmet-sweaty hair on his big skull.
‘Give me a week,’ Calloway said. ‘If I don’t find anything, I suggest you draw a line under it. Tell your lads you’ve ordered a safety review. Any suggestions where I should start?’
Moxon looked over at the snaggle-toothed Webber, who chatted cheerily to the mechanics in the pits.
‘Start with Bert. He knows everyone’s business and he likes to talk. Whatever you find out, you tell me first. No one else.’
Calloway nodded an acknowledgement. She looked him up and down. Six foot and broad, with a firm jaw and all his own teeth. Dark hair shorn short, Brylcreemed close to his scalp in the no-nonsense fashion of an ex-NCO. Barrel-chested, with strong-looking hands balled into fists by his side. A powerful man, but in control, at least that’s how he appeared to her.
‘You know I’d never thought of you as a stallion, Reg.’
She took a long last draw on the lipstick-stained stub of her cigarette. Then she winked.
‘Well not until now anyway.’
The American laughed. Calloway wasn’t the laughing kind.
Blood & Cinders will be published on Friday 7th February 2020 but you can pre-order it HERE today for the bargain pre-publication price of £7.95.