Authors: Mercedes Lackey
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #General, #historical, #dark fantasy
“What kind of racing?” she asked cautiously. It would be just like Jimmy to pal around with some kid just because he was an up-and-coming actor and saddle her with someone who didn’t know when to get the hell out of the way.
“Dirt-track, mostly,” he said modestly, then quoted her credentials that made her raise her eyebrow. “I’ll stay out of the way.”
The kid had an open, handsome face, and another set of killer blue eyes—and the hand that shook hers was firm and confident. She decided in his favor.
“Do that,” she told him. “Unless there’s a fire—tell you what, you think you can put up with hauling one of those around for the rest of the race?” She pointed at the rack of heavy fire-bottles behind the fire-wall, and he nodded. “All right; get yourself one of those and watch our pit, Porsche, and Ferrari. That’s the cost of you being in here. If there’s a fire in any of ’em, deal with it.” Since the crews had other things on their minds—and couldn’t afford to hang extinguishers around their necks—this kid might be the first one on the spot.
“Think you can handle that—what is your name, anyway?”
“Paul,” he said, diffidently. “Yeah, I can handle that. Thanks, Miss Duncan.”
“Dora,” she replied automatically, as she caught the whine of approaching engines. She lost all interest in the kid for a moment as she strained to see who was in front.
It was Lola, but the car was already in trouble. She heard a tell-tale rattle deep in, and winced as the leaders roared by—
Jimmy was in the first ten; that was all that mattered, that, and his first-lap time. She glanced at Fillipe, who had the stop-watch; he gave her a thumbs-up and bent to his clipboard to make notes, as he would for almost every lap. She let out her breath in a sigh.
“Miss Duncan, how did you get into racing?”
She had forgotten the kid but he was still there—as he had promised, out of the way, but still within talking distance.
She shook her head, a rueful smile on her lips. “Glory. How fleeting fame. Retire, and no one’s ever heard of you—”
“Oh, I know all about the Grand Prix wins,” the kid said hastily. “I just wanted to know why you stopped dancing. Jimmy told me you were kind of a—big thing in Europe. It doesn’t seem like a natural approach to racing. I mean, Josephine Baker didn’t go into racing.”
She chuckled at being compared to the infamous cabaret dancer, but no one had ever asked her the question in quite that way. “A couple of reasons,” she replied, thoughtfully. “The biggest one is that my dingbat brother was a better dancer than I ever was. I figured that the world only needed one crazy dancing Duncan preaching Greek revival and naturalism. And really, Ruth St. Denis and Agnes de Mille were doing what I would have been doing. Agnes was doing more; she was putting decent dancing into motion pictures, where millions of little children would see it. When I think about it, I don’t think Isadora Duncan would have made any earthshaking contributions to dancing.” Then she gave him her famous impish smile, the one that peeled twenty years off of her. “On the other hand, every Grand Prix driver out there does the ‘Duncan Dive’ to hit the cockpit. And they are starting to wear the driving suits I’ve been working on. So I’ve done that much for racing.”
The kid nodded; he started to ask something else, but the scream of approaching engines made him shake his head before she held up her hand.
Jimmy was still there, still within striking distance of the leaders. But there was trouble developing—because the Ford drivers were doing just what Dora had feared they would do. They were driving as a team—in two formations of three cars each. Quite enough to block. Illegal as hell, but only if the race officials caught on and they could get someone on the Ford team to spill the beans. Obvious as it might be, the worst the drivers would get would be fines, unless someone fessed up that it was premeditated—then the whole team could be disqualified.
Illegal as hell, and more than illegal—dangerous. Dora bit her lip, wondering if they really knew just how dangerous.
Halfway through the race, and already the kid had more than earned his pit-pass. Porsche was out, bullied into the wall by the Ford flying-wedge, in a crash that sent the driver to the hospital. Ferrari was out too, victim of the same crash; both their LMCs had taken shrapnel that had nicked fuel-lines. Thank God Paul’d been close to the pits when the leaking fuel caught fire. The Ferrari had come in trailing a tail of fire and smoke and the kid was right in there, the first one on the scene with his fire-bottle, foaming the driver down first then going under the car with the nozzle. He’d probably prevented a worse fire—And now the alliances in the pits had undergone an abrupt shift. It was now the Europeans and the independents against the Ford monolith. Porsche and Ferrari had just come to her—her, who Porsche had never been willing to give the time of day!—offering whatever they had left. “Somehow” the race officials were being incredibly blind to the illegal moves Ford was pulling.
Then again . . . how close was Detroit to Wisconsin?
It had happened before, and would happen again, for as long as businessmen made money on sport. All the post-race sanctions in the world weren’t going to help that driver in the hospital, and no fines would change the outcome of the inevitable crashes.
The sad, charred hulk of the Ferrari had been towed, its once-proud red paint blistered and cracked; the pit-crew was dejectedly cleaning up the oil and foam.
On the track, Jimmy still held his position, despite two attempts by one of the Ford wedges to shove him out of the way. That was the advantage of a vehicle like the Bugatti, as she and the engineers had designed it for him. The handling left something to be desired, at least so far as she was concerned, but it was Jimmy’s kind of car. Like the 550 Porsche he drove for pleasure now, that he used to drive in races, she’d built it for speed. “Point and squirt,” was how she often put it, dryly. Point it in the direction you wanted to go, and let the horses do the work.
The same thing seemed to be passing through Paul’s mind, as he watched Jimmy scream by, accelerating out of another attempt by Ford to pin him behind their wedge. He shook his head, and Dora elbowed him.
“You don’t approve?” she asked.
“It’s not that,” he said, as if carefully choosing his words. “It’s just not my kind of driving. I like handling; I like to slip through the pack like—like I was a fish and they were the water. Or I was dancing on the track—”
She had to smile. “Are you quoting that, or did you not know that was how they described my French and Monte Carlo Grand Prix wins?”
His eyes widened. “I didn’t know—” he stammered, blushing. “Honest! I—”
She patted his shoulder, maternally. “That’s fine, Paul. It’s a natural analogy. Although I bet you don’t know where I got my training.”
He grinned. “Bet I do! Dodging bombs! I read you were an ambulance driver in Italy during the war. Is that when you met Ettore Bugatti?”
She nodded, absently, her attention on the cars roaring by. Was there a faint sound of strain in her engine? For a moment her nerves chilled.
But no, it was just another acceleration; a little one, just enough to blow Jimmy around the curve ahead of the Mercedes.
Her immediate reaction was annoyance; he shouldn’t have had to power his way out of that, he should have been able to
his way out. He was putting more stress on the engine than she was happy with.
Then she mentally slapped her own hand.
wasn’t the driver, he was.
But now she knew how Ettore Bugatti felt when she took the wheel in that first Monte Carlo Grand Prix.
“You know, Bugatti was one of my passengers,” she said, thinking aloud, without looking to see if Paul was listening. “He was with the Resistance in the Italian Alps. You had to be as much a mechanic as a driver, those ambulances were falling apart half the time, and he saw me doing both before I got him to the field hospital.”
Sometimes, she woke up in the middle of the night, hearing the bombs falling, the screams of the attack-fighters strafing the road— Seeing the road disintegrate in a flash of fire and smoke behind her, in front of her; hearing the moans of the wounded in her battered converted bread-truck.
All too well, she remembered those frantic moments when getting the ambulance moving meant getting herself and her wounded passengers out of there before the fighter-planes came back. And for a moment, she heard those planes—No, it was the cars returning. She shook her head to free it of unwanted memories. She had never lost a passenger, or a truck, although it had been a near thing more times than she cared to count. Whenever the memories came between her and a quiet sleep, she told herself that—and reminded herself why she had volunteered in the first place.
Because her brother, the darling of the Metaphysical set, was hiding from the draft at home by remaining in England among the blue-haired old ladies and balletomanes who he charmed. Because, since they would not accept her as a combatant, she enlisted as a noncombatant.
She had seen more fire than most who were on the front lines.
Bugatti had been sufficiently impressed by her pluck and skill to make her an offer.
“When this is over, if you want
job, come to me.”
Perhaps he had meant a secretarial job. She had shown up at the decimated Bugatti works, with its “EB” sign in front cracked down the middle, and offered herself as a mechanic. And Bugatti, faced with a dearth of men who were able-bodied, never mind experienced, had taken her on out of desperation.
“It was kind of a fluke, getting to be Bugatti’s driver,” she continued, noting absently that Paul was listening intently. “The driver for that first Grand Prix had broken an ankle, right at starting-lineup, and I was the only one on the team that could make the sprint for the car!”
Paul chuckled, and it had been funny. Everyone else was either too old, or had war injuries that would slow them down. So she had grabbed the racing-helmet before anyone could think to object and had taken the man’s place. In her anonymous coverall, it was entirely possible none of the officials had even noticed her sex.
She had made the first of her famous “Duncan Dives” into the cockpit; a modified
that landed her on the seat, with a twist and bounce down into the cockpit itself.
“I can still hear that fellow on the bullhorn—there was no announcer’s booth, no loudspeaker system—” She chuckled again.
“And coming in third—Isadora Duncan?”
The next race, there had been no doubt at all of her sex. She had nearly died of heat-stroke behind that powerful engine, and she had been shocked at what that had done to her judgment and reflexes. So this time, she had worn one of her old dancing costumes, a thick cotton leotard and tights—worn inside-out, so that the seams would not rub or abrade her.
The other drivers had been so astounded that she had gotten nearly a two-second lead on the rest of them in the sprint—and two seconds in a race meant a quarter mile.
For her third race, she had been forbidden to wear the leotard, but by then she had come up with an alternative; almost as form-fitting, and enough to cause a stir. And that had been in France, of course, and the French had been amused by her audacity. “La Belle Isadora” had her own impromptu fanclub, who showed up at the race with noisemakers and banners.
Perhaps that had been the incentive she needed, for that had been her first win. She had routinely placed in the first three, and had taken home to Bugatti a fair share of first-place trophies. The other drivers might have been displeased, but they could not argue with success.
Bugatti had been overjoyed, and he had continuously modified his racing vehicles to Isadora’s specifications: lighter, a little smaller than the norm, with superb handling. And as a result of Isadora’s win, the Bugatti reputation had made for many, many sales of sportscars in the speed-hungry, currency-rich American market. And it did not hurt that his prize driver was an attractive,
But in 1953 she had known that she would have to retire, and soon. She was slowing down—and more importantly, so were her reflexes. That was when she had begun searching for a protege, someone she could groom to take her place when she took over the retiring crew-chief’s position.
She had found it in an unlikely place: Hollywood. And in an unlikely person, a teenage heartthrob, a young, hard-living actor. But she had not seen him first on the silver screen; she had seen him racing, behind the wheel of his treasured silver Porsche.
He had been torn by indecision, although he made time for her coaching and logged a fair amount of time in Bugatti racing machines. She and the retiring crew chief worked on design changes to suit his style of driving to help lure him. But it was Hollywood itself that forced his choice.
When a near-fatality on a lonely California highway left his Porsche a wreck, his studio issued an ultimatum.
Quit driving, or tear up your contract. We don’t cast corpses.
He tore up his contract, took the exec’s pipe from his mouth, stuffed the scraps in the pipe, slammed it down on the desk and said “Smoke it.” He bought a ticket for Italy the same day.
“Miss Duncan?” Paul broke into her thoughts. “We have company.”
She turned, to see the crew chiefs of Ferrari, Mercedes, Lola, and a dozen more approaching. Her first thought was—
What have we done now?
But it was not what she had done, nor her crew, nor even Jimmy.
It was what Ford had done.
“Isadora,” said Paul LeMond, the Ferrari crew chief, who had evidently been appointed spokesman, “we need your help.”
Ten years of fighting her way through this man’s world, with no support from anyone except Bugatti and a few of her crew had left her unprepared for such a statement.
She simply stared at them, while they laid out their idea.
This would be the last pit-stop before the finish, and Dora was frankly not certain how Jimmy was going to take this. But she leaned down into the cockpit where she would not be overheard and shouted the unthinkable into his ear over the roar of his engine. How the crews of every other team still on the track were fed up with the performance of the Ford drivers—and well they should be, with ten multi-car wrecks leaving behind ruined vehicles and drivers in hospital. The fact that one of those wrecks had included one of the Ford three-car flying wedges had not been good enough.