by Gary Hoffman
Enjoy this never before published mystery short story.
Dillworth was weird. He once complained there were not enough turtle races or turtle racing enthusiasts in the world. We were both enjoying a cup of coffee at Café Newburg. Now, I know Dillworth pretty well, and I wrote this off as another one of his ideas just to get attention. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Whoa. Wait a minute. A nasty incident in the world turtle racing?”
“Yep. At the New World International Turtle Track Commission’s race in England, one turtle was illegally mounted on the chassis of a toy car and mechanically propelled.”
I leaned back in my chair and crossed my arms. “My, God. Is there no honor left anywhere?” I said with a sly smile.
Dillworth hit the table with his fist. “Exactly. Cutler Jissom, the chairman of the NWITTC in England, said he felt turtle racing was on the verge of becoming a mass sport, but he felt attendances would fall off because of the horrendous crime.” Dillworth took another sip of coffee. “Apparently he was right. Few people attend turtle races these days.”
“You know, Dillworth, I don’t remember the last time I attended a turtle race. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I even knew one was going to be held. Actually, I didn’t know turtle racing existed at all.”
“Well, there’s going to be one held at Ashley Park this coming Saturday. Want to go?”
I decided to see how far he would carry this. “Sure, Dillworth, why not?”
Another friend of ours, Rita, walked up to the table where we were having this discussion. “Dillworth. Walt.”
“Hi, Rita. Have a seat. I’m sure Dillworth has something to ask you.”
“Okay, Walt agreed to go to a turtle race with me this coming Saturday. You want to come along?”
Rita took a calendar book from her purse. “Oh, looks like I’m booked up for Saturday. Race still going on Sunday?” She put her hand to her mouth to hide her grin.
“No, it doesn’t take that long,” Dillworth said defensively.
Dillworth came by my apartment and picked me up for the turtle races the following Saturday. It was nothing like I expected. First of all, there were several hundred people milling around Ashley Park. Second, several carnival-like booths were sitting around under the large old oak trees.
In the center of each booth was a five foot diameter circle made of foot-high upright slabs of wood held together with hinges. Each slab had a number painted over an archway cut into the bottom. When the race started, a bucket of land tortoises, each with a different number painted on their back, was emptied into the middle of the circle. The first one to make it completely through an arch was the winner.
To make it a little more interesting, we could place bets on each race. We randomly bought a card for a dollar. The first number on the card was for an archway. The second number was for the number of a turtle. If our number turtle won by going through the archway listed on our card, we won ten bucks. If it won, but went through a different arch, we won five bucks. If it went through any arch and came in second, we won a dollar. Each booth had five or six buckets of turtles they rotated, so everything was really random luck.
As soon as the bucket was lifted off the turtles, people started yelling and shouting for their turtle to get going. It became apparent very quickly that this was big-time gambling. I snickered to myself and thought all these people were a really weird collection of strange folks. That was until I bought my first card and watched as my turtle started to go right for the arch on my card.
“Go. Move. Get your butt in gear. Look at that! Look he’s heading right for #29.” As turtle #18 crawled through arch #29 first, I almost collapsed in a heap from all the adrenaline in my system. And that was my downfall beginner’s luck. I was now hooked.
In the second race, my #31 turtle was well on his way to passing through an arch first, not “the arch” but he was going through first. One of the other turtles crawled up on its back and my turtle stopped. I suddenly realized my he turtle was a she turtle, and they were making out right in front of everyone. I started yelling at the guy running the booth. “Hey, isn’t there a rule about that? That horney turtle stopped mine from moving.”
The man just grinned. “Fella, the reason we have turtle races at this time of year is because it’s mating season. Turtles are all out and easy to find right now.”
“It’s not fair. The race should start over. I want my money back.”
Dillworth came over by me. His face was red and he was looking around trying to make sure no one recognized him. “Come on, Walt. Let’s get out of here.”
“I was taken. My turtle took a sex break right in the middle of the race.”
“Let’s go see another kind of race, Walt.”
It was then I realized Dillworth was carrying a little cardboard box with him. We got to a check-in table and Dillworth took his turtle, Hannibal, from the box. Hannibal’s name was painted on the back of his shell and Dillworth had painted a small elephant and other designs there. Dillworth entered the turtle in the next race. We went to another table and placed a bet on Hannibal winning the race.
This race was just like a horse race, except the turtles crawled in straight lanes for six feet. Eight turtles raced against each other. A box at the end of each lane served as a starting gate. Sliding doors were all raised at the same time, and the race was on. The race probably took seven or eight minutes. I was hoarse by the time it was over. This was a win, place, or show race and Hannibal came in third. I did notice the winning turtle got a grape from its owner. I realized these little rascals could be trained.
Saturday night, I had a dream about turtles. Sunday morning, I sat at my kitchen table, slurping my morning coffee, and thinking about turtles. If I could find a turtle as fast as all the other turtles, but with a larger body structure ? say one in which it took each step a half an inch longer than all the other turtles, it would easily win. I suddenly found myself in my bedroom searching for clothing suitable for turtle hunting. It then dawned on me it probably didn’t matter. All I really needed was a cardboard box.
An hour and a half later, I was driving the back roads of Franklin County. I saw several turtles during the first five miles of my drive. Lots of Romeos and Juliets on the road today, but all too small. I glanced down a gravel road to my right as I drove slowly down the highway. There it was. My turtle. A monster. I hit the brakes, backed up, and turned down the road. He might have been big, but he was easy to catch. I picked my new champion turtle racer, picked up a twig by the side of the road, and dubbed him or her, I really didn’t know, Koat, King Of All Turtles.
Dillworth had told me about the major turtle race of the year coming up next week. It was held on May 22rd. even though World Turtle Day was actually on May 23rd, but the promoters went for the weekend crowd.
I took Koat home, gave him a nice warm bath, fed him a couple of grapes and filed his little claws down to fine points to give him more purchase when going for the gold. Contemplating what designs to paint on his shell came next. I did put the number 88 on him in honor of Earl Earnhardt, Jr’s NASCAR and I decided to put a NASCAR symbol and a race car on his back. Decals for those two things were easy to find a local variety store. I also bought a small pet carrier. No cardboard boxes for my champion!
On the morning of the big day, I put Koat in the backseat of my car and drove to the park. On our way, I stopped at a produce market for some fresh grapes. Once at the park, I rolled the windows down slightly and left him there while I went to check out the competition. Several other race-turtle owners were there, I suspected doing the same thing.
Dillworth showed up a half hour later and immediately wanted to see my new champion. I had only told him about Koat. He had never seen him. We walked back to my car while I bragged all the way. I opened the back door to an empty seat. Someone had stolen Koat.
Of course, I wanted to call the police, but Dillworth suggested we do some snooping around first. If someone stole Koat, surely they wanted to race him. They would probably paint over my decals and other art work on his shell, but since he was bigger than the average turtle, we should have no trouble finding him.
We watched the first two races, but no turtle that was the size of Koat was entered. In the third race, I spotted him. Dillworth calmed me down enough to pay attention and watch to see who the thief was. Sure as sunrise, some guy was calling him Charlie and holding grapes down for him to eat after he crossed the finish line. The most insulting part was him calling the King of All Turtles Charlie, and as Dillworth predicted, they had painted his entire shell blue and put the number 39 on it.
“They probably had to wait until the third race to have time for the paint to dry,” Dillworth said.
“Well, call the police.”
“We have to be able to identify him. Can you do that?”
“You bet. Just call the police, Dilly.” I got a dirty look. Dillworth hated to be called Dilly.
I explained everything to an officer who seemed to have a very puzzled look on his face. “I never knew such races existed,” he said.
“Oh, yeah. Big time stuff,” I bragged.
“Well, how do you know for sure that this particular turtle is yours?” the officer said.
“Pick him up and look at his left hind foot. He has lost one of his claws. Must have lost it fighting or something.”
“Yeah, fighting,” the officer said. He examined Koat and discovered he did have a missing claw. His partner was now holding onto the arm of the crook.
“You want him arrested?” the other officer said.
“Then, no. Just give me Koat back.”
“Whatever you want.”
I decided not to race Koat for the rest of the day. I didn’t want all the excitement to get to him, although I did discover it was difficult to tell if a turtle was stressed out or not. Koat and I headed for the nearest produce market for another fresh bunch of grapes. The same guy waited on me who did earlier in the day.
“Really into those grapes?” he said.
“They’re not for me. They’re for my champion racing turtle.”
Surprisingly, I got no strange look. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “I’d really love to get into that sport.”
The world of weird just got bigger.
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