The Fiction of Don Thomasson
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| The Fiction of Don Thomasson |
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The talk with Geoff left Jimmy in a very unsettled frame of mind. What he had been seeing as a straightforward nursemaid job was beginning to look much more complex and important. To play his part effectively, he felt he needed more data, but there had been no point in trying to get it from Geoff. He had evidently said all he intended to, at least for the time being. Jimmy would have to rely on contacts he had made through his cover work as a freelance writer. That this would involve the consumption of a fair amount of beer failed to distress him. Geoff was always very understanding in the matter of expenses.
After several false casts, he decided to see if Robin Wightman was in the Scarecrow. The little known club nestles in an obscure basement reached by a devious maze of passages from an equally obscure back street in a quiet part of the West End. Even if a stranger stumbled by chance on the entrance, it is most unlikely that he would penetrate the inner sanctum, where good beer is drunk in a dim lit atmosphere and in pleasant company.
Being no stranger, Jimmy found his way in without difficulty. There was no sign of Robin, but Jimmy was prepared to be patient. He tucked himself into a corner by the bar and chatted idly with a slight acquaintance while he waited.
Robin Wightman's profession was something of a minor mystery, but as a source of unusual information he had few equals. This, coupled with a most impressive set of mannerisms and genuine sense of humour, made him one of the club's most popular members. When his tall rotund figure eventually appeared, Jimmy had to wait some time before he could command the oracle's undivided attention. Once he had achieved this he wasted no time on preliminaries, for he knew that it was essential to hold Robin's interest firmly. Otherwise, he was liable to stray away to chat with someone else.
'Ever heard of a chap called Simon Carter?'
As a means of securing Robin's attention, the question was entirely successful. Jimmy found himself being drawn firmly away into a comparatively deserted corner, where the big man looked about him almost nervously. 'Keep your voice down. That isn't a name to bandy about.'
'At least you recognise it. He cropped up in connection with an article I'm doing and most people look blank when I ask about him. I can't get a line on him at all.'
'I'm not surprised.' Robin was grimly amused. 'He's on the classified list. If you found out anything you wouldn't be allowed to publish it. Throw the article away and start something else. That's my advice.'
'Then you can't help.' Robin always claimed to know all the answers and this was designed to sting him into indiscretion.
'That depends. What sort of thing do you want to know?'
Jimmy took a deep breath. His questions needed to be framed correctly. This big baby faced young man was no fool. 'As a start, I heard he was involved in a scuffle not far from here a few weeks ago. That doesn't seem to fit with what you've been saying. If he's so hush hush, you'd expect him to have a bodyguard, or something. But perhaps we're talking about two different people.'
'No. It's the same man. He'd been in here for a drink as a guest of one of the members. He came back after the scrap to tidy himself up. There was a bit of a fuss about a chap who tried to follow him in the first time and had to be shooed off. That was probably the bodyguard. I have an idea they dodged him by going out the back way.'
Jimmy found this very interesting. Carter would enjoy ditching the bodyguard and that would set things up nicely. In order to stage the scrap, they had to know that Carter was in the vicinity. Inviting him to have a drink at the Scarecrow would sound innocuous enough. Once he was there and the bodyguard had been disposed of, it would have been simple to get him in the right place at the right time. There seemed to be no harm in asking the obvious question. 'Which member brought Carter in?'
Robin looked definitely nervous now, but he looked at Jimmy steadily. 'I'm all for a quiet life, myself. There are some things I don't tangle with. If you're thinking that there might have been some connection between the call here and the subsequent scrap...'
'There could be. It's at least a possibility.'
The big man nodded gravely and turned to scan the room. When he turned back to Jimmy he spoke firmly and definitely. 'Keep your eyes on me for a moment. There are eight men sitting round the big table. One has a moustache. The man you're asking about is on his right.'
Jimmy nodded, making no attempt to look towards the man so indicated. 'Thank you, Robin. That earns you a drink. Same again, or a short?'
The big man smiled, but his eyes were still wary. 'I'll have a double Scotch, straight. You've made me take a risk and it's worrying me. I need a bracer.'
Crossing to the bar, Jimmy placed the order and then scanned the smoke filled room idly while he waited for it to be filled. The eight men at the big table were huddled together in earnest conversation, but he got a clear sight of the man who interested him. Despite his formal pin stripe suit, he looked quite capable of breaking the law in a suitable discreet and cautious way. A subtle air of arrogance suggested that he might be rather impatient with authority. For the first time, Jimmy got a glimmering of the real background of the matter and found that he could understand why Robin had been so nervous.
None of the eight men around the table were complete strangers. Jimmy had seen them all in the Scarecrow at one time or another, but never in one compact group like this. Although he had paid them scant attention, he had realised that they were subtly different from the majority of the members. They rarely talked with anyone outside their own circle and there was a slight air of aloofness about them which came into the 'holier than thou' category. Looking at them afresh, Jimmy doubted whether it really had any connection with holiness, however. It was more likely to stem from a very different origin.
Returning to Robin, he asked bluntly who they were. The big man tossed off at least half the whisky at a gulp and glanced round cautiously before answering. He spoke very quietly. 'Five of them work in the city. I know that because I've seen them there. Personal assistants to big men and fairly important in their own right. The other three are different. I can't place them at all and I don't like the look of them. Those are the ones with their backs to us.'
'I wondered if they were army types...' Jimmy broke off the casual comment because Robin was looking really alarmed.
The big man shook his head firmly. 'Don't speculate. It's dangerous. Judging by the way you behaved just now in getting a squint at the man I pointed out, you know how to look after yourself, so I won't waste breath on pointless warnings. I said you wouldn't be allowed to publish anything about Simon Carter. The same applies to those men at the table, though the objection might come from a very different quarter. I would have said there was nothing else in common between Carter and the others, yet it never struck me as being strange that one of them should have brought him in here. It's odd how we accept fraternisation between people from totally different worlds. Watch your step.'
The big man took himself off to talk to someone else, leaving Jimmy to wonder how he could use what he had learned to best advantage. His duty was clear. He ought to pass the information on to Geoff immediately and leave it to him to carry on with further investigation. That, however, would probably mean that Jimmy would be told no more than Geoff saw fit, which might be very little. Perhaps he could find out a little more for himself before putting in a report.
Half an hour later, he was strolling idly through the shadowy side streets of central London, trying to show no interest at all in the three men who were some way ahead. They appeared to be in no hurry, but he saw that one of them glanced at his wrist watch now and then, as if time was important to him. The action reminded Jimmy of the ruse by which Geoff had eluded the girl at Earls Court. He hoped the outcome would not be the same on this occasion.
Emerging from the shadows into the brighter lighting of Shaftesbury Avenue, the group strolled on for about fifty yards and then the man on the outside turned to look over his shoulder. At his waved signal, a taxi pulled into the kerb. The three men climbed aboard. Seeing another taxi approaching, Jimmy hailed it enthusiastically. He was less enthusiastic when he found he was being encouraged to enter the vehicle by a smart push in the back. The door slammed behind him and the taxi sped away.
When he looked up from the floor, Jimmy found he had company, a man who held an unpleasant looking knife ostentatiously displayed in his right hand. Both hand and knife looked rather familiar. 'Take it easy. Then there'll be no trouble. OK?'
The man spoke quietly, but he evidently meant exactly what he said and a little more besides. Reaching out his free hand, he puled blinds down over the windows and motioned Jimmy to a seat. His movements were cautious and smooth. When everything was arranged to his satisfaction, he offered a few words of explanation. 'Someone wants to ask you a few questions. Answer them pretty and you'll be able to sleep in your own bed tonight. And don't try anything or I might get nasty.'
Jimmy had no intention of trying anything. He was too busy thinking. He had walked into a trap, one old enough to have been known to Chicago gangsters as the 'two taxi convention'. The trap had not been set for him in particular, but was aimed at anyone who tried to follow the three men who had been in the Scarecrow. The man with the knife was proof of that, if proof were needed. Jimmy was in a unique position to interpret the man's presence as a link between the three men and the threats to Simon Carter. If Jimmy's arrival had been anticipated, the knife expert would have been kept well out of sight.
While he worked this out, Jimmy was also keeping track of the route the taxi was taking. They had started off in a north easterly direction, but he was fairly sure that they had turned south at Cambridge Circus, going down Charing Cross Road to Leicester Square, where they had paused at the lights. Then had come the sweeping turn past the Garrick Theatre and a more or less straight course across Trafalgar Square. Whitehall? Jimmy glanced surreptitiously at his watch. By a stroke of luck it was almost eleven o'clock and Big Ben should be in action in a few moments.
The chimes were a little muffled, but the second stroke of the hour boomed out clearly as they came into Parliament Square. The Embankment? Yes, they were going more or less straight ahead. Lambeth Bridge. Then Vauxhall Bridge and under the tracks leading to Victoria. The humped approach to Chelsea Bridge. Battersea Bridge and a turn into - what was it? Beaufort Street? A series of twists and turns too complicated to follow, a last sharp turn, a swaying as the wheels hit uneven ground and the taxi came to a halt.
Getting out in response to a gesture from his companion, Jimmy found himself in a yard surrounded by buildings and high walls. The wooden doors through which they had come had been closed to deny him any glimpse of the street outside, but he noted their distinctive shape, which should be easy to recognise. He only needed to look somewhere in the area between Old Brompton Road and Gloucester Road, if he had followed the route correctly.
He was led forward into the house which formed two sides of the yard and found himself in a short passage which led to a passenger lift. This, a little to Jimmy's surprise, took them down at least two floors. Then came another short passage and a room in which Jimmy was left to kick his heels for a few minutes. By the time his captor returned, he'd had time to decide that his surroundings were of fairly recent construction and that they must have cost a mint of money. The fittings and furnishings were not luxurious, but nothing had been skimped. There was an air of officialdom, rather than of domesticity, but no sign at all of the penny pinching lip service to impressiveness that marks so many modern public buildings.
The knife expert led Jimmy to a door that looked rather more solid than the others in the passage. Beyond it was a peculiar little room with two walls of glass. As he was pushed into a chair facing the angle between these walls, he noted that the glass seemed to be neither transparent nor opaque, He could see nothing through it, but he suspected that someone on the other side could see him quite clearly. His escort sat in a second chair placed strategically behind his left shoulder and there was silence for a few moments. Then a voice spoke from a loudspeaker set near the ceiling.
'Good evening. I would like to ask you a few questions. Since I gather you raised no strong objections to being brought here, perhaps you will be willing to provide a few answers.'
Noting that the voice had a slight accent that he was unable to identify, Jimmy shrugged his shoulders with a smile.
A chuckle sounded from the loudspeaker. 'You have guessed that I can see you. That is intelligent. I think we may understand each other very well. Do you know why you have been brought here?'
Jimmy's lips twitched slightly, for the question provided a perfect lead in to the course of action he had decided to take. 'I could guess at several possibilities. On balance, I'd be inclined to think that there might be some connection with the little incident at Brands Hatch last Sunday, when Al Capone here tried to stick a knife into me. Will that do for a start?'
There was a silence long enough to suggest that he answer had been unexpected, which had been Jimmy's intention. The voice then replied with smooth urbanity. 'That will do very well. Have you any idea why he made that attempt?'
'Again, I can guess. Assuming Al isn't plain bughouse, I'd say that he wanted to involve my companion in an enquiry which would keep him in this country for the next few weeks.'
There was another pause, this time shorter. Jimmy felt he was continuing to disconcert his questioner, who nevertheless recovered rapidly. 'Your companion being Simon Carter? Exactly. You know him well?'
'I met him for the first time that day, through someone else I had just met.' The truth would serve best here, Jimmy felt, because his questioner might already know the facts. This was confirmed by the response from the loudspeaker.
'Young Clarewood...' There was hint of derision in the tone that Jimmy found interesting.
'You seem to know all about it.'
'I know what happened.' The voice was crisp. 'I am more interested in what did not happen. You prevented, er..., Al, from carrying out his instructions. What made you turn round at that moment?'
There was no need for truth here, since it could not be checked. 'Someone in front of me turned round and must have seen the knife. I caught the resulting expression of surprise and looked round to find out the reason.'
'Were you expecting trouble?'
'I was on my guard. Carter had told me he had run into some odd incidents lately and he had warned me to keep an eye open for anything unusual.'
'Yet you said nothing to him about the knife incident.'
'There seemed no point in worrying him.'
'Nor did you make a report to the police.'
'Would they have believed me? A knife attack by a complete stranger? I didn't fancy trying to convince them. besides, I didn't want to get involved, because I plan to go abroad in a fortnight's time.'
'Where?' The question was peremptory.
'To Monaco, for the Grand Prix. I've been meaning to go for a long time and I don't want to miss the chance if I can help it.'
'How will you travel?'
'I meant to drive down, but Clarewood cancelled his tour reservation, so I took it over.'
'Indeed...' The voice was thoughtful. 'You will be travelling with Carter?'
'On the same tour, but the bookings were made separately.'
'I see.' There was a long silence, during which Jimmy tried to guess how well he was doing. The blending of truth and fiction was a difficult business, but he thought he had managed to get the right mixture so far. The whole affair was odd. he had been treated kindly, almost politely. It was reasonable to guess that his captors were more puzzled than alarmed by his activities, but he must be very careful if he was to maintain that situation.
When the voice came again, there was a wary note in it and the choice of words hinted at uncertainty. 'Will you please describe your movements and actions tonight?'
Jimmy's reply was as carefully worded as the question had been. 'Sure. I've nothing to hide. I went around to one or two places sampling the beer and finished up at the Scarecrow, where I spotted a man I wanted to talk to. He was with quite a party of people, so I didn't butt in immediately, hoping I might be able to catch him on his own later. When he left with some of the others, I followed him. They took a taxi and when I tried to do the same I was shanghaied. I imagine you know the rest.'
'Why did you want to talk to this man?' The tone was harder, as if the hidden speaker felt more sure of his ground.
'I saw him with Carter once, at the Scarecrow. I thought he might be able to give me some useful information.'
'Information about what?' The assurance in the voice had faded a little.
'About Carter. As a freelance writer, I'm always on the look out for new material and from one or two things I've heard Carter would make quite an interesting subject. I'm trying to find out all I can about him.'
There was a very long silence, during which Jimmy did his best to look nonchalant. He had kept as close to the truth as possible, but he was well aware that even the most honest of statements may not sound convincing.
Eventually, the loudspeaker relayed a sigh. 'I see. Are you aware that you wouldn't be allowed to publish anything about Carter?'
'Not in this country, perhaps...' Jimmy let the sentence tail away. There was no need to stress the point.
'Ah!' There was real appreciation in the sound. 'I think I'm beginning to place you. There might be work that a man like you could do for us, one day. But perhaps you had realised that?'
'I hadn't really considered the point.' Relaxing, Jimmy allowed himself a quiet chuckle. 'However, provided the money was right...' Once again, he let the sentence hang.
'Our money is always right.' The voice was level and unemotional, stating self evident fact. 'A good price must be paid to get good service. I understand, now, why you have been so willing to answer questions. You may even have contrived to be brought here.'
'Not especially.' Jimmy was beginning to enjoy himself. 'Anyone who asks questions is liable to be asked a few in return, so it's always possible that he may be taken somewhere interesting so that the questions can be asked in privacy. However, now that I am here, is there any little job that I can do for you?'
'Not at the moment.' The reply was decisive, final. 'You probably have Carter in mind, but that is a matter requiring finesse, not one I could entrust to a new recruit. If you will tell me how I can get in touch with you, I may have something to suggest later on.'
Jimmy had no objection to giving his name and address, which could have been discovered easily enough by other means. Besides, his willingness to do so should reinforce the part he was playing. The voice thanked him and gave curt instructions that he was to be given transport to Marble Arch. The man Jimmy had called Al Capone stood up smartly and said 'Yes, Colonel.' Then he vainly tried to turn the second word into something else. A ferocious grunt came over the loudspeaker and Jimmy, also on his feet now, bowed to the glass walls.
'I'll wish you goodnight, Colonel. This has been most interesting. No doubt we'll meet again.'
The journey to Marble Arch was uneventful, Al being silent and subdued, no doubt pondering the possible consequences of his verbal slip, but he bid Jimmy a cheerful goodnight and left him to walk home unescorted, the taxi speeding away towards Park Lane.
Jimmy's natural impulse was to report to Geoff Farnfield at once, but he knew that this could be a serious mistake. The very content of the message would identify him and reveal how he had misled the Colonel. Now, more than ever, his association with Geoff needed to be kept a close secret. Needless to say, Geoff had devised an appropriate procedure.
Before he went to bed, Jimmy put the report on paper, using an ancient portable typewriter which normally lived at the bottom of a trunk otherwise filled with old clothes. In the morning he went out to look for a suitable telephone box. Having found it he made a brief call, giving a codeword and the number of the telephone he was using. Then he went home, confident that Geoff was already on his way to collect the envelope containing the report, which was firmly taped to the blind side of the coin mechanism.
After that, he decided to spend a quiet day brushing up his knowledge of Monaco and the route across France which they would be taking. He had no urgent need to go out and it was the easiest way to play the role in which the Colonel had cast him. A rather shady dabbler in information that ought to be kept secret must work at home sometimes.
In the early evening, however, he thought it would be in character if he made an attempt to identify the house to which he had been taken for questioning. Travelling to the Gloucester Road area by a slightly circuitous route, he strolled around for some time looking for the distinctively shaped doors he had seen from inside the yard. The only conclusion he reached was that it would be a simple matter to camouflage the distinctive shape on the outside to foil the curiosity of people like himself.
Returning home a little disappointed, but by no means dismayed, he was in time to receive a call from Geoff, who was even more circumspect than usual. He congratulated Jimmy on his discoveries, but advised him to abandon all thought of further investigation. His last remarks were slightly ominous. 'When we met the other day I was wondering if this particular gentleman might be involved. I hoped he wasn't. As he is, concentrate on your cover and tread warily. You're very useful to me, but you would be no use at all in your coffin...'
Chapters | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 |
| The Fiction of Don Thomasson |
|© Keith Thomasson February 11th 2002|