The Fiction of Don Thomasson
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| The Fiction of Don Thomasson |
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When they got back to the coach, Tim drew Jimmy aside for a quiet word of thanks. He had seen the whole episode and said it had been handled beautifully. If he had read into this any suspicion that Jimmy was in any way different from the rest of his passengers he tactfully refrained from saying so, but Jimmy noted that nothing had been said in Simon's hearing. Tim was obviously both observant and discreet. Showing equal discretion, Jimmy merely asked in the Place Blanche was a regular stopping place, which made Tim laugh.
'There's nothing regular about a trip like this. We play it by ear as it comes. One year, when the planes were delayed by high winds, we stopped at Arras and went straight through Paris. No one could have been sure where we were going to stop this time.'
Yet the two men had been right on the spot, waiting. Jimmy went back to his seat in a very thoughtful frame of mind.
Simon was surrounded by maps of the next section of the route and was working out speeds and times. He greeted Jimmy with a wry smile and an apology. 'Sorry if I was a bit off hand just now. I didn't mean to be, but I was a bit rattled. If you hadn't pushed me when that fight started, I could have got involved in it in a most unpleasant way and I'm very grateful to you. I think you deserve a bit of explanation.'
'That's up to you.' Jimmy tried to speak casually, but only succeeded in sounding thoroughly offended. He was more than a little rattled himself and Simon's calmness was doing nothing to improve his temper.
'I can't tell you the whole story, I'm afraid, but some very odd things have been happening to me lately. That fight looked like another one. Someone doesn't want me to get to Monaco. I don't know why.' Simon paused as if wondering how much to say and then went on very quietly. 'There hasn't been anything too dangerous, only threats and scares. Now I'm actually on my way, they may take more direct action, so you'll have to forgive me if I seem a bit edgy.'
Restraining an inclination to say that he was far more edgy than Simon looked capable of being, Jimmy put the obvious question. 'How could they know you were going to be in the Place Blanche at that time? It isn't a regular stop.'
'Isn't it?' Momentarily disconcerted, Simon shrugged his shoulders. 'There could be several explanations. Maybe they followed us in a car. We took some time getting out of the coach and if they parked quickly they could watch where we went.'
Jimmy made no comment. Simon was right. There could be many feasible explanations. A casual question to one of the coach drivers during the stop at the frontier would have been enough. There had been no sign of the yellow Lotus at Menin, but it might have been parked out of sight close by. It had passed them at half past five, some two hundred kilometres from Paris. It could have been in the city an hour before the coach.
Meanwhile, they had reached the Seine, crossing by the Pont d'Austerlitz. It was dark now and traffic was thinning out as they headed for the Porte d'Italie, which leads to the Autoroute du Sud. The long night haul was about to begin.
Once the lights of Paris had been left behind there was little to see. Most of the passengers settled down for the night, the steady drone of the engine acting as a soporific to counterbalance any lack of comfort. Jimmy felt no desire to sleep and Simon sat motionless, staring blankly out of the window. From time to time someone would clamber past on his way to buy a bottle of beer or Coke from the crates stacked beside the driver, but apart from that and an occasional glare of light from another vehicle, time passed without incident. In spite of his determination to stay awake and alert, Jimmy drifted into a restless slumber.
Nearly two hours later, roused by a change in the engine note, he found that the coach was slowing for a péage. As they rolled into the brightly lit area round the toll booths, he saw that Simon was smiling at him a little enviously. 'I wish I could sleep like that. You went out like a light.'
Pushing gummy eyelids apart, Jimmy grinned ruefully. 'I'm not sure it was a good idea. Don't you ever sleep?'
'Not a lot. I relax in other ways. Following a train of thought can be very restful and it can be useful at the same time. I've been trying to work out what my friends will do next.'
He went on to propound conclusions very like those which Jimmy had reached earlier in the day. It was transparently clear that he had no idea who was responsible for the threats, or why they were being made. In a sense, he saw such considerations as unimportant. He was interested in the more immediate aspects of the matter and would really have preferred to ignore the whole affair, but realised that it was sensible to be ready to deal with further problems. Jimmy would have liked to discuss the subject, but was afraid he would let slip some remark which would show how much he knew already. Discussion must wait until Simon had said more.
The coach slowed again, pulling up before an isolated roadhouse where Tim said food and drink would be available. Jimmy would have been happier if they had stayed in their seats, but Simon said he wanted to stretch. The night air was refreshingly cool and they stood and enjoyed it for a minute or two. Then a sudden exclamation from Simon drew Jimmy's attention to a yellow Lotus Elan which was making a hasty exit from the far side of the car park. As they watched it go Jimmy risked a question. 'Is that the one we saw in Ostend during lunch?'
'It is.' Simon spoke grimly, his back to Jimmy. He sounded like someone whose worst fears have been confirmed. 'It's Sandy Clarewood's.' Having said that, he marched straight into the roadhouse and disposed of three double whiskies and two sandwiches without saying another word.
Contenting himself with a beer and a piece of pie, Jimmy tried to work out what this new development might mean. He heard an echo of the Colonel's voice saying 'Young Clarewood'. He remembered Sandy's embarrassment. He wondered where the young racing driver fitted into the scheme of things. The sudden exit of the Lotus seemed to suggest that he was not an immediate threat, but Jimmy was happier when they were back on the coach. For one thing, Simon had clearly been considering a fourth double whisky and that might have been one too many.
At first, it seemed that the whiskies had had no effect at all, but when Simon spoke again there was a slight slurring in his voice, though it remained as cool and calculating as ever. 'Two o'clock in Ostend. That car could have been here five hours ago. What's he playing at?'
Jimmy hesitated and then decided to say that he had seen the car near Lille. Simon looked at him with unseeing eyes and shook his head. 'Lille? Half past five? It doesn't make sense. He must be following us. As I said, those men in Paris... They couldn't have been with him. No room. He must have tipped them off. Then, when it didn't work, he came on here. Oh, what's the use? I thought I could trust Sandy.'
After that he put his head down and went straight off to sleep. Jimmy felt deeply sorry for him. He might be able to cope with his enemies, but it was clear that the support of his friends meant a great deal to him.
There was another point that Jimmy found worrying. Simon had accepted him as a friend on the strength of Sandy's introduction. Would he assume that Sandy and Jimmy were in league with each other against him? For his own part, Jimmy was by no means convinced that Sandy was Simon's enemy and felt that Simon had jumped to conclusions in a rather uncharacteristic way. Jimmy wondered why, but could only suppose that Simon had a special affection for Sandy and was particularly anxious to be sure of his good faith.
The episode at the roadhouse had done nothing to clarify the general picture. Tim had explained that the decision to stop there had been made almost on the spur of the moment, at the suggestion of one of the regular supporters of the tour who remembered having stopped there some years previously. The man in question was middle aged, thoroughly respectable in appearance and accompanied by a charming wife. He was also something of an authority on the Monaco Grand Prix and gave Jimmy some interesting historical facts. If a man like that was involved, everyone must be suspect and it seemed that the encounter with the Lotus had occurred purely by chance. It was even possible that Sandy was merely travelling down to Monaco at the same time as the coach, but in that case, why had he made the hasty and slightly stealthy exit from the car park?
Such tortuous thoughts kept Jimmy more awake than asleep during the rather tedious run down past Chalons and Macon to Lyons. The stars began to fade and a faint tinge of colour came into the eastern sky, but the coach soldiered on steadily, the drivers taking turns at the wheel, changing places on the move. At about half past four they were coming into Lyons and were soon running through the Croix Rousse tunnel which cuts through the hill dividing the Saône and the Rhône, the two great rivers which join south of the city. The change of sound as they entered the tunnel roused Jimmy, but Simon never stirred, even when the coach swung sharply to the right to follow the road along the riverside.
Beyond the city, they followed the opposite bank of the Rhône past Vienne and Valence, the light in the sky growing all the time. The first rays of the sun were touching the rocky outcrops high on the far side of the valley by the time they at last came to a halt in front of a modern hotel. Tim announced a stop of one hour for breakfast and everyone began to groan and yawn themselves into wakefulness.
It was nearly half past six. They had covered some four hundred kilometres since leaving the roadhouse and only a quarter of the journey was left to be completed, a consoling thought for those who felt particularly stiff after the drive through the night.
Simon roused himself with difficulty, looking as if he had a monumental hangover, uncomfortably combined with a severe crick in the neck. They staggered out into the fresh morning air. After that had revived them a little they went inside the hotel to see what coffee and rolls could do to complete the cure.
Sitting at a table that gave a good view of the car park through large plate glass windows, Simon began to scan the rows of cars, obviously looking for the yellow Lotus. Jimmy chuckled and tried to lighten the atmosphere. 'It's not there. I looked. Perhaps he's lost us.'
Simon failed to respond. He seemed rather bad tempered, which was natural enough after a six hour coach ride on top of three double whiskies. He shook his head, regretting the action immediately. 'Ouch! Damn those whiskies. He's probably tucked away in a side turning somewhere, waiting to follow us again. Where are we, anyway?'
'Montelimar, where the fudge comes from. There's a special counter over there that sells nothing else.'
'Hunh...' The mention of sticky sweets seemed to turn Simon's stomach. 'About three-fifty kilometres to go then. Did anything happen during the night?'
'Not a thing.' Jimmy was determinedly cheerful. 'Your friends must have given up.'
Simon grunted rather rudely by way of comment on this suggestion, but he was recovering visibly and after a while he went across to another table were a group of the younger members of the tour party were clustered round a transistor set, trying to pick up news of the practice times at Monaco. Left on his own, Jimmy stared morosely down into the car park, wondering of there was anything useful that he ought to be doing.
A flash of colour caught his eye and he saw the yellow Lotus turning into the car park. It slowed, as if the driver was seeking a vacant space, shied at the sight of the tour coach and abruptly accelerated away towards the exit, passing directly beneath the window. Jimmy watched it go with his mind in sudden confusion. The driver's head had been partially hidden by the hard top, but if the head belonged to Sandy Clarewood he must have undergone a rapid and comprehensive sex change since Jimmy had last seen him.
What on earth was a young woman doing driving Sandy's car most of the way across France, mainly at night, apparently keeping pace with the coach but running away as soon as she caught sight of it? Jimmy would have liked to discuss the question further with Simon, but he decided to keep the matter to himself for the time being. The less he appeared to know, the more he was likely to learn.
After a while, Simon returned to Jimmy's side to say that it was time to leave. The hangover seemed to have disappeared and the young scientist was cheerful and considerate. 'You'd better take the seat by the window. I've hogged it for far too long and I probably slept a lot more than you did last night. Get your head down and make up for lost time.'
No more than that was said, but Jimmy felt that their relationship had entered a new phase. Perhaps Simon was feeling he needed a new friend to balance Sandy's apparent defection, but whatever the reason might be, he seemed more relaxed, warmer, more human and much more likeable. His concern for Jimmy's comfort contrasted strongly with his bleakly self sufficient attitude of the previous evening. It was reasonable to guess that his real personality, hitherto hidden behind defensive camouflage, was beginning to emerge.
Jimmy slept soundly for more than two hours, during which the coach ran south past Orange and Avignon and the south east to beyond Aix-en-Provence. When he awoke, much refreshed, he was startled to see that the seat beside him was empty, but Simon soon reappeared, a bottle of Coke in either hand. He grinned sympathetically.
'I still wish I could sleep at the drop of a hat like you do. I saw you were surfacing and I thought you'd like a wet. The beer's all gone, but this stuff's not bad. It's time we did some serious talking. I've been thinking it over and it seems the only sensible course to take.'
The last vestiges of sleep fled from Jimmy's mind and he eyed his companion warily, wondering what was coming next.
Simon began by outlining the story of the threats, adding nothing significant to what Jimmy already knew. Then he shrugged his shoulders. 'Telling you this can't do any harm. If you're an enemy, or some sort of bodyguard detailed to look after me, you know already. If you're just being friendly it wouldn't be fair to keep you in the dark. I can't really believe that you're an enemy, though you're certainly a bit of a puzzle.'
Not trusting himself to produce exactly the right tone of innocent enquiry, Jimmy was content to raise a quizzical eyebrow.
Simon grinned, as if he could interpret this reticence perfectly. 'It's no use looking like that. You must know perfectly well what I mean. here you are, in an ideal position to make a nuisance of yourself. How did you get here? You got to know Sandy at Brands and he introduced you to me. Then he backed out of the tour and let you take his booking. For all I know, you arranged the whole thing between you. I rather doubt that, I admit, because I can't see what the point of it could have been. If you hadn't come along, Sandy would have been here instead, or you could have made the swap without telling me, in which case I wouldn't have seen any difference between you and the other people on the tour. There's just one point that sticks in my mind. When we were talking about the classic circuits at Brands, you never mentioned Monaco. That seemed odd... Is that so amusing?'
Controlling his laughter, Jimmy explained. 'You may not realise the fact, but you were the first not to mention Monaco. I can understand why, now, but I didn't know the background then. You started to list the really important circuits and stopped short when you should have named Monaco. I decided not to mention the place myself, just to see if you would.'
Simon grinned ruefully. 'Bang goes my only bit of evidence.'
This was an obvious cue for Jimmy to take the initiative, to turn defence into attack. He began with a simple logical argument which he thought Simon would appreciate. 'From what you were saying, all this business started after you booked for this tour, which you did fairly late.'
'I only just got in. It never occurred to me that people would make their plans so far ahead.'
'Then most of these folk can't be anything to do with the threats. Make friends with as many of them as you can and you can be sure you've got a majority on your side.'
Simon nodded approvingly. 'That makes sense. So much sense that an enemy wouldn't be likely to suggest it. Hullo! Are we stopping again?'
They were entering what appeared to be a small village with a pleasant tree lined square set on a sweeping s-bend in the road. Tim was announcing that there would be a half hour break for mid morning refreshment in the cafes surrounding the square and warning everybody that the place was larger than it looked, so it would be unwise to stray too far.
As the coach pulled up there was a sudden flurry of noise and movement as a small yellow car shot out from under the trees. It turned sharp left in a cloud of dust, narrowly missing a Citroen 2CV which was passing. The Lotus disappeared round the further part of the s-bend in a full lock slide.
Simon roared with laughter. 'There he goes! I'd recognise that cornering style anywhere. He didn't realise we might stop here and he made a panic getaway. He might just as well have stayed for a chat. You know, I can't believe my enemies, whoever they are, would make use of anyone so amateurish.'
Jimmy said nothing. From his seat by the window he had been able to get a better view of the Lotus. He was inclined to agree that the driving style had been reminiscent of Sandy's methods, but the passenger seat had been occupied by someone who interested him more, a certain honey blonde he had once followed through the streets of Hammersmith...
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| The Fiction of Don Thomasson |
|© Keith Thomasson February 11th 2002|