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The Fiction of Don Thomasson
Strictly Illegal - Chapter 2

The Fiction of Donald William Thomasson
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Some time later, as they were finishing lunch at the Bear in Wantage, Jimmy remembered to ask Pat how she had got to Knollend Down. Grinning mischievously, she said she had walked. 'Well, I walked from Scutchamer Knob, up on the Ridgeway. I thought I'd come down through the wood, so that I would see you before you saw me.'

Jimmy, who was in a mood to forgive her any amount of teasing, asked patiently how she had got to Scutchamer Knob, an even lonelier spot than Knollend Wood.

She chuckled. 'A friend of our gave me a lift in a Land Rover. I've got a note from him to pass on to you. Do you want it now?'

Glancing round quickly, Jimmy nodded. 'I don't think anyone's likely to be able to see what's in it.'

The note was, as he had expected, from Geoff. It was characteristically terse. 'New job. Bearer of note will enlighten you, though I gather you know something already. If you want her to help, same basis as yourself. Tell me Scutchamer Knob tonight around eight.'

This cleared up some of Jimmy's worries. He was still working for Geoff, who had foreseen his problem and proposed a solution. Jimmy thought it was a very good idea and said so, to Pat's evident relief.

'I was afraid you wouldn't want me involved.'

Jimmy chuckled. 'Well, you seem to be essential for the moment, since you've got the information. Mind you, I could probably manage without, but I don't think I want to. Brent Livingstone?'

Pat nodded. 'Geoff agrees that it's fishy and suggests that we could begin by looking over the site. Do you know where it is?'

'About ten miles west of here.' Jimmy got out his map. 'No, rather less, say seven miles. I wish I knew which of these tracks are usable. What's the Ridgeway like?'

'Parson's egg, good in patches.'

'Then we'll take the Icknield Way. I haven't got the ground clearance for parson's egg whites.'

Anyone who had seen him drive up to the Bear would have understood this. He had naturally chosen to use the very low-slung racing sports car which had led to his first meeting with Pat, though he might have considered his Mini more suitable if he had known they were going to start work at once.

The Icknield Way runs near the foot of the slope at the northern edge of the Berkshire Downs, high enough above the Vale of White Horse to offer some fine views northward, and for the most part is a good secondary road. At one point, however, there is a nasty kink and dip where a deep coombe cuts into the hill slope and this sometimes catches out unwary drivers.

Being a good map reader, Pat warned Jimmy of the hazard in ample time and he approached with suitable caution. As he prepared to take the sharp right hand swing at the bottom of the dip, a small saloon car slid into view round the corner, travelling much too fast, the driver sawing away at the wheel furiously in an effort to stay on the road. Jimmy braked and hugged the hedge, expecting the other car to hit his front wing at any moment, but he left just enough room. The saloon scraped through with millimetres to space and vanished up the hill.

Jimmy quietly selected another gear and moved on, leaving his comment until they were on a straight piece of road. 'That was interesting...'

Less restrained in her opinion of the other driver, Pat wanted to know why Jimmy had called the incident interesting.

'I recognised him, that's why. He used to be Brent Livingstone's secretary. Perhaps he still is. I wouldn't know. I wonder why he was in such a hurry.'

'Perhaps he always drives like that.'

'I doubt it. If he did, he'd have learned a lot more about how to handle an emergency. It was sheer luck that he got through the corner at all. He hadn't a clue what was going to happen next. No, I'd say he was scared. Before he took the turn, I mean. He was certainly scared after.'

'There didn't seem to be anyone following him.'

'No, everyone else going that way has been keeping to the good old Sunday shamble. Maybe he was just wanting to be somewhere else as soon as possible. I don't suppose we'll ever know. Is this the turning?'

They were soon climbing steeply to the top of the Downs, passing the huge horse carved in the turf and emerging close to the ancient earthwork known as Uffington Castle. Finding a space in the sloping car park, Jimmy led the way up to the ramparts, firmly suppressing his natural inclination to glance over his shoulder at the site of the new circuit. They must look like ordinary sightseers with no special interest in what was happening in the valley below.

Reaching the earthwork proper, they looked out to the north first. It was a staggering view, stretching from the Icknield Way four hundred feet below them to the blue haze over the Cotswolds, twenty miles to the north. Not all of it was scenic, for vast industrial structures rose into the sky here and there, but it was still an impressive view.

Jimmy and Pat were in no hurry. They lingered over this scene for some time before turning back to look down to the southwest. The view in this direction was equally staggering, but for entirely different reasons. From the northern ridge of the downland, a broad and shallow valley sloped away to the south between rounded hills. Down the heart of this valley ran a freshly turned swathe of chalky soil, a mile long and wide enough for a six-lane motorway. At the nearer end, bulldozers were extending the swathe in a sweeping arc towards the eastern side of the valley, where white marker posts indicated a continuation high on the hill slope.

After studying the scene for some time, Jimmy spoke softly, his voice awed. 'That's what I call getting on with the job. I didn't expect them to have got this far, with the press release made only last week. At this rate, the circuit will be finished in no time at all.'

'Geoff said the opening's planned for next May.'

Raising his eyebrows, Jimmy took another look at the busy scene below, trying to guess how fast the work was likely to progress. 'They probably won't be able to do much during the winter, but even then it seems a bit off. Or am I being unduly suspicious?'

'Probably.' Pat tucked her arm under his and pointed to the far end of the whitish scar across the valley. 'What seems odd to me is that they don't seem to have done very much about building foundations. I would have thought they would come first. It's almost as if they're trying to create a thorough mess in the valley so that nobody can see what's happening.'

Jimmy grinned. 'That's remarkably perceptive. You could well be right. We'll need expert advice on this. I just can't visualise how much work is involved.'

'Suppose we go along the ridge to the south, for a closer look. Quite a lot of people have done that already.'

Walking along the rough track, high on the eastern hill, they saw more and more pockets of activity in the valley, some with obvious objectives, others more difficult to interpret. One gang were putting in drains, another was working on an access road, a third was laying out the lines of the track. They were everywhere, leaving few patches of ground still untouched.

Since they both felt like a little gentle exercise, Jimmy and Pat decided to continue along the hill track, crossing the valley some way down and returning by the western ridge. This brought them close to the southern end of the site and they marvelled again at the sheer magnitude of the activity.

Pausing as they reached the further ridge, Jimmy looked back and pointed out that the essential form of the layout was now reasonably clear. 'The main straight's obvious enough, though it looks much wider than is really necessary. Perhaps they mean to build a landing strip beside it. I suppose the area inside the nearer curve will be the paddock, with the grandstands on this side of the straight. They have made some sort of start on their foundations, but it only looks like a token effort.'

'Go back to what you said about a landing strip.' Pat sounded thoughtful. 'Could they be aiming to get that finished first?'

'They could, indeed!' Jimmy's tone was a compliment in itself. 'Yes, that might explain a good deal. Mind you, we're guessing wildly. Let's walk on.'

They were heading north again now, and they soon chanced on something quite different. This ridge was rather narrower than the one on the eastern side, but there was a flatter top. On the edge of this flat area Jimmy noticed a fairly recent disturbance of the ground, where a very small trench had been dug across the ridge and then filled in again. Standing as if he was looking out across the valley, Jimmy following the faint trail with his eyes. It descended the slope below his feet towards an odd box-like structure about a yard square and two feet high. The whole thing intrigued him considerably, but it would have been rather blatant to walk fifty yards down the slope for a closer look, so he cast back in the opposite direction.

Pat was the first to spot one of the lamps. Set flush with the surface of the ground, no more than two inches in diameter, they were almost invisible from a short distance. With the clue of the disturbed earth to help them, however, they found there were two rows of lamps running parallel with the ridge. The rows were about twenty feet apart and the lamps were set at about ten foot intervals along the rows.

Conscious that they must stand out very conspicuously on the top of the bare ridge, Jimmy drifted idly across the level area to the side away from the valley, where he was surprised to find himself looking down on a road carrying a fair amount of traffic.

'I find these contrasts disconcerting. Organised chaos behind us. A very ordinary country road in front of us. Under us...what?'

'Another airstrip, by the look of it.' Pat was looking around warily. 'Let's talk about it later. I don't like the look of this chap coming along the ridge.'

Jimmy obediently turned away towards the main track, carefully avoiding more than a fleeting glance at the man in question. Even so, he was inclined to agree with Pat. He felt immediately that the man struck a false note, in some way. Superficially, he was just another walker following a downland track. Pat said later that he was almost perfectly dressed for the part, but was just a little too smart, his open-necked shirt tucked neatly into the top of his trousers, which were sharply creased, his suede shoes too light and elegant for this sort of terrain.

As they came near, the man nodded and wished them good day, as is still the country fashion. Jimmy responded with a smile and thought that might be the end of the encounter, but just as they came level with him the man stopped and spoke again. 'Horrible mess they're making down there. D'you happen to know what it's all about?'

It was an innocent and natural enough question, but in view of his instinctive feeling that the man was out of place, it was equally natural that Jimmy should see another possible interpretation. He answered cheerfully, though, playing the casual observer to perfection. 'I thought it might be a spur from the M4 motorway, but that doesn't seem very likely. They'd never take it over the steep drop to the north. Someone on the other ridge said it was a motor racing circuit. That's almost as hard to believe.'

The man looked out over the valley thoughtfully and then said it was a possibility. 'More likely than a motorway, I agree, but what else could they be building?'

A little imp in Jimmy's brain pushed him into a mildly rash comment. 'It could be an aerodrome, I suppose.'

There was no doubt that this remark had scored a hit of some sort. The hard grey eyes narrowed for a moment and then the man barked a laugh. 'Another site for London's third airport?'

Jimmy smiled gently. 'Scarcely an airport, with only one runway and all these hills around it. It might suit fighters, though.'

The man started for a moment and then laughed again. 'Fighters are out of date. I fancy the motor racing idea better. Well, I suppose I'd better get on. It's a long way round to Uffington Castle.'

Pat smiled sweetly and said that the had further to go than they had. 'I think we're about half a mile past the halfway point, but we're only ambling along, so you may get there before we do.'

As they walked on, Jimmy asked her what she had been getting at. He was beginning to realise that she had learned a lot in the past year and was now a very capable young woman in a difficult field of activity.

'It'll be interesting to see if he turns up at the castle, won't it.'

'Do I gather you think he won't?'

'I doubt it. I think he's some sort of guard. Which suggests that there's something to be guarded, like these queer lamps. Does it matter if he does turn up?'

'If he sees us getting into the car, he could find out who I am. I didn't bargain for this sort of thing today, or I'd have brought something more anonymous, hired for the occasion.'

'I'm glad you didn't. I don't think you need worry.'

Jimmy hoped she was right. Now that he had seen the magnitude of what was being done in the Knighton Valley, he was inclined to be particularly wary. If anything on that scale was crooked, it must be very crooked indeed.

He turned to the point that was uppermost in his mind. 'That airstrip on the ridge. What's the point of making it so secret when the plane itself can be followed by radar?'

'Ah, but can it?' Pat waved an expressive hand. 'If a plane came in low from the north, say, flying at a thousand feet, or a bit less, wouldn't they lose it as it crossed the ridge? Would they notice if it touched down, dropped somebody, and then went straight on again?'

'I suppose they might not. I'd have to ask Simon. He'd probably know.'

'Who's Simon?'

'A friend. You'll be meeting him soon. He reported this business to Geoff, so it won't do any harm to ask him about the radar.'

'I see.' It sounded as if Pat was reserving judgement and Jimmy smiled inwardly. He had once thought her unnecessarily rash, but she seemed to have learned caution.

They walked on in silence for a while, Jimmy stepping up the pace a little, because he was anxious to get back to Uffington Castle before the man with the hard grey eyes. Divining this, Pat was amused. 'He isn't going that far. I'll bet he's back on the ridge already.'

They had scarcely reached the head of the valley now and the secret landing ground, if it was indeed that, lay more than a mile behind them. Looking back, Jimmy could just make out a solitary figure strolling along the track in the far distance. It might be the man, or it might not. He rather thought it was, from the walk, and admitted that Pat was probably right.

'You must be psychic, or something. Now, what have we here?' He glanced at the map. The Ridgeway again, I do believe.'

The ancient pathway ran between thin hedges reaching far above their heads, hiding the chaos in the valley. The Ridgeway was once an important highway, but now it is deeply rutted and modern cars would be far from happy on its uneven surface. A little way along, they came to a great grove of tall trees to the north and paused to look at the prehistoric mound sheltered within the grove.

Jimmy read the noticeboard and smiled. 'Nearly five thousand years old, this place. They certainly built things to last, didn't they. I wonder what the area was like in those days.'

Pat said she had once read a book on the subject. 'Thick swampy forest in the lowlands and everybody living on the Downs, out of reach of the fevers and the wild animals. Now, everybody lives in the valleys and leaves the hills alone, except for holiday trips on a hot summer's day. Even then, they're more likely to go to the seaside.'

'It's probably pretty bleak up here in the winter. And a bit creepy too, somehow, even in the sunshine. I suppose that's because there are so few people about.'

With a laugh, Pat said that Brent Livingstone's scheme would soon change all that. 'It's a pity, in a way, because we've got so few places left that are really deserted. I hope he doesn't spoil this track, for instance.'

They agreed on this point and continued on in amicable silence to climb at last to the car park below Uffington Castle. There was no sign of the grey eyed man, but Jimmy was reluctant to linger and they were soon driving back along the Icknield Way towards Wantage. As they neared the town, Jimmy asked Pat what she would like to do next.

'Eat again first, I think. That walk has given me an appetite. We mustn't be too long, though, if we're to meet Geoff on time.'

'I'm not driving the car up that track to Scutchamer Knob!"

'I didn't think you would. We leave the car at the wood and walk up.'

'More walking! Oh well, it's good training. Now, it's about half past five. Oxford's less than twenty miles away, so we could go there and spend nearly an hour and a half over a meal. How's that?'

'Wonderful. I like my new boss. He has civilised ideas.'

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| The Fiction of Don Thomasson |

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Mail me Keith Thomasson February 11th 2002