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The Fiction of Don Thomasson
Strictly Illegal - Chapter 3

The Fiction of Donald William Thomasson
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| The Fiction of Don Thomasson |

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Red line

III

The next two hours passed so pleasantly that they lost all sense of time. When Jimmy at last thought to glance at his watch, he was startled to see that they had little more than half an hour in which to cover twenty miles by car and a mile on foot. Even Jimmy regarded that as a rather tight schedule.

As they sped south, however, he found it difficult to concentrate on his driving. He had a lot to think about.

Over the meal, he and Pat had talked mainly of the past year, finding a special delight in being able to speak of matters which would normally have had to be left unspoken. Even as colleagues they omitted some of the more secret details, but each knew that the other would understand the necessity for this and would not probe too deeply.

Much as Jimmy had enjoyed reminiscing, he had been eager to talk about the future, too. First, however, he had wanted to find out a little more about Pat's point of view in the matter. She had changed during the past year. There was no doubt about that. She was more mature, less impulsive, certainly more experienced in the finer points of undercover work.

When they had first met, she had been rather touchy on the subject of equality for women, but he was pleased and amused to note that her enthusiasm in this direction had waned. She had even admitted that she was making an awful mess of the job of looking for somewhere to live.

This had given Jimmy his opening. He had said, quite casually, that there was plenty of room in his flat, if she wasn't shocked at the suggestion. She had grinned at him and said his friends were likely to be shocked, even if she wasn't, and from that point the question of the future was in little doubt. They had even agreed to get married, almost as an afterthought...

Yes, Jimmy had a lot to think about.

Nevertheless, he managed to reach Knollend Wood safely by five to eight and they lost no time in setting out on the next stage of the journey. As Jimmy had said, the track up to Scutchamer Knob was rough, but they made good headway along it, happily swinging along hand in hand. It was necessary to keep their eyes on the ground to avoid a stumble and for some time they failed to notice the Land Rover waiting at the foot of the rise ahead. When they saw it, their hands separated hurriedly as they exchanged rueful glances.

Jimmy spoke for both of them. 'If he makes one of his typical comments, I won't be responsible for my tongue.'

When they came near the vehicle, however, the familiar voice merely invited them to come aboard. 'I realised you were going to be late, so I came down to meet you. I think we'll go up on the ridge to talk, though. It's nicely secluded up there.'

Geoff Farnfield was a remarkable man, and he needed to be. His life was spent in a continual battle of wits with people of more than average cleverness. He sometimes lost the battles, but he usually won the wars. Slim, almost elegant, he was of uncertain age. From a chance remark, Jimmy knew that Geoff was at least twenty years older than himself, and therefore not much less than fifty. Sometimes he looked ten years older than that, at other times he looked ten years younger, but he was always alert and ready for any eventuality.

When he had parked the Land Rover high on the ridge of the downs, he turned to face his passengers with a gently reproving smile. 'In the circumstances, I'll forgive you for not being on time. After all, I did say 'around eight', as I guessed that you might have a lot to talk about. However, don't make a habit of it. Now then, what have you got to tell me?'

He listened to the story with grave attention, nodding from time to time. For the most part, Jimmy was content to report what they had seen factually, but he knew that Geoff would also want their conclusions, since the impressions created by facts are as much evidence as the facts themselves.

When the story was done, Geoff sat and thought in silence for a while. Then he gave his opinion. 'That place will have to be watched. I can't imagine what they're up to, but they're up to something. I can check on light planes flying that way. That's easy enough. I can check on the secretary, too. He doesn't work for Livingstone any more. After our little field day down at Monaco he cut loose and started something of his own. He may well have fallen foul of his old boss. What else can we do?'

'Not a lot.' Jimmy considered the possibilities. 'This looks to me like a long term business, mostly watching and waiting.'

'I agree. Keep your ears open for any useful hint. I don't think we'll be able to take much action before the place is built and we can show how it's being used. All we can do is gather facts.'

'We should certainly let then build the racing circuit.' Jimmy chuckled. 'If we stopped that, Simon would never forgive us, for one. Have you anything to add, Pat?'

'There is one thing.' Pat spoke crisply, in her 'on duty' voice. 'That night landing strip. It must be there for a purpose. The cost must have been justified. Someone wants to come and go unseen. If we could see them, it might tell us a lot.'

Geoff nodded, his smile approving. 'I think you're right, but the strip might be difficult to watch. It would be a mistake to hang around there too long. You might be spotted by lookouts.'

'That depends.' Pat was determined to put her point. 'If you can find out when there are any light planes in the area - it can't be anything bigger - we would know when to keep watch. I think there would be enough cover a little way down the eastern slope.'

Snapping his fingers, Jimmy said he had an idea. 'The Carters have been talking about a camping holiday for some time, but can't agree where to go. They know some of the story, and I can tell them something of what we saw today. I told them I might have a look around. Why not get them to camp nearby to provide cover? I gather Sandy will join them when he isn't racing and we could go down at the critical time.'

Geoff looked doubtful for a moment, then laughed. 'I suppose it would be all right. Strictly unofficial, of course. I want no comebacks. Make sure they treat the matter seriously. Whatever is going on in that valley, it's probably something big. I'll rely on you to make proper arrangements.'

'That's understood.' Jimmy was unusually serious. 'Is there anything else to talk about?'

'Not that I know of.' Geoff's eyes were twinkling. 'Unless there's something you haven't told me?'

Jimmy and Pat looked at each other solemnly and then burst out laughing. When he recovered, Jimmy said that they would probably be taking some time off for a honeymoon in the near future, if that was relevant.

Geoff smiled with genuine pleasure. 'I'm delighted. I don't usually say much about my personal feelings, but that doesn't mean they don't exist. I've been hoping for this. Bless you both.'

A little startled at this unexpected revelation of the human side of a man who had always seemed to be entirely without emotion, Jimmy and Pat took their leave and walked down the hill in the dusk, looking back to wave just before the Land Rover dropped out of sight.

Jimmy was content to drive comparatively slowly on the way back to London and it was past eleven when they reached his flat. Until a few months earlier, he had been living in Bayswater, but his address there had become known to certain undesirable people and he had felt it wise to move. After a lot of searching, he had found what he wanted in Kenton, not too far away from the Carters and in an area well served by different types of transport.

That flat was built over a shop and was effectively insulated from the neighbouring properties, so Jimmy had no need to worry about the late hours he and his friends were liable to keep. Pat congratulated him on his domestic arrangements and said he was going to make a good husband, providing he didn't expect his wife to live up to his own standards.

They were still laughing over this when the telephone rang. Jimmy waited until he judged Simon would be on the point of ringing off and then lifted the receiver.

'Jimmy? Good. I hope I'm not breaking anything up. We thought you'd like to know that Sandy won. Not by a lot, but he says he had a bit in hand. Not bad, first time out, eh?'

Offering his congratulations, Jimmy said they were no doubt celebrating in a suitable manner.

Simon laughed. 'Naturally!' Quite a hectic evening, one way and another. Too long a story to tell now. Did you meet your young woman?'

'We spent the afternoon looking round the new circuit.'

'Did you, now? What did you make of it?'

'That's another story that's too long to tell now. Come over and meet Pat one evening and we'll swap yarns. You aren't off camping yet, are you?'

'No, probably the week after next. What about this Wednesday?'

'Fine. See you then.'

Dice Divider

The Wednesday gathering was a great success. Pat and Susan were completely different types, but they took to each other at once. Simon said they made a pleasant contrast, Pat short and dark, Susan tall and fair. Sandy expressed general approval, but said he should have brought his new car along to even things up.

Once they had all done their best to make Pat feel welcome to their circle, conversation naturally turned to the new circuit. Jimmy told them all that he and Pat had seen, but with a minimum of comment. Simon said it sounded thoroughly suspicious. To Jimmy's surprise, the point which interested Simon most was the brief glimpse of the scared secretary.

'That's a coincidence. On our way back from Brands, we decided to stop off at the Scarecrow and collect some fresh supplies. I don't know if you know the place. It's a sort of club in the West End, down in a dark and smoky basement.'

Jimmy nodded noncommittally. He knew the place very well, in fact, but wanted to hear the story.

'Well, this secretary bloke was in there. Like you, I only saw him once, but he's easy enough to recognise. I don't think he recognised me. For one thing, he was half seas over. I gathered he'd been in there for quite a time, knocking them back steadily. They were a bit worried, because he'd come by car and he certainly wasn't in any fit state to drive. If the police had breathalysed him, the darn thing would have exploded.'

Smugly taking a pull at his own drink - Susan was driving home, this time - Simon went on. 'In the end, we offered to help out. The secretary man was in no condition to argue by then and a bloke called Robin Wightman helped me to get him into the back of the car. I drove him home and Susan came along in ours to pick me up. It wasn't all that far. He lives in a block of flats off the Marylebone Road. The porter gave me a hand to get him upstairs. With Susan waiting and a celebration planned, I didn't want to hang about, so I made him comfortable on the bed and headed for the door.

'Just as I was going out, I heard him speak and looked back. He was up on one elbow, holding out the other arm as if he was trying to ask me not to go. I cursed a bit, but it didn't seem fair to leave him alone in that condition, so I went back. He gripped my arm so hard that it hurt and began muttering something about being afraid. It wasn't all that clear, but I got some snatches. He kept saying 'Markham. He's behind it all. Markham, but he'll never let me get away with it.' Unfortunately, he never said what 'it' was.'

Jimmy was keenly interested by all this. He asked if the man had said anything else coherently, but Simon shook his head.

'Not really. Something about an odd stone.'

'Probably Odstone Down. That's where the landing strip is.'

'Could be. In the end, he passed out and I left.'

'Never mind, we've got something out of it, if it's only the name Markham. It isn't much, but it all helps.'

They talked idly for a while, speculating on the scraps of information they had gathered. The telephone rang and Jimmy broke off to reach for it. Simon had a habit of taking other people's calls and that could lead to difficulties.

Hearing Geoff's voice in the receiver, Jimmy was thankful that he had been quick enough. He gave the prearranged warning that he was not alone.

'Hullo, Peter. What can I do for you?'

Geoff chuckled. 'Company? Do I hear young Carter's voice? Well, never mind. It isn't a long story. We think we've spotted that light plane. It passes the strip at about ten in the evening, lands at Portsmouth for a while and goes back over the strip at about four in the morning.'

'What about the other end?'

'Anglesey. Takes off with pilot only.'

'Oh! So they play the same trick twice.'

'It rather looks like that. Somewhere in North Wales, perhaps. Not a bad place for a honeymoon.'

'That's a thought.' Jimmy grinned. 'Business and pleasure combined. Anything else?'

'The secretary. You seem to have been right in thinking he was afraid of something. Found dead in bed on Monday morning.'

'Wow! Natural?'

'No.'

'You don't say.' Jimmy was startled, but he kept his mind on the job. 'I've got some names for you. Michael Andrew Roberts, for one. Ken Hutton, and Arthur Mills.'

The preliminary phrase warned Geoff to take the initial letters of the names, which would give him the single name Markham. Jimmy's guests would have made nothing of what he said, even if they had been listening, but Pat had caught the warning phrase and her eyebrows rose a little. Jimmy made a face at her.

When he had worked out the name, Geoff repeated it as a check, then asked if that was the name of the man who had put the secretary to bed on the Sunday evening.

'No, that was someone else entirely. You mentioned him just now, as a matter of fact.'

Now it was Geoff's turn to be startled. 'Not Carter?'

'The same.'

'Good heavens! Quite a little gold mine of information, aren't you? Well, that could save the police a lot of trouble. Where does Markham come in, then?'

'He probably did it.'

'I see. Evidence or guesswork?'

'A bit of both. That was the expectation.'

'You mean the secretary... He talked to Carter?'

'That's it.' Jimmy wished Geoff would ring off. Once Pat had caught the code phrase, she would have little difficulty in interpreting his cryptic remarks. She might have more difficulty in maintaining the party spirit, knowing that the secretary had been murdered.

Fortunately, Geoff decided he had enough to think about for the moment and let Jimmy go back to his friends, who had gone on talking quietly while he was on the phone. Pat looked up and grimaced at Jimmy, indicating that she had understood what he was talking about, but he was relieved to find that she seemed to take the knowledge in her stride.

It seemed a good time to raise the question of the camping trip. Discussion of the detailed arrangements lasted the rest of the evening.

Dice Divider

As a result of those arrangements, they all went down to the Uffington district six days later, camping within walking distance of Odstone Down. Jimmy had said nothing about the information he had received from Geoff, but he had managed to make sure that they all happened to be on the spot on the night the plane was expected.

At dusk, he and Simon were perched uncomfortably on the steep slope above the road from Lambourn to Ashbury, a little below the level of the secret landing strip. There was very little cover and they had to move with care. Somewhere below them, nearer the road, the rest of the party were waiting for the signal that would tell them they could come up. Apart from the two girls, Sandy was there with his racing mechanic, Jock, who had been in the Army and had been teaching them the art of unobtrusive movement.

Other than the sound of an occasional car passing along the road below and a very soft sighing of wind, everything was quiet. This might be an advantage or a problem. They would hear other people coming more easily, but they would also be more audible themselves.

Motioning to Simon to stay where he was, Jimmy wriggled over the skyline and crawled forward across the ridge. He was fairly sure there was no one about, but he was equally sure that the ridge would be tenanted before long. He hoped that they would use no lights. It was a clear night and the stars should provide enough illumination.

He and Pat were well aware of the difficulties and dangers of working with amateurs who saw the whole thing only as an exciting adventure, rather than as a serious job of work, but they had agreed that the cover provided by the camping party was compensation for the risk. He hoped that their judgement would be proved sound on this point. Simon would probably be sensible enough, as would Susan. Sandy and Jock were unknown quantities.

Reaching the far side of the ridge, he saw that the valley below was dark and silent. Crawling back, he wondered for the tenth time where the nocturnal visitor would go when he arrived. There was nothing down there but a chaos of chalky mud, nothing that seemed worth such a carefully organised visit.

At Simon's side, he used a hooded torch to call the others up the slope. When they arrived, he spoke in a deliberately serious tone. 'It's all quiet over there at the moment, so I think we can take up position. Pat, Jock and I will cross the ridge first. The others follow when I signal. Not before. Remember, the sky low down in the west is still quite bright, so you've got to keep as close to the ground as possible when you cross the ridge. If you don't, someone on the far side of the valley would be able to see you clearly in silhouette. Understood?'

There was a muttered chorus of assent. He took a deep breath and led the first party across the ridge. He had chosen a crossing point where a slight dip in the ground provided some scanty cover, which meant that they were some way south of the landing strip, but it would be possible to make their way north along the eastern slope, keeping well below the revealing skyline.

When they had crossed safely and he had again checked that the valley was silent and dark, he signalled to the others to follow. Before they had completed half the journey, Pat gripped his arm and he saw that a faint light had appeared further along the slope. There was no point in trying to stop the others now and he peered anxiously at the light, trying to make out where it was. He suspected that it came from the small box like structure which he and Pat had seen, the point from which the landing light cables ran. When the whole party were assembled on the eastern slope, he told them to sit tight for a while and made his way along the sloping turf to have a closer look.

The light appeared to be shining upwards out of the box, visible only where it caught the inside edges. When he went a little way down the slope, the light faded to a faint glow, confirming this idea. Going back up to the others, he led them towards the box at a lower level, where there was less chance of them being outlined against the light.

When the box was some fifty yards ahead, he halted for a whispered conference. 'That light's peculiar. Someone must have switched it on, but the box doesn't look big enough for anyone to get into. I'm wondering if it's the top of a shaft, just the lid of something. The main point is that we've got to be careful we aren't shown up by the glow, so keep your heads down.'

Jock asked permission to take a closer look. 'I can freeze where I am if anything starts to happen and then they'll only see me if they trip over my legs. Shall I have a shufti?'

After a little hesitation, Jimmy let him go, noting with approval the way he looked back now and then to make sure he could find the others again by reference to the skyline. It was a quarter to ten and he hoped Jock would be quick.

It seemed an age before the Scotsman came back at a crouching run, making remarkably little noise.

'Something's goin' to happen,' he muttered. 'I heard a chap in yon thing say it was nearly time. There's a gully ahead giving guid cover. Let's move up there while we can.'

Impressed by Jock's performance as a scout, Jimmy decided to accept this suggestion and the party crept forward in pairs to within a dozen yards of the mysterious box. Crouching in the gully, they could get an excellent view, but the cover was scanty and Jimmy hoped that no one would feel a sudden desire to sneeze. They might remain unnoticed if they weren't suspected, but anyone looking for them would have a fairly easy task.

He considered counselling retreat, but before the decision was made a faint hum drew his attention to the sky. Looking up, he saw the navigation lights of an aircraft approaching, low down over the northern horizon. A man's head appeared briefly in the glow of light from the box and they heard a muffled shout as the head vanished again. As if in response, another glow appeared over the ridge. The landing lights had been switched on.

They watched, fascinated, as the ghostly shape of the aeroplane floated into view. It touched down, someone sprang out, and the plane immediately moved forward again, the sound of the engine oddly subdued. The glow over the ridge vanished at once. A figure emerged from the box and moved up the slope.

After less than a minute, two figures came back, clearly outlined against the stars. One was carrying a heavy case. Voices could be heard, faintly but clearly. The man carrying the case seemed to be asking if the other man had had a good trip. The answer came in a louder voice, contemptuous and slightly accented. When he heard that second voice, Jimmy stiffened and he heard Simon move beside him. Sandy and Susan should have recognised those tones too.

His eyes fixed on the moving shadows, Jimmy almost held his breath as they approached the glow of light. The man with the case passed it to someone inside and then stepped back to allow his companion to enter next. For a moment the second man's figure showed up clearly in the light and Jimmy sighed. No doubt about it. No doubt at all.

The glow was shut off, as if a lid or cover had been put in place. Jimmy judged that it was the moment to retreat. There was little need for concealment. It seemed that everyone else nearby was out of sight under ground. Nevertheless, the members of the reconnaissance party were subdued, moving cautiously - almost nervously - as they found their way back to the road. Even those who had never heard that arrogant voice before recognised that the situation had changed. It was no longer a game. It was the real thing.

As they followed the road back towards the camp site, Simon at last broke the silence. 'If I'd known that man was going to turn up, Susan wouldn't have come within miles of the place. I'm not sure I'd have come myself, for that matter.'

Jimmy grinned to himself in the darkness. They had gone to a lot of trouble just to catch a fleeting glimpse of one man, but that glimpse had been worth all the trouble in the world. It confirmed their nebulous suspicions about the activities in the Knighton Valley, linking those activities with one of the most dangerous men in Europe. Geoff had been looking for the Colonel for some time without success and would be glad to have such a hopeful lead.

For the moment, however, with the Colonel still at large, there was a need for caution. Simon evidently appreciated that, but Jimmy felt a word of advice might still be advisable. 'I don't think they can possibly know we've been about the place tonight, Simon, but I think you should move camp tomorrow. With our friend coming and going, they may be a bit touchy about casual visitors to the area.'

'Don't you worry!' Simon spoke energetically. 'We'll be off first thing. How far away from here can we get?'

'John O'Groats, unless you've got your passports with you.' Jimmy was amused by Simon's tone, but knew better than to take it at face value. 'Pat and I will go back to town tomorrow as planned. Shall we ring Geoff and tell him the news?'

'By all means. He ought to know. Have you got his number?'

'I think so.' Jimmy thought Pat was smothering a laugh and was glad it was too dark for his face to be clearly visible. 'I'll ring him as soon as we get back.'

Dice Divider

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| The Fiction of Don Thomasson |

Red line

Mail me Keith Thomasson February 11th 2002