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Strictly Illegal - Chapter 4

The Fiction of Donald William Thomasson
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Red line

IV

Never having heard of the Colonel before, Pat was thoroughly intrigued by the reactions to his appearance on the scene. When she and Jimmy were back in the flat and Geoff had been brought up to date by a discreet telephone call, she demanded explanations. 'What's he a colonel of, for a start?'

Jimmy laughed. 'I think it's a sort of discourtesy title. He used to have a strong arm gang that he once set to work on Simon. That's how we came into contact with him. He had a go at me as well, but that was almost by accident. I don't think he had a clue I was involved on a professional basis, though he took a marked dislike to me in the end.'

'What's his line?'

'Any nastiness on a big scale.' Jimmy shrugged his shoulders. 'Earlier this year he was working for the Council of Five, if you've ever heard of them. Brent Livingstone was one of the five. They were big financial manipulators until Geoff and Simon put a spoke in their wheel. The Colonel turned on the Council just before that. They certainly thought he was dangerous.'

'I've heard of the Council of Five.' Pat was thoughtful. 'There was a man called Keller, in Frankfurt. But that doesn't tell us what the Colonel's up to now, does it?'

Carefully ignoring the fact that Pat had decided Herr Keller was not for publication, Jimmy shook his head. 'It doesn't. All we can say is that it's something pretty big, or he wouldn't bother. By the way, Geoff says he wants us to stay away from the circuit until further notice. We aren't likely to find out anything useful and there's too much risk of being spotted. He's meeting us all at Brands Hatch next Sunday.'

'That's an odd place to meet.'

'Not really. We'd all be there anyway, because Sandy's in one of the races. I hope you like motor racing, but you'd better tell me if you don't.'

'I've never even seen a race track, so I don't know. I'll tell you when I've made up my mind.'

'Geoff's mildly interested, so he's quite glad of an excuse to go and watch. He doesn't get much opportunity as a rule. He'll sit near us in the stands and get into casual conversation. It's a good cover. Incidentally, you'd better remind me to introduce you to him. You aren't supposed to know each other yet.'

'Life's complicated, isn't it.' Pat sighed. 'What do we do meanwhile?'

Stretching luxuriously, Jimmy said he fancied a visit to the Scarecrow that evening. 'Not entirely on pleasure. We might pick up something useful, with a bit of luck. I'd like to have a word with Robin Wightman, the chap who helped Simon to put the secretary in his car. Robin isn't usually as energetic as that and he might have had reasons that would be useful to know.'

'Sounds interesting.' Pat considered the idea for a moment. 'But I'd like to dress the part, and the clothes I want are still at the place where I was staying. I ought to pick them up anyway. Suppose I take the Mini and collect my bits and pieces and meet you at the Scarecrow.'

Dice Divider

She regretted this idea a little when Jimmy started to describe the complicated directions for finding the rendezvous, but she managed to remember it all successfully. She was delighted with the mysterious, dim lit atmosphere of the underground bar when she eventually found her way in.

Jimmy was talking to a big man with a plump face, who proved to be Robin Wightman. Robin smiled at her comfortably, giving the impression that he was not averse to female company, but could always manage without it if necessary. She had met the type before and always treated such men with wary caution.

After they had exchanged a few casual remarks, Robin said that he was curious about the way Jimmy seemed to get himself associated with dangerous people.

Not quite sure what to make of this comment, Pat tried to be noncommittal. 'Some people live dangerously without really trying.'

Robin's eyes twinkled. 'And others encourage them to do it. I don't think that applies to Jimmy, though. In his case, it seems entirely deliberate. This man Markham he's been asking me about, for instance. I hope, Jimmy, that I'm not being tactless.'

Grinning, Jimmy said, 'Sorry to disappoint you. You aren't.'

'Pity.' The plump cheeks bulged in a cheshire cat smile. 'However, it so happens that I know enough about the man to make the question intriguing.'

Doggedly patient, Jimmy asked if the answer was equally intriguing.

Robin nodded rather solemnly. 'I think it is. Earlier this year, you rather alarmed me by asking questions about people I regarded as particularly dangerous.' Turning to Pat, he smiled gently. 'Not, you understand, the kind who would stab you in a dark alley. Rather, the sort who would prefer to torture you in broad daylight, keeping securely on the right side of the law. If you displeased or threatened them, they might make themselves very objectionable without harming a hair on your head.'

Pat returned the smile, her eyes lazily alert. 'Using financial weapons, perhaps? Some people are more vulnerable to that sort of thing.'

His smile becoming a trifle forced, Robin said he was certainly vulnerable to financial pressure. 'Aren't we all?'

Feeling that she had the measure of this amusingly pompous man, Pat was beginning to enjoy herself. Jimmy, appreciating that she could handle Robin far more successfully than he had ever done in the past, was content to look on with a smile as the sparring match developed.

Pat chose to take Robin's rhetorical question literally. 'A good many of us make ourselves vulnerable by developing expensive tastes.'

The plump man seemed to wince slightly, but he attempted a counter attack. 'Come now. We all have to eat, don't we?' Noticing her eye was on his ample midriff, he added, 'Some more than others, perhaps, but all kinds of food cost money.'

Looking at him thoughtfully, Pat said that food was certainly a factor, but not the only one. 'During the past year, I've been to places where people live for a week on food that could be bought in this country for as much as an unskilled man can earn in a couple of hours. People like that aren't vulnerable to financial pressure. They wouldn't even notice it.'

Her quiet words silenced Robin completely for a few seconds. A lot of his pomposity vanished and he began to look more human and intelligent. Turning to Jimmy, he grinned deprecatingly. 'I like people who can be blunt without being rude. It's a long time since anyone has made me see myself with such painful clarity. But I was talking about Markham.'

He paused to sort out his thoughts. Jimmy prompted him by asking if Markham was one of the dangerous men. Robin seemed uncertain of the answer to this.

'He was, at one time. He was so good at using financial weapons that he scared the others, but that only gave him delusions of grandeur. He began to be dangerous in a different way. At first, it was no more than a sort of experiment. Threats, rather than deeds. The others began to draw away from him, not wanting to get involved. Then, last May or June, something happened. I don't know what it was, but the whole of that world got a severe shake up. From what I could make out, the big men drew in their horns rather abruptly and the small fry had to decide whether to play along, accepting a reduced income, or strike out on their own. Predictably, Markham decided to be independent.'

Breaking off suddenly, Robin looked at them for a moment as if a little surprised at himself. 'You know, I wouldn't tell anyone all this normally. It might be risky. One never knows who's on which side. But I have a feeling you two are on the right side. I'm not even sure what I mean by that. It's an emotional thing, rather than anything concrete. Not many people are on the right side. A lot play at it, but they're really only being negative. They aren't on either side and that isn't good enough. I should know, I'm like that myself.'

The change in the man was surprising. This mood of self deprecation almost made Pat sorry she had been so hard on him. She made a soft comment. 'Not really. You just aren't sure of yourself. You probably skim the surface, dipping in now and then, not wanting to take the plunge. If it came to the point, you'd do the right thing.'

Robin looked at her seriously, then nodded. 'I hope you're right. Thank you for saying that. It gives me something to live up to. Well, now. Markham set up on his own and had some measure of success. Then he vanished. There have been rumours about the reason, but nothing definite. My own opinion is that he scared someone too much and had to be brought under control.'

Jimmy suggested that there was another possibility. 'Perhaps he was successful enough to attract the attention of a sponsor. I suppose he was a useful man to have around if he was kept in order properly.'

'Very useful. Not in the same class as a man like Carter, say, but well above average.'

'Do you mean Simon Carter?' Jimmy was surprised.

'Why, yes. I had an idea you knew him.'

'I do. Very well. But I didn't know he was a financial man. I thought he was a scientist.'

'He is, I suppose, but in that rarefied atmosphere the distinction gets a bit vague. Carter deals with theory, Markham uses the practical approach.'

To give Jimmy a chance to think this over, Pat put an obvious question. 'Would they know each other?'

'I doubt it. Theorists and practical men don't usually understand each other very well.'

'What about the others you mentioned, the ones who struck out on their own? I gather they used to come in here. Are any of them in here now?'

Without bothering to look round, Robin shook his head. 'No. They don't seem to come here any more. Maybe they realised that they weren't very popular. One of them did come in about ten days ago. He got as drunk as a lord and I had to help Carter carry him out to his car.'

The big man spoke uneasily, as if he found the memory disturbing. Pat hardened her heart and probed the wound. 'That was very noble of you. I would have thought you would have preferred not to be involved in anything like that.'

Robin tried to look reproachful, but the attempt was not a great success. He shrugged his shoulders. 'It wasn't for his sake. I'm very fond of the place. I'd hate it to be shut down, or anything.'

'You thought something unfortunate might happen?'

'It seemed possible.' Robin wilted under Pat's ruthless attack. 'Men of that type don't get drunk without good reason. It usually means that they're scared. That was probably the reason in his case. He was found dead in bed next morning.'

Jimmy felt it was time he took a hand. 'Natural causes?'

The big man's face lost all trace of expression. 'The newspapers gave no details.' It was a flat statement, evading the issue and making to attempt to conceal the fact.

Pat made one more thrust. 'Was this man connected with Markham in any way?'

Robin's eyes narrowed. 'I wonder why you ask me that. Yes, they did work together at one time. Not for long. It was shortly before Markham disappeared. I rather think he left the other bloke holding the baby.'

Feeling that they were on the verge of dragging out useful information, Jimmy added his quota of pressure. 'No doubt he was upset with Markham over that. Perhaps he tried to get his own back.'

For a long time, none of them spoke. Robin was staring down at the table top, lost in thought. Jimmy was hoping that he had not pushed the man too far, while Pat was relaxed, listening idly to the scraps of conversation from other parts of the room. She was confident now that Robin would talk.

When the big man looked up at last, it was to her that he spoke, his lugubrious tone offset by a faint smile. 'Jimmy on his own was bad enough, but you've brought a feminine ruthlessness into the matter that seems to have affected him as well. All the myths about the gentler sex become nonsense where business matters are concerned. Men are far more diffident when they're horse trading. I think you're afraid of being too soft and push yourselves into being just the opposite. I could deal with Jimmy quite comfortably. He asked questions and if I didn't want to answer he'd let it go, in case I didn't want to play next time. Frankly, you scare me stiff, but you also make me feel a little ashamed.

'Even so, I'm not saying another word here. The place is filling up and it's just possible that someone might overhear something. If you both care to come along to my place, down in Chelsea, near the river, we could talk more freely.'

After a brief consultation of glances, Jimmy nodded and accepted the invitation. Robin was squeezed into the front seat of the Mini without undue difficulty and they set off. Conversation during the journey was of ordinary matters.

When they arrived at their destination, Pat's first thought was to look around at their host's possessions in order to improve her assessment of his character. What she saw surprised her a little and made her revise her opinion to some extent. The flat was comfortable, but by no means opulent. There was evidence of a restless mind, both in the varied types of literature on the bookshelves and sundry equipment for the less energetic hobbies. The place was adequately tidy without being oppressively neat. It was a place to live in.

Having organised some drinks, Robin bade them make themselves comfortable. Here, in his own place, his manner changed in a subtle way. He was more relaxed, less artificial.

'If I asked you two why you're interested in all this, I probably wouldn't get a useful answer, so I won't bother. My own position needs no concealment. You may be surprised to know that I was originally trained as an engineer. That came to an end when someone pointed out that it wasn't a sedentary occupation, which was unkind but probably justified. I never really took to all the petty excitements and alarms that blew up and were forgotten again within twenty four hours. I wanted something with a longer time scale and more continuity. I wanted to work for the next decade or so, not for this year's market fads.

'I had a little money saved up and I used it to buy time to think. After six months of idle conversation and reasoning, I reached some interesting conclusions. The first was that my basic interest lay in watching the wheels go round. Not in the engineering sense, you understand, more in the sense of wheels within wheels. I liked to watch things happening.

'There didn't seem to be much money in that, but in the end I realised that there could be. I crossed my fingers firmly and opened a little office. Then I set about making contacts. Before long, I had to employ a secretary to deal with the correspondence. Yet it was all gloriously ephemeral. I had nothing to sell but the products of observation. By keeping a bit aloof from the world, I found out that I could see what was happening in it rather more clearly than the people who let themselves become more closely involved. As word got around, they started coming to me to find out what they were doing. Silly as it may sound, that's what it amounted to.'

Jimmy was listening with great interest. He had often thought that this sort of thing might be workable, but had never believed anyone could make a living out of it. He felt that such a life might suit him very well when he was older and less attracted by adventure on a wider scale.

He asked what sort of information people wanted and Robin grimaced. 'Basically, money matters. Disguised to varying degrees, almost every question hinges on money. A man may ring me up and ask what I think of a certain firm. I'm never too positive. I'm either unenthusiastic or I suggest that they have possibilities. A nod's as good as a wink to a blind horse.'

'Do you always get paid?' Pat characteristically went to the crux of the matter.

Robin chuckled. 'In the end, in the end. People who try to get information for nothing find that the source tends to dry up. Don't get me wrong. I'm not treating you as customers, so don't think I'm dropping hints. I didn't ask a lot at first. Just token payments. My running costs weren't large so I wasn't too worried. Nowadays, I get retainers from a number of quite important people - no names, no pack drill - and I have quite a sizeable staff to give me a hand with the detail work.'

He leaned forward and emphasised his next words by wagging a finger. 'Now, it's impossible to ask questions without giving away information. As time went on, I began to build up an amazing amount of data that was largely unusable. I'm blessed with a particularly good memory and eventually I wrote down a whole lot of this information to start what I call my 'suspense files'. They may prove useful one day, but meanwhile I keep them securely locked up. There's dynamite in them. Some of it scares me stiff. It was quite clear that I was discovering a lot of things I wasn't supposed to know. If the people concerned ever found me out... I don't even like to think about it. I've become very adept at presenting a picture of bland innocence in response to some questions. I simply don't dare to admit that I know the answers.'

He glanced at Pat a little defiantly. 'I'm not exaggerating this, you know. They wouldn't use financial weapons, either. I would probably disappear quietly and end up on a Thames mud bank.' He sighed at the thought. 'Fortunately, I've managed to steer a safe course up till now. Talking to you two like this could be fatal, but it's a relief to talk to anyone.'

Jimmy could understand this very well, as could Pat, but it struck him that Robin might be less experienced than themselves in the routines that are necessary in such circumstances. 'I suppose there's no chance that we can be...overheard...'

He spoke quietly and Robin smiled. 'I don't think so. I have quite an efficient alarm system and I make a periodic check for bugs. I'm not entirely nave. I can't afford to be. Besides, there's no particular reason for anyone to take a special interest in me just at this moment.'

'I hope you're right.' Jimmy spoke as quietly as before.

Robin's eyes narrowed. 'Maybe I'm missing something. Well, I'll tell you about Markham and you can square the account by telling me why you think I might be watched. Fair enough?'

'Fair enough.' Jimmy reflected that Robin might be in for a shock or two, but he said nothing for the moment.

'The problem is to know what to leave out. There's far too much to cover in full detail. When Markham started on his own, it wasn't much more than a matter of playing the market at first. Then he began to get ambitious, not being content with what he could pick up by ordinary means. Queer stories began to leak out. A man who might have got in his way was killed in a car crash, that sort of thing. I was given a straight tip that it would be unwise to have dealings with him, but equally unwise to annoy him.

'Sealey, the man who was found dead the other day, had a similar reputation. He was once a personal assistant to one of the really big men and a bit of the power image had rubbed off, but it didn't appear to be more than skin deep. He teamed up with Markham in some sort of lobbying deal about six weeks ago. Markham vanished about a fortnight later. Sealey seemed rather annoyed about that, but wasn't specific.

'I don't know what their deal was about, but they went down to Reading several times and were seen in other parts of Berkshire. Putting that with some questions Sealey asked me, I'd say it was something to do with a fairly large slice of property in those parts. I think the main reason for Sealey's annoyance was that he never got his full cut of the commission, but that's only a guess.'

Robin paused to look at Jimmy enquiringly. 'I don't know if this is what you want.'

'You're doing very well.' Jimmy chuckled. 'If you read motor racing magazines, you might do even better.'

Enlightenment showed on Robin's plump face. 'You mean the new circuit near Swindon. But isn't that being done by...?' He broke off, reluctant to mention the name.

'Sealey's old boss, you were going to say.' Jimmy was amused by the sudden look of respect on Robin's face.

'You're better informed than I thought you were.'

'Not as well as I'd like to be. So, although you were quite right in saying that asking questions can tell people a lot, I'm going to put a specific one to you now. Do you know of any other property deal Markham was involved in?'

'Not off hand.' Robin shook his head. 'He was pretty busy in Berkshire. Sealey did go up to North Wales for a few days. He was supposed to be looking at a factory up there, but he never did any dealings and I don't think he was really interested in the place.'

'That figures.' Jimmy felt this was something that Geoff would be able to follow up and decided to change the line of his questions. What he wanted to say needed wording carefully. 'Robin, did it ever occur to you that Markham didn't really go off on his own? Could it have been a blind, a cover for activities that appeared to have been shut down?'

It was evident that Robin had not considered anything of the sort. The question astonished him, but he gave it careful consideration now, his eyes following the pattern of the carpet with great concentration. He spoke without looking at the others. 'Now you mention it, it seems uncomfortably feasible. There was a suggestion that Markham wasn't big enough to be doing it all on his own. I hope you aren't getting mixed up with any military gentlemen.'

Looking up, he saw that they were watching him gravely and he got to his feet, considerably alarmed. 'No. You wouldn't be so foolish. That man's poison. If Markham was acting as his agent and Sealey helped him...and Sealey died... And now you've got me mixed up in it.'

Pat spoke briskly. 'You're making a lot of assumptions. If they happen to be true, what do you think you could do? Run for cover? There isn't any.'

He looked at her, took a deep breath and sat down. 'I suppose that's true. That man scares all the sense out of me. You make me thoroughly ashamed of myself, but he scares other people as well. I don't know why he doesn't scare you. Well, we're pretty well out in the open, now, so you might as well say frankly what you want.'

Jimmy thought for a moment and decided to take the plunge. 'We want to know what our military friend is up to. He's behind that new circuit. He goes there secretly, at night, landing from a light plane. There's a concealed underground place near the landing strip. We don't know what it is, but we'd like to know.'

This information impressed Robin very much indeed. He wanted to know how Jimmy had got it.

'We watched him arrive last night. There were six of us. I won't tell you who the others were, but it was a private venture, a hangover from last May, when a bunch of us tangled with his nibs at Monaco. He got away from us, but he was forced under cover. Another result was the big shake up you mentioned, when the big boys drew in their horns.'

The big man stared in absolute amazement. 'You were behind that?' He got up and began to walk up and down. Then, as if coming to a decision, he turned to them and smiled diffidently. 'If you can work that sort of miracle, I'd like to team up with you. As Pat said, there's no cover to run to. I'd better see what I can do to go down fighting, even if I can only help by answering questions.'

As they drove home, Jimmy and Pat discussed all that they had learned. Jimmy said he hoped they hadn't made a mistake in telling Robin so much, but Pat told him not to worry. 'He's all right. I didn't think so at first, because he hides himself behind so many poses, but I think I've placed him now. He needs backing up. He needs a woman he can't run away from. If he once dropped his posing for a time, even to one person, he'd become quite human.'

Dice Divider

Red line

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| The Fiction of Don Thomasson |

Red line

Mail me Keith Thomasson February 11th 2002