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Strictly Illegal - Chapter 12

The Fiction of Donald William Thomasson
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XII

Jimmy and Pat spent most of the following day lazing around in a thoroughly idle manner, conserving energy for the assault on the Colonel's mountain lair, which they planned to start late that evening. There were no plans to be discussed, no objectives to be defined. They simply intended to have a look round and see what there was to be seen.

They already knew something of the layout and habits of the establishment. While waiting for the Mountain Rescue team to arrive, Pat had managed to extract quite a lot of information from Al's companion, to whom she arbitrarily assigned the name of George. It seemed that George had been very impressed by the way Jimmy had gone to Al's assistance, and but for his fear of the Colonel would have been ready to tell Pat anything she wanted to know. Convincing him that even the Colonel would be unlikely to find out what had been said on this lonely mountain side, she had been able to get him to talk fairly freely.

Not that George knew very much that mattered. He and Al were responsible for what he called 'outside work', shopping and running errands. They were allowed to see little of the inside activities, but he thought that something was being designed. A former billiards room had been converted into an office and a number of men worked regular hours there.

Pat obtained useful information in connection with other matters and might have obtained more if the stretcher party had taken longer to arrive. Jimmy felt she had done very well, perhaps better than he might have done himself. He might not have been so ruthlessly practical in making the most of the situation.

His own talents, however, came into play in the final preparations for the expedition, particularly in selecting suitable equipment and clothing. Pat's only comment on the result was that it would be best if they slipped out of the hotel by the back door.

'We look quite villainous. If the manager sees us looking like this, he'll turn us out on the spot.'

Jimmy chuckled and glanced in the mirror. 'I don't mind looking villainous if it makes me less visible in the dark. Come on, it's past ten. We'd better be going.'

Half an hour later, he was edging the borrowed Escort into the cover of some bushes beside a narrow lane some distance from the nearest main road. He was anxious to make certain that the car was completely hidden, as he felt its presence in this lonely spot might otherwise attract attention. When he was satisfied, they walked up the tree lined lane in search of the track that would take them on the next stage of the journey.

The night was unseasonably warm and stuffy. With the towering slopes of the mountains on all sides the atmosphere was thoroughly uncomfortable. It felt as if a storm was brewing.

Finding the track more by luck than judgement, they tried to walk on its stony surface in reasonable silence, but this proved to be an impossible task. The trees pressed in closely on either side and the undergrowth was so matted that the track offered the only route towards their objective. The only consolation was that their target lay nearly a mile ahead and a little noise at this stage would not be serious. If a car came along, on the other hand, they would have no hope of getting out of sight.

Alert and keyed up by the challenge, they followed the track upwards, feeling their way in the pitch darkness. It might have been safe to use a torch, but Jimmy was in no mood to take chances.

After climbing for some time, the track levelled out a little, at the same time swinging into a side valley to the right. There was running water somewhere to the left and the sensed that the trees had receded. Stepping cautiously to that side of the track, Jimmy could just make out a moving whiteness at the bottom of a steep drop, the waters of the side valley rushing and chattering their way to join the broader river further down.

'This must be the start of the ravine George mentioned.'

Jimmy spoke idly, confident that the sound of rushing water would drown his voice at a few yard's range, but as Pat crossed to his sides the words inspired an uncomfortable thought. 'I suppose he wasn't fooling you. I mean, he could have told you all about the place and then gone home and told his nibs to expect us.'

'He could have done.' Pat spoke calmly. 'I don't think so, though. In any case, they wouldn't expect us tonight. I said we wouldn't be ready to come here for at least a week.'

There was no possible answer to this, so Jimmy turned to prospect the track ahead. He was glad to see that the trees were thinning out on the right, because they would have to leave the track for a while before long. George had told them there were alarm beams crossing the road not far into the ravine. Risking a brief flash of the pencil beam torch he had borrowed from Simon, Jimmy decided that they could walk another hundred paces.

This proved to be a perilously close estimate. When he used the torch again, Jimmy saw that the water was now only a foot below the level of the road. On the far side of the stream was a rough wooden post supporting a black painted box, just visible through the undergrowth. Another ten yards would have taken them through the alarm beams.

Moving into the trees on their right, they climbed a slope that ended against a rock slab, above which the hillside rose steeply. Traversing in front of the slab, they moved forward twenty paces before Jimmy felt it was safe to return to the road. When they were almost out of the trees, however, they were startled by a sudden glare of light to the left. A car was climbing up from the lane below and was almost on them. With one accord, they dropped flat.

Digging his nose deeply into the soft ground, Jimmy thought the occupants of the car were unlikely to see them, but he hoped that the arrival of visitors - or was it the return of residents? - wouldn't lead to too much activity round the place. George had said that most of the people living in the house were in bed by eleven and it was almost that time now. Visitors might change the routine.

The sound of the car passed and faded away into the distance. Jimmy scrambled cautiously to his feet, Pat following suit a little more slowly, commenting that the Colonel had chosen a remarkably wet place for his hideout.

'I thought the stream was on the other side of the road, but it felt as if I was lying in the middle of it.'

'No, you found another one.' Jimmy chuckled sympathetically. 'All set?'

'Hang on.' Pat sounded annoyed with herself. 'I was silly enough to look at the headlights as the car passed and now I can't see a darned thing.'

When her eyes had adjusted to the darkness again, they went on up the ravine, which proved to be about a quarter of a mile in length. Beyond it, there was a wide valley completely hemmed in by mountainous slopes. The trees faded away, giving a clear view of the house, its many windows ablaze with light. Jimmy remarked that cover was conspicuous by its absence.

'If that car came back now, we'd be caught in the open. Can we get into those bushes on the left? At least we'd be out of the direct headlight beams.'

'I suppose we wade the stream.' Pat sounded rather disillusioned. 'Oh well, it won't make much difference. I'm pretty wet already.'

'I'm not, and I'm not planning to be. The track goes across by a bridge just up there.'

'Sorry. My eyes aren't quite right yet. You'd better lead on.'

The house stood on a small plateau, a little above the general level of the valley floor, close to the left hand slope. At a hundred yards, they examined it from the cover of the last of the bushes and saw that an undetected frontal approach was out of the question for the moment. Some of the ground floor windows were lit and in one or two of them small groups of men could be seen talking together. It all looked very open and innocent.

For a long time, Jimmy studied the position in detail, trying to make up his mind what would be the best course of action. The valley seemed to be full of muted sounds, the splash of water mingling with the drone of a petrol or oil engine, probably generating the electricity, yet it also seemed ominously quiet. He had an impression that the slightest movement must draw attention to the fact that there were intruders about. His conclusions were pessimistic.

'Too much light and too many people. We'd never get anywhere with conditions as they are.'

'Could we find a way round to the back of the house?'

'I don't see how.' Jimmy grimaced. 'To reach the end on our right, we'd have to cross in front of all those windows, without a scrap of cover worth mentioning. At the other end, it looks as if the gap between the end of the house and the side of the valley is too narrow and there's not much cover there either.'

'Let's try climbing the slope. We'd be out of sight up there, wouldn't we?'

Unwilling to seem less adventurous than his new wife, Jimmy agreed that it was worth a try. He soon regretted it. The troubles began when they tried to make the traverse to the right. They were continually running into difficulties with rock outcrops and minor precipices. Jimmy wished he had brought a rope, especially after he slipped and slid six agonising feet towards the bottom.

Pausing to steady himself, he saw that there was a lake in the upper part of the valley, beyond the house, the water showing faintly as a level area of lighter darkness. This made him realise that the cloud cover was thinning, passing more starlight, which might be a mixed blessing.

Spread out below them, the plan of the house was more obvious now. They could see a single storey extension at the back that would provide useful cover in case anyone looked out of a bedroom window. Most of the plan was roughly symmetrical, the exception being the part nearest to them, which looked like a comparatively recent addition. Jimmy was intrigued to see that its walls continued right up to the hillside. Setting a diagonal course down the slope calculated to take them just above the roof of this wing, he said he wished he could look inside.

'It isn't built into the slope for fun. There must be some reason, though I can't imagine what it could be.'

'If you did look inside, you probably wouldn't get out again.' Pat's whisper was fierce and Jimmy grinned. There had been a time when he had had to restrain her from rashness, but she had evidently changed her views. She was probably quite right in her opinion, but it was frustrating to have got so far with little prospect of being able to get much further.

Lights were going on in upper rooms now, while the ground floor windows were mostly dark. Somewhere behind those unlit windows was the old billiards room. If they could get into that they might find something really useful.

Their chances of success depended quite a lot on how much trust the Colonel put in his alarm beams. George had suggested that they were virtually the only protection against intruders, but Jimmy found this difficult to believe. Suppose they had broken the beams. What would have happened then? What could have been done to locate them? What could have been done after they had been located?

The obvious measure would have to be floodlights covering the open area in front of the house, but men would be needed too, men who could go out before the floodlights had been turned on, ready to go into action. In that case, why had no lights come on when the car had broken the beams? How could they know whether that car contained friend or foe?

Still trying to find answers to these questions, Jimmy led the way down the last of the slope and began to crawl along the side of the new wing, intending to duck under two lighted windows. Just before he reached the first window, however, he froze. From somewhere above, he had heard the sound of the Colonel's voice.

'All quiet?'

'Yessir!' The reply had a military ring of a different kind, the response of a subordinate to an officer. 'Nothing since Mr Payson and Mr Galway came back.' After a tentative pause, the voice asked, 'Were you expecting something, sir?'

'I'm not sure. There's a man staying somewhere in the district who has given me trouble before. He's quite capable of trying to sneak in here unnoticed, just to prove he can do it.'

'He knows where to find the place?' The question hinted at surprise, possibly mild reproach. The reply held the irritation of uncertainty.

'I wish I knew. When Luigi went to hospital, this man actually helped to get him there. If Luigi gave the hospital this address... I just don't know. There are other ways he could find out. He knows Farnfield, and though Farnfield won't be able to do anything effective himself, he might have told this man, just to make trouble. So keep a good look out. Cover the back door as well.'

The order was acknowledged, but the voice seemed doubtful as to its necessity.

'He'd never find that way in, would he, sir?'

'He might. He's a man of imagination and he seems to know something about mountainous country, so he might guess that there's a path where the stream comes down into the lake. Watch it, anyway. Livingstone's here tonight and I wouldn't want him to know this chap's within miles of the place. He's jittery enough as it is.'

'You'll be down below, then, sir?'

'Naturally.' A faint note of amusement crept into the harsh voice. 'It wouldn't do to let our team of tame experts know too much. I hope they've been behaving themselves, not asking too many questions.'

'No, sir, just a few feelers now and then, as you might say. They still think this is a secret government establishment.'

'Good. I'll go down and deal with Livingstone. He's waiting for me. Keep the monitors on continuously and check them now and then. This man's quite capable of finding the alarm beams and crawling underneath them.'

'Don't worry, sir. I won't let anyone sneak into the valley tonight. You can be sure of that.'

The Colonel grunted and they heard the door shut. Then the subordinate spoke again, in insubordinate tones.

'Silly old devil. He talks about other people having the jitters, but I reckon he's got them at the moment. Just as well he didn't notice that the back door monitor's on the blink. Oh well, the beams should pick up anyone who's mad enough to come that way.'

Crawling further along to a point where they were unlikely to be overheard, Jimmy whispered that their luck seemed to be improving. 'He's so sure that his fancy electronics will spot anyone coming in that he doesn't give a thought to the possibility that someone might be listening outside the window.'

'What was that about monitors?'

'Sounds like closed circuit television. That would make sense. When something breaks a beam, they switch on the monitor to see who it is.'

'Why didn't they see us?'

'We didn't break the beam.'

'The car did.'

'Yes... They'd put on the monitor to see what it was and...of course! That was another bit of luck. We stayed in the trees until your eyes had recovered from looking at the headlights.'

'So we did!' Pat was disconcerted. 'I thought I was being silly at the time. Some of your luck must be rubbing off on me. What happens if their generator breaks down?'

'There's probably some sort of standby arrangement. If we sabotaged the generator, they'd be suspicious at once, so I'm not keen to try that. We might keep it as a last hope. Let's get on with our unconducted tour.'

Moving forward with due caution, they made their way along the back of the main building, which was all in darkness now. After a while, they came to a row of windows that all seemed to belong to the same room. Jimmy risked his torch and saw drawing boards.

'This looks like the billiards room. I wonder if the windows are fitted with alarms.'

'There's only one way to find out.'

'I'm afraid you're right.'

Encouraged by the fact that one of the windows had been left slightly open, Jimmy opened it a little further and they were soon climbing into the room beyond. It all seemed rather too easy and both moved warily at first, though Jimmy saw no serious danger in the free use of this torch.

The narrow beam flitted over two rows of drawing boards shrouded in white dust sheets, paused briefly on a row of desks beyond, and then explored the further corners of the room, where two more imposing desks were strategically placed to command a view of the whole area. The layout had a cold logic that indexed the status of the normal occupants with icy precision, but there was nothing to guide unauthorised intruders seeking information.

Lifting the cover from one of the drawing boards, Jimmy found only the bare surface underneath. Drawings were apparently put away tidily when work finished for the day, probably in the broad flat drawers of the plan presses flanking the boards. Pulling open a drawer chosen at random, he eyed the contents morosely. They made about as much sense to him as would a Chinese newspaper.

Baffled, he asked Pat if she had any suggestions. 'Simon would probably know exactly where to look and what to look for. I haven't a clue. Even the titles on the drawings are gibberish. 'Scratchpad Complex', 'Interrupt Priority Logic', 'ROM Sequencing'. What on earth do those mean?'

'They mean it is computer work. I'm sure of that. Suppose I copy some of the titles down while you have a look at those bigger desks over there. Tidiness seems to decrease as you climb the tree. The drawing boards are cleared and the intermediate desks are fairly neat, but those big desks are a mess. There might be something really important lying about.'

At first, Jimmy thought that Pat had been too hopeful. One desk was covered with drawings and information on mechanical parts and he soon abandoned those as trivial. The other seemed equally unhelpful until he unearthed a thick folder labelled 'System Concepts'. This was filled with neat typescript and complicated diagrams. Weighing it in his hands, he debated whether to take it. Loss of such an apparently key folder would be bound to attract attention and might lead to important changes being made.

Then he saw that the folder was also labelled 'Copy No.3', implying the existence of at least two other copies. He soon found one of these tucked away in a nearby bookcase. He hesitated no longer. The folder disappeared into a haversack he had brought on the off chance of finding something to carry away and he began to look around for other material.

Having found a few items that might be useful, he crossed to the windows to see what conditions were like outside. If the light continued to improve, they might be wise to be on their way before it improved too much. He had just decided that visibility was definitely better when he heard the door of the room open. A second later someone improved the visibility to an uncomfortable degree by switching the lights on.

Jimmy dropped where he stood, taking cover behind a plan press. He was relieved to see that Pat had followed suit. Whoever had put the lights on was in no hurry to enter, being engaged in an argument with someone still out of sight.

'Look, I admit it's a possibility, but haven't we gone too far to make the change?'

The voice was a little languid and studied. As the speaker drifted into clearer view Jimmy saw that he matched his tone perfectly, both in appearance and manner. The reply was blunt and incisive, suggesting a down to earth practical man.

'It's better to change now than to leave it three months and then find it's essential. I've been caught that way before. Why the hell didn't you mention it earlier, instead of coming out with it just as we were going to bed?'

They were wandering into the body of the room now. The languid man waved a protesting arm as he placed his foot within inches of Pat's fingers where she crouched out of sight under a desk.

'Steady on. I only said it might work out that way. While we were watching the late night film, it occurred to me that we'd assumed that the diode characteristics would be the mean value. If all the diodes on a given matrix line were on the limit, we might be in trouble. It might mean selective assembly.'

'Lord forbid. Let's have a look at the data. It won't take long. It's all on microfilm. I'll get the viewer out. Douse the lights or we won't see a damned thing.'

The blunt man had switched on a shaded desk lamp in the corner where the emphasis had been on mechanical detail while the other man returned to the door to switch the main lights off, looking disgruntled but resigned. He picked his way delicately between the desks in the dimness and the two men settled down in front of the microfilm viewer, their backs to the body of the room.

Raising his head cautiously, Jimmy ruled out the window as a feasible escape route. Going that way, they would have to be in full view at the moment when they were most likely to make an unfortunate noise. On the other hand, the desks should provide cover to within a yard of the door and there seemed a reasonable prospect of being able to crawl out unnoticed. Indicating that Pat should remain where she was for the moment, he made his way in that direction on hands and knees, blessing the soft floor covering, on which he could move in absolute silence.

Risking a glance over his shoulder from the doorway, he saw that the two men were still engrossed in their studies and signalled Pat that it was safe for her to follow. Standing up in the passage outside, he looked around to get his bearings. The passage ran away in front of him for some distance, eventually rising to a higher level by a short flight of steps which he judged to mark the start of the newer wing, somewhere near the room where they had heard the Colonel talking. To his left, the passage led into the main hall of the house. This seemed the preferable route. If the front door was open, there should be no problems.

When Pat joined him, they discussed the choice in silent grimaces and she agreed that the hall was the way to go. This decision was reinforced a moment later when there was a sudden glow of light near the distant flight of steps and the Colonel came into view, looking back over his shoulder to talk to someone behind him.

Hurrying into the hall, they paused uncertainly. The front door stood invitingly open ahead of them, but through it they could see an opulent looking car, complete with chauffeur. From a passage on their left, twin to the one from which they had emerged, they heard approaching footsteps. That left them only one choice, the stairs rising to the upper floor. Feeling in no mood to be over particular, they ascended rapidly.

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Mail me Keith Thomasson February 11th 2002