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Strictly Illegal - Chapter 17

The Fiction of Donald William Thomasson
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Red line

| The Fiction of Don Thomasson |

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Red line

XVII

While he knew that Geoff's advice was sound, Jimmy found the waiting game difficult to play, especially as some of the others were beginning to share his impatience. A few of the club members were threatening to get out of hand. Colin and Ieuan, intrepid as ever, had made an unauthorised night expedition to the circuit and had seen a light plane land on the main straight. The news was useful confirmation, but Jimmy felt he had to issue a stern reprimand, perhaps made sterner by the fact that he would have liked to do exactly the same thing himself.

He was thankful that the existence of the Colonel's Welsh base was not generally known. Even Simon only knew that it existed and had no idea that Jimmy and Pat had been inside. Robin had probably heard all about the place from Jean and might have been able to discover the location, but a tactful warning from Jimmy enured that the big man kept the knowledge to himself.

On the other hand, Robin had one item of information that Jimmy did not, the whereabouts of Brent Livingstone. It had been agreed that the conduct of financial matters should rest in Robin's hands. He had arranged with Geoff to visit his future father-in-law to discuss the subject.

He reported that the visit had been thoroughly successful. 'I risked taking Jean with me, because I wanted to talk to him about her as well, and it didn't seem a very serious risk. After she told him her story, he simply sat down and wrote a cheque. I'm not going to tell you what the figures on it were, or you'd be asking for a rise, but he was insistent that he wants none of it back. We'll share out whatever's left.'

'We'll have to keep a close watch on you.' Jimmy grinned. 'Did he have any objections to you as a son-in law?'

'None! He seemed rather pleased. Apparently he has been watching my activities with interest. I was rather chuffed about that. I didn't think he would be aware of my existence. He asked me to thank you again, though he still doesn't know who you are. I don't think he wants to know too much. He says that it might be better not to be able to give anything away if the Colonel catches up with him.'

They were chatting in Jimmy's flat while waiting for Simon and Susan to arrive for the last committee meeting before Christmas. Simon was late, which was becoming rather a habit. Susan had confided to Pat that she was a little worried. He was having another of his brainstorms, locking himself in his workshop for hours on end. This was nothing unusual in itself, but he was also becoming more and more abstracted. She was inclined to think that his unfortunate accident was preying on his mind. He seemed to feel he could only justify it by making some really important contribution towards bringing the Colonel under control.

He was cheerful enough when they arrived, however, apologising breezily for being late, but offering no reason or excuse. Jimmy called the meeting to order without comment, feeling that he was in no position to enforce strict discipline. Geoff would have been able to reprove Simon appropriately, but he had far more experience to help him.

The purpose of the meeting was to review progress, but Simon said bluntly that there didn't seem to be much progress to review. 'We're finding out a lot of little things, but we aren't finding out the key points that matter. There are a lot of things we need to know. We need to know the computer's telephone number... Don't laugh, I mean that. We need to know the identity codes and passwords. I don't see that we have a hope of getting them.'

Jimmy eyed the gathering warily. He had been expecting a row before long and had thought Simon the most likely source of trouble. Now, it seemed to have come to a head.

He let the discussion take its own way for a while, then suggested that nothing very constructive was being said. 'We know all this. There's no point in talking about it. Has anyone a positive suggestion to make?'

Jean, who was normally content to sit quietly taking notes for the records, looked up with her chin at an unusually determined angle. 'There must be lots of facts we know, between us, that we haven't understood or interpreted properly. Why not see if we can put them together with the things we want to know? I'm not expressing this very well, but I know what I mean.'

'I think I do, too.' Robin was grinning. 'Maybe I've had more practice at understanding you than the others have. Please don't make faces like that, this is supposed to be a serious meeting. What you mean is that we might be able to work from both ends towards the middle.'

Laughing, for he saw that the tension had been eased by this exchange, Jimmy said Robin was getting as bad as Jean. 'It must be catching. All the same, she's got a good point. Is there anything we haven't followed up as well as we could?'

'Those three men.' Pat was frowning in her effort to concentrate. 'What were their names? Parson...'

'Whitebrook and Galway?'

'That's right, Jimmy. Simon, you said that they would probably want to use a special programming language. Would they do that themselves?'

'Oh, no.' His interest had been caught and his mood changed completely. 'That could be important. They're all hardware men. That's to say they design the actual equipment. Before it can be run properly, the software has to be designed. That means programs, roughly speaking.'

'Who would design the software?' Pat was determined to keep Simon's brain working.

'I'm trying to think. It might require quite a big team, all told. They'd need a computer, of course.'

Jimmy stared. 'Another computer? Not the one that they're building?'

'Not that one.' Simon seemed surprised that no one had realised this.

Jimmy demanded an explanation. 'Why not that one? It may be obvious to you, but it isn't obvious to us.'

'Well, that one isn't built yet. They couldn't use it for software development. Look, when a new computer is built, it can't do anything at all. It's just a big assembly of logic circuits. To make it work, you have to feed in programs that tell it what to do. These are developed at the same time as the computer, so that they're ready, in tried and tested form, at the same time as the hardware. They have to do that, otherwise they'd never be able to work out whether a failure was due to the hardware or the software.'

Looking around at the surprised faces, Simon ruffled his hair. 'I don't know why you're looking at me like that. It's all quite straightforward, really.'

Susan sighed and shook her head. 'You may be a genius, darling, but you can also be very exasperating. Can't you see that this is a tremendous lead? This other computer could be in use quite openly. If we could find it, we might be able to get at least some of the information you want.'

While the genius mulled this over, his face blank with astonishment at his own blindness, Pat sounded a warning note. 'Wouldn't it have to be another computer of the same design, to work this special software?'

Simon shook his head, still a little bemused. 'No. That's standard procedure. You use a special auxiliary program to make one computer look like another. It's called emulation. I've been an idiot! Of course! If we can find who's doing the software...'

Calling the meeting to order with a considerable sense of relief at the prospect of progress, Jimmy said that this must now be regarded as a priority job. 'Presumably the field isn't too wide, but we ought to narrow it if we can. How would you set about that, Simon? Have you got any useful contacts?'

Simon shook his head doubtfully, but Robin said he might be able to do something. 'I know one or two people who might have the answer. We'd have to ask cautiously. Perhaps Jimmy and I could look into that tomorrow.'

'We'll do just that.' Jimmy was businesslike now, with positive action in mind, but he kept lighter matters in mind. 'We can tell you all what we get when we meet on Boxing Day.'

Robin wanted to know why Jimmy suggested Boxing Day.

Simon laughed. 'He means Brands Hatch. It's a matter of tradition. Every year, in theory, the more dedicated motor racing supporters blow away their Christmas hangovers by attending a special meeting. They often finish up with fresh hangovers through their efforts to keep out the cold, but it's all good fun. It turned into an ice skating session one year, but I hope that won't happen this time. Sandy's got another run in the Three Thousand race.'

After a relaxed discussion along some less promising avenues, the meeting closed in a much better mood than had seemed possible earlier on. Jimmy had no illusions, however. Unless they could start making better progress, there would be more uncomfortable meetings in future. He hoped that he could find some way of avoiding that.

Dice Divider

Next morning, he and Robin called at the offices of the computer firm that had last employed Austen Whitebrook. Jimmy was surprised by the way they were able to walk in unchallenged, penetrating directly to an inner office where a harassed man was wrestling with two telephones at once. When he eventually finished his business, he slammed both receivers back in their cradles and raised his hands, fingers crooked as if he felt he would like to strangle someone.

'Blasted morons! I wish I could have set them talking to each other directly. Hullo, Robin. What brings you here? Go away.'

'I've got a question about Austen Whitebrook.'

'That menace? I think he's left.'

'Who would do software for him?'

'Nobody who had any sense. Where's that blasted configuration sheet? You could ask Galway. No, I forgot. He's gone, too. Ron!'

The name, shouted at the ceiling, brought a stocky belligerent looking man trotting in from the next office. 'What's up now, Ian? Has your tea gone cold?'

'These blokes want to know something about Austen Whitebrook. I thought you might be able to help them.'

The stocky man ruffled his scanty hair, looking startled. 'Austen? That clot? What's he been up to now?'

'Nothing, as far as I know. Aren't you a suspicious beggar? They want to know who might be doing software for him.'

'Well, you know the answer to that, don't you? The only man who's mad enough to tangle with Whitebrook's ideas is Alan Archer. He's got his own firm now, cadging bureau time on the cheap whenever he can. Some of the stuff he's bringing in is pretty queer, bu all accounts. It could well be Whitebrook's.'

Obviously relieved, Ian waved a dismissive hand. 'There you are! It was on the tip of my tongue. No charge. Ron'll fill you in. Good morning, gentlemen.'

Running a finger down a list hanging on the wall, he reached for one of his telephones, having barely glanced at them once throughout the conversation.

Taking the hint, they retired to the passage, where Ron grimaced eloquently. 'One of these days, he'll chuck me the baby to hold and I'll drop it. Oh, well. Come on. My cubby's over here. Like a coffee? What can I do for you?'

The coffee, apparently ordered by telepathy, appeared with incredible promptness, borne by an equally incredible blonde.

Ron waved them to seats. 'Don't let the cups fool you. It comes out of a machine, but it's not too bad. Now, then...'

Amused and a little bewildered by the slightly hectic atmosphere, Jimmy was very willing to leave Robin to open the conversation.

The big man spoke quite openly. 'We have an idea that Whitebrook is developing a new computer and we want to get a line on the software. You think Archer's the man?'

The stocky man's eyes flickered knowingly. 'I'll bet on it. What sort of computer?'

'Typical Whitebrook. Highly autonomous. Permissive central control. Multi-level read only memory.'

Jimmy suppressed a smile at the bland way in which Robin dredged up these words from his capacious memory.

The stock man looked keenly interested. 'Oho! That must be a private venture. No one would touch it among the big boys. Would they?'

The question was sly. Robin smiled as he shook his head.

Ron seemed satisfied to have learned even that much. 'Interesting. Want his address?'

'Archer's? If you've got it.'

'Somewhere. Half a mo... Here we are. You'd better copy it down, if you can read my vile scrawl. Anything else I can tell you?'

Robin considered. 'What's Archer's motivation?'

This made Ron grin. 'Don't go using words like that in here, mate. This is a respectable office. You want to know what makes him tick? Money. Not for his own use, mind you, just to help him fiddle around with his crack-brained ideas.'

'Do his crack-brained ideas work?'

'More often than you'd expect. There are catastrophes at first, usually, because he's careless, but when he's got the bugs out the results can be worth something.'

Thanking him casually, Robin led the way out of the building. He seemed to be relieved to reach the pavement. Jimmy said it all seemed very easy.

Robin looked faintly embarrassed. 'That may be because they don't realise I'm not working for the company any longer. It's a big organisation and news travels slowly. I only left five years ago and I've kept up my contacts. What worried me was the chance that Ian or Ron might remember that I'd left.'

Jimmy found this introduction to Robin's business methods a delightful and informative experience.

Encouraged by success, Robin took Jimmy for a tour of other computer companies, where he had more tenuous contacts, but nevertheless contacts who were quite willing to talk, within reasonable limits. Discussing their findings over lunch, they were well satisfied with the morning's harvest.

'I hadn't realised that the Colonel would work so openly.' Robin seemed rather put out. 'Of course, once his material is in card or tape form, in a special code, it doesn't matter who sees it.'

'It's partly my fault.' Jimmy was inclined to kick himself. 'I came across evidence some time ago that the information was being punched into cards and never saw the obvious consequence. It's infuriating to think that I actually held a batch of the cards in my hand this morning and couldn't make any sense out of them. Even if I'd pinched the whole stack, it wouldn't have done any good.'

'You may be right.' Robin's cheeks were bulging with amusement. 'All the same, I thought it might be worth trying something like that. While you were making up to the gorgeous red-head in that last place, I was quietly pinching some of her discarded printouts.'

'I thought your briefcase seemed very heavy all of a sudden. Are you sure it's the Colonel's work?'

'Quite. I recognised a block-mark code format we saw on the cards. It'll be gibberish as it stands, but it may be possible to decode it. Simon needs something to keep his mind occupied.'

'I'm with you there. Why did they print out and then discard?'

'I wondered about that myself. The answer's silly. They're using a standard program that produces a check printout. It would have cost more to alter the program than they would have saved in paper. When I suggested that the line printer could have been switched off, they went very quiet, but I gather that would also have introduced difficulties.'

'How on earth can anyone ever understand computers properly? All this complication drives me up the wall. You seem to take to it like a duck to water.'

'I'm getting the idea. You don't think too much, just follow the rules, which are really quite simple. Simon makes things complicated by going into the matter too deeply. That isn't necessary if you only want to know what a computer can do.'

'Not long ago, you were saying it sounded like magic.'

'That was before I started reading up on the subject. Now I think I could do with a computer for my business.'

'You'd better arrange to take over the Colonel's.'

Robin took this suggestion with bland seriousness. 'Well, it belongs to Jean's father, doesn't it? I mean, he put up the money, and I gather he can prove it.'

With one thing and another, the expedition left Jimmy wondering if he had always underrated Robin, but he suspected that the big man's capabilities had flowered considerably under Jean's influence.

Dice Divider

Both Robin and Jean turned up at Brands Hatch on Boxing Day, saying that it was high time they took an interest in motor racing. Jimmy was tempted to ask Robin if he was expecting the Uffington circuit as a wedding present, but thought that might be tactless. Simon said it wasn't the best time of year to enjoy the sport, but if they liked it in winter they should love it in summer.

There was a fair attendance, despite the bitter wind that seemed to blow with particular ferocity around the circuit's best view points. Geoff appeared, quite unexpectedly, saying he wanted to wish them a happy Christmas. He was most interested in the news that was exchanged during the afternoon. He was especially pleased to hear that Simon was confident that he would be able to decode the printout, though it might take some time. He also took a note of the firms that were carrying out work for the Colonel. They were innocent enough in what they were doing, but it might be necessary to call on their evidence later.

Just before the main race of the day, Geoff detached Jimmy from the others. They strolled along a deserted path for a few minutes, talking over the situation. Geoff was amused at Jimmy's continued impatience, but said that he thought things were going well, certainly much better than Jimmy realised.

'The best evidence I can offer is that I have twice been asked if I have shut down completely on the Uffington case. He's getting quite rattled, Jimmy. So is the man who asked me the questions. I invited him to interview every man in the department. He was thoroughly embarrassed. Said he was sure he could take my word without that.'

'Is there any chance of him being embarrassed enough to back down?'

'It's possible. Quite possible. He must realise that I understand his position. I expect he feels rather vulnerable. For all he knows, I might be investigating the reasons why he's backing the Colonel.'

'Are you?'

'No. You are. I'm relying on that.'

When they returned to the grandstand, Jimmy was very thoughtful. He watched the racing with half an eye, but his mind was on other things. The big race roused him for a time, because Sandy had really got a grip on the big Lola and was well up with the leaders. Towards the end, he seemed to make up his mind, and instead of following the other fast cars he began to pass them, just taking the flag by a length.

This was much better than anyone had expected. They all went back to Simon's house for a celebration, but Jimmy remained distracted. Geoff had impressed on them the need to continue their normal lives, as too complete a dedication to the job in hand might raise suspicions, but the interplay of the normal and abnormal was giving Jimmy a disconcerting sense of unreality.

Dice Divider

Red line

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| The Fiction of Don Thomasson |

Red line

Mail me Keith Thomasson February 11th 2002