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Strictly Illegal - Chapter 18

The Fiction of Donald William Thomasson
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XVIII

A few weeks later, Jimmy was again feeling a sense of unreality, but this time for more tangible reasons. He and Pat were leaving the flat in the early evening. They might have been setting out to pay a social call. Even when they parked the car and began to stroll the last hundred yards to their objective, their behaviour was in no way abnormal, though a critical observer might have wondered why they had chosen to park the car in a deserted factory estate and stroll beside the busy North Circular Road, still packed with homeward bound cars.

Despite their air of absolute innocence, they were about to indulge in a little unauthorised entry, with a view to having a look round Alan Archer's offices. Robin had surveyed the ground in advance, calling on Archer to discuss a possible contract for advisory work. He had reported that the task might prove difficult. Jimmy was quite prepared to find that they could make no useful headway on this occasion, but it seemed worth trying.

The offices were on the seventh floor of a modern block. Robin had been able to sketch the layout of the floor quite accurately. Before that information could be put to use, however, they had to get into the building and up to the floor in question. At this time, the main doors would be shut and the lifts would be out of action, but Jimmy noted that there were cars still parked under the building. There were a few lights shining from windows here and there, so he hoped that they would find some entrance still open.

Picking their way cautiously among the forest of concrete columns that supported the block at a height of some ten feet above the level of the car park, they came to an insignificant door set in a wall that ran the full width of the building. They were already past the point of no return, for it would have been difficult to explain their presence in that area. Taking a deep breath, Jimmy stretched out his hand and tried the door, finding, rather to his surprise, that it was open.

Inside, they found themselves in a lobby with bare brick walls. Straight in front of them, another door opened onto a lit room that looked like a night watchman's lair. After a momentary hesitation, Jimmy went boldly forward and peered through the small window in the door. The room was empty.

Jimmy grimaced. They must now take an even more irrevocable step, ascending into the building itself. The way by which they must go was clear enough, a flight of concrete steps lit by a bare bulb. This brought them to a side passage off the main entrance hall. According to Robin's plan, the stairs to the upper part of the building were on the far side, which meant that they must cross the hall, exposed to clear view through the plate glass doors at the front and rear, under the light of the two small lamps that were evidently left on all night.

If they could cross in leisurely fashion, it would give less grounds for suspicion, but if they hurried across there would be less chance that they would be seen at all. Jimmy chose the compromise, crossing briskly but not hurriedly. That seemed to offer the best chance all round.

At the far side of the hall, there was another side passage that should lead to the stairs. Entering this, they were about to climb the first flight when an odd humming sound drifted down from somewhere above. Looking up, they could see the handrails almost to the top of the building. A hand was moving slowly down the rail from the second floor to the first.

Cover was urgently needed, but it seemed to be in rather short supply. All Jimmy could remember was that the lift entrances were deeply set in the side of the hall. Pulling Pat with him, he slid along the nearer side of the hall until they could press their backs against the lift doors.

The humming and the leisurely movement had convinced Jimmy that this was the night watchman on his rounds. All now depended on how conscientious the man was. If he looked behind him as he crossed the hall, they were lost.

The humming became audible again as a slouching figure came into view. The man glanced at the doors in the front of the building, nodded to himself and slouched on into the further passage.

The way was now clear for the climb to the seventh floor, with little to worry about on the way. They looked quite respectable and it was doubtful that every occupant of the block knew every other occupant. They should be able to pass freely.

In the event, they came to the seventh floor without seeing anyone. From Robin's plan, they knew that it was straightforward in layout. From the landing, they would find the door to the office suite leading to an open area, where the receptionist normally sat at a desk facing the entrance. On either side of this area were enclosed offices, with other open areas beyond. Robin had suggested that the office immediately to the left, Archer's own, would probably be the best place to look for information.

That would have been all very well, if Archer's office had not been occupied.

Jimmy saw the office lights on as he opened the door. He also saw that the office was panelled with opaque glass, so he barely hesitated before going on into the open area, which he was thankful to find heavily carpeted. It was no more dangerous to be there than to stand undecided outside the door, which might have looked odd to someone passing.

A quick glance round showed that there was possible cover among some desks placed near the office wall. In no time, Jimmy and Pat had hidden themselves there as best they could. If anyone came in by the door from the stairway, they might well be seen, but apart from that they felt reasonably safe, providing Archer didn't want anything from the desks around them.

By putting an ear against the partition, Jimmy could hear what was being said in the enclosed office. It was evident that a discussion was in progress, with someone sounding rather annoyed about something.

'I wish I'd never taken the job on. You fellows just don't appreciate the difficulties. You calmly walk in here and say you want the subscriber capacity doubled. When I point out that it would take at least two months to do that, you tell me I've got a week. Look, we've got to reorganise and reallocate the whole of the access control macro, find room for twice as many entries in the subscriber data block, and possibly shift round other stuff to make room for it. I tell you, Markham, it can't be done.'

The name made Jimmy want to chuckle. Was Markham always asking for the impossible, or was it coincidence that he happened to be doing it when Jimmy was listening?

The second voice was quieter, but equally determined. 'It must be done. You, of all people, Arthur, should recognise that this sort of venture depends on the scale of the operation. We started with a hundred subscribers, but that proved to be an underestimate. Now, we want two hundred.'

'You've got a hundred and twenty eight. A hundred wouldn't be economic. I'll have to go up to two fifty six to make sense. Two hundred wouldn't be any easier. We can do it, but it will take time. So will organising the subscribers, and you've got to get them equipped.'

Archer sounded contemptuous, but Markham kept cool. 'Many of the subscribers are already equipped. If you can do a hundred and twenty eight from the start, we can probably manage with that for a while. I can give you four weeks. How about that?'

'We'll do our best. We may have to make some guesses, and if those are wrong it'll take time to put them right. What about passwords?'

'Just carry on as before. Take the next batch of six letter words from the dictionary.'

Archer seemed worried about this. 'I think that's dangerous. If someone saw only part of the list they might guess the rest.'

'They'd have to be damned clever. In any case, who's going to see it? You've got the master copy safe, haven't you?'

'Right here. It's safe enough. I got it out because I thought you might have questions relating to it. Normally, it's locked away out of sight.'

'Fair enough. Well, I'd better be on my way. You can ring me at Cockleaze if there's anything urgent. By the way, you haven't had anyone snooping round lately, I suppose?'

'Not that I've heard. Why?'

'Nothing in particular. Only there might be someone trying to pick up information. You know how it is.'

'Commercial rivals?'

'Naturally. Who else?' Caught slightly off balance by the question, Markham had failed to make his reply convincingly casual, and he knew it. He tried to cover up. 'With any new scheme like this, the vultures are bound to gather sooner or later. They usually pretend to be customers. Have you had any new ones lately?'

Jimmy crossed his fingers firmly, hoping that Robin's visit wouldn't be mentioned, but his precaution had no effect.

'Quite a few. Had an interesting one the other day. Fellow called Wightman, the information service chap. His enquiry seemed simple enough. Rather in your line, in fact. He wants a file reference service, using an on-line terminal to a bureau. I nearly recommended him to you.'

'I hope you did nothing of the sort!' Markham sounded seriously alarmed.

'No, of course not. You've made it clear enough that you want to book all your own subscribers, and I'll honour that. It's a pity, because I could find you a lot of business and I wouldn't mind the commission.'

'You wouldn't get any. Look, let me make it clear that we have all the subscribers we want. Would I be asking to extend the list if we hadn't? I don't want this service to get known in advance. Don't mention it to anyone. Now I really must be going.'

'I'll see you down. The watchman doesn't know you and might be awkward. He does his rounds every two hours, but I doubt if it contributes much to the security of the place. Perhaps he keeps people away just by being there.'

Jimmy and Pat watched the two men disappear through the door leading to the stairway and then they moved fast. Pat kept watch, with the door ajar so that she would be able to hear Archer returning, while Jimmy hurried into the office, where he found a large ledger-like volume open on the table. From what Archer had said, even a small part of the subscriber list would be enough to deduce the rest. He set to work copying the entries as fast as he could, completing twenty entries before her warning came. He hoped that would be enough.

Pat had spotted a better place of concealment while they were hiding near the partition and drew Jimmy towards it. As Archer was on his own, it seemed unlikely that the room marked 'Ladies' would be used that night.

Confident that the two heavy doors between them and the office area would form an efficient soundproof barrier, they discussed plans for getting out. It might be awkward if Archer went home and locked them in, so they decided that it would be best to get out of the office area as soon as possible. They would have to wait around until the watchman went on his rounds again before leaving the building, but that was a different matter.

The information they had found was scanty, in terms of sheer quantity, but might prove very useful indeed. It met one of Simon's requirements and looked like being a solid step forward. They were less happy about the mention of Robin's name, but suspected that Markham had been too worried about Archer's discretion to take that much notice. Perhaps Jean would have to take extra care for a while.

A cautious reconnaissance showed that Archer was back in his office. It sounded as if he was tidying up, so they crept out onto the staircase quietly, hoping that they could complete the exercise satisfactorily by dodging the watchman.

In the event, it was absurdly easy. Pat spotted another ladies' lavatory opening off one of the side passages on the ground floor and they were able to take cover in there when they heard the watchman humming his way up. Archer had gone some time before and had been evaded by the same means. It was only a question of walking down the stairs and away to the place where they had left the car.

By previous arrangement, they went out to Finchley to report on their mission.

Simon seized the scribbled list and scanned it joyously. 'Fine! This is exactly what I wanted. I suppose these were the first entries? Exactly. The passwords are Abacus, Abased and Abated. Those will be the first six letter words in the dictionary.'

'They won't, you know.' Susan was already checking up. 'Think again, my lad. What about Abacot, Abatis, Abbacy?'

'And you wouldn't find Abated, you'd find Abate.' Pat was searching in the bookcase. 'We don't want an ordinary dictionary. We want the crossword kind.'

It took a little while to dig out one of these useful compilations, but when they opened it there was no doubt that Pat was right. Meanwhile, Simon had rather dashed Jimmy's hopes by saying that the information was useful, but more was needed.

'We've got the calling code system, and the passwords, but we haven't got the command codes that tell the computer what information is needed. It may not be vital, but it would be very useful.'

Before Jimmy had time to be depressed about this, however, Simon decided that the time had come to reveal what had been keeping him in his workshop for such long hours. Ushering them all into the chaotic room, he pointed proudly to what look like a rather starkly styled television set. Pat, forthright as ever, said it was very interesting, but what was it?

Simon chuckled. 'It's a special video display. It started life as a standard model, but I've modified it to match the Whitebrook computer code. When they start operations, I should be able to tap into the Colonel's files. Providing, that is, that we can get the telephone numbers and the command codes. I've got a printer over here that could copy out anything we want, but that might be too slow. I may photograph the display screen instead.'

Even though he had no idea at all how it worked, Simon's equipment convinced Jimmy that they were getting somewhere at last. They needed to, for it was now near the end of January. They knew time was getting short and they soon had confirmation that the Colonel was going ahead rapidly with his plans. The single word 'Cockleaze' that they had heard in Archer's office proved to be invaluable, as it identified the house that had replaced Greystones. They soon found that computer equipment was being delivered there, and a discreet night watch organised by Mike and Russ revealed that assembled units were being passed into the excavations under Odstone Down.

After some agonised deliberations, it had been decided that Jean Livingstone must join her father for a while and that Robin must not meet the others, except after very careful preparation. Markham might not have suspected Robin's visit to Alan Archer, but they dare not take any risks. The stakes were too high. Starting from Robin, the Colonel could have traced them all with ease if they had continued to meet openly and that, quite literally, could have been fatal. Geoff was keeping his contacts with them to a minimum for the same reason.

Meanwhile, the Uffington Club members were being kept busy by the arrangements for the informal test session at the circuit, now scheduled for the first week in March. Quite apart from their undercover duties, they had become involved in assistance with marshalling and in dealing with crowd control.

For this purpose, they had recruited a large number of additional members, each one selected and sponsored by one of the founder members. The new members were not told of the original reason for the club's formation, so there was no greater secrecy risk, but they represented ample reserves who could be called upon at a moment's notice in case of need.

The test session was seen as an important occasion, perhaps a crucial one, for it offered so many possibilities for something to happen. The Colonel and his men would be gathered in the underground complex, while the forces opposing them would be gathered on the circuit. It was difficult to predict what the consequences might be. Jimmy decided that he must be on the spot to take control in an emergency.

There was evidence that the Colonel was taking a similar view. He arrived at the circuit two nights before the practice day, by his usual route, and did not return to North Wales. It seemed that he, too, felt a need to be on the spot.

Officially, the public were not supposed to know that the practice runs were to take place, but it was too much to hope that the motor racing grapevine would fail to carry the news far and wide. Early in the morning, the first of the spectators began to arrive. Before long, the valley was more populous than it had been for centuries. The circuit was to be opened at ten, but there was plenty to watch before that. A procession of light planes came in to land on the broad straight, a special group of club members directing them to parking places on a flat area that was being prepared as a landing strip to be used while races were in progress.

Jimmy and Pat arrived unobtrusively, parking by the ancient earthwork on Whitehorse Hill and walking down the valley. Since they had first seen it, the area had been transformed, but they were glad to see that there were already signs that the worst scars were healing and that the usual haphazard untidiness of a motor racing circuit had so far been avoided. All the buildings were trim and neat, coloured to blend with the background. Even the grandstands, the biggest buildings of all, were not too conspicuous. It all looked very pleasant, but no doubt this would be spoiled later by the intrusion of advertisement banners and hoardings, which spring up like an ugly rash wherever they are likely to catch the public eye.

The Uffington Club had established a temporary office in the paddock, but Jimmy was careful not to go too near this after walking past once to let those inside know he had arrived. The value of the club would shrink to nothing if his connection with it became known in the wrong quarters. Strolling around idly, he was amazed at the sophistication of the paddock layout. In place of the usual rough gravel, often sloping to ensure maximum inconvenience, there were neat bays floored in concrete, each bay big enough to accommodate a complete team. The bays were connected by a covered passage by which members of the teams could reach the offices in the control tower or gain access to the pits.

The public, who usually mill round getting in the way, were not allowed in this area, but were provided with balconies from which they could look down into the working bays, so getting a clear view of what was happening. According to an explanatory pamphlet that was being handed out, arrangements were being made for an 'interface' at which the competitors and their public could meet for the signing of autographs and for similar purposes, but there would always be a sanctuary to which a harassed driver could retreat when his wrist started to ache.

Promptly at ten o'clock, the public address system came to life and announced that the reigning world champion was about to open the circuit, prompting a rush to secure good viewpoints. With a characteristic grin, the champion climbed into the car in which he had won most of his championship points, helped his mechanics to fasten the safety straps, and gunned away up the straight.

It had been expected that he would be content with a fairly gently tour round, but he finished the first lap at impressive speed and shot off up the straight again with the engine on full song. Stopwatches clicked, and everyone watched the car as it went on round the twists and turns of the circuit. The watches showed less than twenty seconds at the entrance to the broad right handed sweep of Castle Curve, which was followed by a steep climb to Idlebrush Corner, a right hander again, and then a kink left onto Woolstone Straight, high above the valley floor. The Whitcombe Hairpin led to a breathless swoop into the valley to the inner loop, doubling back to Barrow Hairpin, just below Idlebrush Corner. Then came the Back Straight and Paddock Curve, sweeping round to the start of the main straight.

Stopwatches clicked again and readings were compared incredulously. As the car disappeared into the distance, the commentator announced the time as two minutes twelve seconds. He sounded a little shattered, saying that this corresponded to a speed of a hundred and twenty one miles an hour, and he had only prepared conversion charts going up to a hundred and twenty five.

Those who had failed to operate their watches in time for that lap were able to time the next. They looked even more incredulous when the car returned to the timing line after two minutes and eight seconds. The commentator mournfully said that was a hundred and twenty four. 'One more mile an hour and I'm out of business...' Much to his relief, the car completed the next lap slowly and pulled into the pits.

Most of the crowd were still gathered in and around the paddock, rather to Jimmy's annoyance. He had hoped that some of them would drift over to the grandstands, so that he and Pat could mingle with them. However, more people were arriving all the time, and it seemed likely that the increased pressure on the paddock might drive some of the spectators further afield before long.

Invited by the commentator to give his views on the circuit, the world champion made some complimentary, but largely unprintable, remarks, saying that he was particularly interested in the broad sweeping curves at either end of the main straight, which were quite a challenge and might need careful study.

As if at a pre-arranged signal, the crowd began to move away in the direction of the curves to have a closer look. A few minutes later Jimmy and Pat, unobtrusively escorted by a group of club members, were strolling along the path behind the grandstands.

It was an impressive scene, a vista of concrete shapes that looked like a setting for a futuristic film. The great cantilever beams were cut away to form noble arches over the broad path, twelve of them in all, dwindling in perspective almost as far as the eye could see.

Each of the six stand sections was about a hundred feet long, the sections standing about fifteen feet apart with the beams placed at the end of each section. Broad ramps led up through the fifteen foot gaps, giving access to a wide promenade in the middle of the ranked seats. This promenade would eventually be backed by a row of stalls and cafeterias. Opposite the bottom of each ramp, the cantilever beams were linked by a plain concrete wall which rose to meet the roof spanning the beams, high overhead.

Jimmy was tempted to make a close inspection of the wall between the central pair of beams, which was suspected to be camouflage for the entrance to the underground workings, but he knew this might be rash and contented himself with a casual glance in passing. The wall looked convincing enough, but he thought he could detect a well concealed joint about fifteen feet above ground level.

One conclusion that he reached was that it was going to be almost impossible to force an entrance by that route. It looked virtually impregnable. There must be controls for operating the door, but they were probably inside, out of reach.

Yet, when he considered the point further, he felt that this could not be completely satisfactory. He tried to visualise the position of a man operating the controls without being able to see what was happening outside. It was not a convincing picture. Mulling over the possibilities, he climbed the adjacent ramp, for it would look suspicious if he took no interest in what was happening on the track.

Several of the grand prix drivers were circulating energetically, in the company of lesser lights in Three Thousand cars. Sandy was out in the Lola, and Jimmy was interested to see that his friend was not disgracing himself in such exalted company. After a while he pulled into the pits, and one of the keen eyed club members spotted him talking to a famous entrant. A few minutes later, the same member gave an excited shout.

'He's getting into a Formula One car!'

The car that had opened the circuit emerged from the pits with Sandy's familiar helmet clearly visible in the cockpit and the club members began to jump about with delight.

To quote Sandy's late remarks on the subject, 'He said I could have a go. Well, it was last year's car, so it wouldn't matter all that much if I crunched it. So I got in and he explained things and told me to take it easy, and off I went. It wasn't until I was half way up the straight that I remembered that this was the car that had done two eight. If I didn't do better than two eighteen, say, they'd all know it was down to me, not the car. So I had to have a go, didn't I?'

And have a go he did. His first flying lap was two thirteen, the second was two ten, and the third was a phenomenal two seven, which remained the fastest time recorded all day. Interviewed by the commentator afterwards, he said that he had taken the hint given by the world champion and concentrated on doing the fast curves well. Asked how he felt about having his time beaten, the world champion said he was thoroughly impressed, but he would do his best to reverse the situation...or words to that general effect.

It was inevitable that the party should return to the paddock after this, to congratulate Sandy. Jimmy was content with the move. He had seen as much as he expected to see and was now prepared to wait events. He had not long to wait.

Nobody was sure who first recognised the trim figure in a smart tweed coat and heavily tinted glasses. Perhaps the first recognition was his, as he strolled towards the group surrounding Sandy on the paddock balcony and found himself face to face with Jimmy. For a moment, everyone around froze solid.

Then the trim man relaxed, addressing Jimmy was sardonic courtesy. 'Why, it's Mr Ferguson. Fancy meeting you here.'

Dice Divider

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Mail me Keith Thomasson February 11th 2002