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The Fiction of Don Thomasson
Strictly Illegal - Chapter 20

The Fiction of Donald William Thomasson
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Jimmy's persuasive tongue having secured him a few days of freedom from routine matters, he proposed to spend the time looking into an idea that had been simmering in his mind for weeks. He had no wish to discuss the idea with the others, who would undoubtedly have wanted to come with him. He saw this as a strictly solo venture. It was based on a wild guess supported only by tenuous extrapolation from a few known facts. If it came to nothing, he would not be unduly disappointed, but there seemed no reason to give anyone else any opportunity for disappointment.

Even Pat was unaware of his plans, and he was a little surprised when she made no objection to him spending a few days on his own. He departed in the sports special before she could change her mind, but if he had seen the way she watched him go, he might have realised that she had a few plans of her own to think about.

As he headed north westwards, he turned the relevant facts over in his mind, wondering if he was on a wild goose chase.

The starting point of his idea had been the curious layout of the new wing in the Colonel's house in Wales. Jimmy felt that it would have been more natural to build the extension at the same level as the older part, not a few feet higher. The only justification for the change in level would be a need to leave room for something below the wing, but even then it should have been possible to dig a little deeper rather than raise the ground floor.

He knew from Al that there was a conference room in the basement, and there was a strong possibility that there were other rooms opening off that. He also knew that Simon had suggested the Colonel would keep a duplicate set of magnetic tape records, stored well away from the computer itself, in case of emergencies.

When he had put these facts together, he went to see a geological expert, who listened with interest to what he had to say and said that it seemed quite feasible.

'In a valley of that kind, we often discover that the course of the stream is of fairly recent origin, geologically speaking. The valley itself is broad, but the stream passes out through a narrow exit. That suggests to me that the exit is relatively new. From your sketch map, I would say that the situation in this case is fairly complex. At first, there was probably a smaller valley at a higher level. Then a cave system formed under the valley, due to water seeping away, and the caves gradually collapsed, forming a lake, I would think. The collapse of the caves could block the original exit and trap the water, which would build up until it spilled over the lowest part of the valley rim. That would start the cutting of the ravine and would eventually drain the lake. You should be able to trace the original water exit at ground level, if it hasn't been silted over too heavily.'

'I think there's a building on it.' Jimmy thanked his informant, but offered no further explanation. He was now convinced that the Colonel had used at least a part of the old watercourse as a convenient extension to his new wing.

North Wales looked very different at this time of year. There were still remnants of snow about and everything looked very cold and bleak. Putting up at an hotel well away from the Colonel's lair, Jimmy began operations on the afternoon of the day after his arrival. The first stages of his task were going to be easier to carry out in daylight.

He was looking for certain features of the landscape that his geologist friend had told him might indicate the original course of the water from the vanished cavern system. That meant wading up the river into which the present stream from the valley flowed, a wet and cold business in the brisk days of March.

It was nearly dusk before he found what he wanted. A tiny tributary stream ran down a disproportionately wide gully, meandering erratically over a slope of earthy mould that contrasted strongly with the surrounding rocks. Some time in the distant past, far more water had flowed that way, water that might well have come from the Colonel's valley, which lay about a mile to the south.

Plodding up the course of the tributary stream, he came at last to a place where it entered the gully in a miniature waterfall cascading delicately down the rock. The gully continued up the slope with no stream following it, only water seeping down through the soggy earth towards the river below.

Thirty yards above the cascade, the gully ended in a rock fall, a tumbled mass of boulders that Jimmy eyed with misgiving. If his theory was correct, those boulders concealed the mouth of a cave through which the waters of the valley had once escaped. It looked as if the theory might be difficult to prove, however, because the boulders would be hard to shift without using high explosives. That might make the Colonel curious and would certainly draw someone's attention to what Jimmy was doing.

It was now too dark to continue the exploration without the aid of a torch and Jimmy decided to call it a day. He had fulfilled the first part of his programme on schedule and had no wish to hurry matters unnecessarily. Returning to his hotel, he spent a pleasant, if idle, evening and slept soundly.

Further investigation in better light, during the next afternoon, gave him fresh hope. The larger boulders left correspondingly large gaps, and he managed to squeeze his way among them, penetrating for some distance before coming to a dead end. Getting out was more difficult and for five horrible moments he thought he was stuck. Patient wriggling got him free, however, and he took the precaution of removing his coat before trying another approach.

This time, he found a way through and emerged into a large space behind the boulders that gave promise of continuing deeper into the mountainside. Glancing at his watch, he decided that he might as well continue his exploration right away. He had food and water for a full day and all the equipment he was likely to need. There was no reason to wait.

It took some time to get everything inside and much of it, rucksack, coat and the like, had to be pulled through by a length of rope. One item that he brought through by hand was a can of white paint. He had no wish to spill that. It might make the difference between life and death.

The first hour took him through strange places, but brought no startling surprises. There were no glittering grottoes or stalagmite forests. For the most part, he walked straightforwardly through circular tunnels, smooth walled and gently curving. Here and there he found a break in the smoothness, a sudden change of level or direction, and in some of these places there were side passages. At each of these, he stopped to paint a white arrow pointing towards the exit.

There were no signs that anyone had ever penetrated so far into the cave before. He walked slowly, warily, in case he disturbed loose rock. There was little of this, even near the entrance, with less further on, where changes of weather would affect temperatures less. It looked as if the cave had once been filled to the roof with fast flowing water, which had swept away all the debris in its path. There was no water now, apart from an occasional trickle down the side wall which rapidly disappeared into tiny cracks in the floor, but Jimmy expected to find himself confronted by an underground lake at any moment. It seemed impossible that the water could have vanished so completely.

Schooling himself against premature optimism, he plodded on steadily, thinking that it was the loneliest place he had ever known. There was no sound but his footsteps, but they echoed interminably in the confines of the rock chambers. Once, in a particularly large section, he was foolish enough to shout, as though defying the silence. The echoes seems to go on for ever, accompanied by an ominous slithering of rock fragments. He did not repeat the experiment.

At one stage, he began to imagine that someone was following him, hearing, as he thought, sounds that were not of his own making. After stopping and listening hard for a long time, he decided that this was impossible and tried to put the idea out of his mind. There is a primitive fear of lonely places that man has never completely overcome, perhaps a race memory of the time when padding footsteps in the dark meant that a dangerous animal was approaching.

In an hour, he could easily have walked four miles along a good track, but this was rather more difficult terrain, though there were no obstacles worse than might be encountered in scrambling across a steep hillside. The occasional dips must have been well drained, for no siphons had formed in them, no more than insignificant puddles.

Difficult terrain or not, he thought he must have covered at least a mile in the first hour. With a sense of millions of tons of rock pressing down on him, he found concentration difficult, but he remembered that Simon had once said it was reasonable to expect to cover a mile and a half in walking through typical streets between places a mile apart in a direct line. This was no street, but the same rule might apply, in which case he had probably covered about two thirds of the distance. He was beginning to regret coming alone. A companion would have made it all much easier.

There had been few alternative routes he could have taken. In each case he had chosen the larger tunnel, which had always forked to the right, towards the Colonel's hideout. Reason told him that if his present route failed he could always go back and try another, but his instinct suggested that even one disappointment would be enough to discourage him completely. Even the thought of walking back to the entrance without having achieved anything was a daunting prospect. He decided to go on for thirty minutes and see what happened.

The air, he noticed, was not fresh, but it was not entirely stale, either. There was a faint suggestion of movement in the direction he was going, certainly not enough to call a draught but clearly perceptible, which he found encouraging. It not only suggested that there was at least a small outlet ahead, it hinted that the air round that outlet might be warm, making it rise and pull gently on the air in the cave.

The thirty minutes ran out and he decided to go on a little further before giving up. Almost immediately, he was rewarded by the sight of loose gravel on the floor of the cave, then pebbles and stones of increasing size. This could be debris from the collapse that sealed the entrance long ago.

Pressing on, however, he was dismayed to see the stones growing into boulders, piling higher and higher towards the roof, until he was forced to clamber over them, slipping and sliding on the gravel that filled every space. He felt he should have realised that the upper end of the cave might be blocked. When he could crawl no further, he shone his torch ahead, expecting to see the gap close completely. Instead, he saw a wall of breeze blocks, neatly placed across the tunnel.

It was infuriating. He lay there, jammed between the roof and the pile of boulders and gravel, looking at the clearest possible indication that he had found what he was looking for, and he could see no possible way of getting any further. The gap ahead narrowed to no more than six inches in height, and though it was three or four feet wide there seemed no possible way of getting through.

More alarming, when he tried to retreat, was the discovery that he was stuck again. In his eagerness to find a way through, he had crawled too far forward and his coat and accoutrements had jammed against the surrounding rocks. He tried wriggling as he had done before when he was caught among the boulders at the entrance, but this time it seemed to have the opposite effect. He became more firmly jammed than ever.

Perhaps for the first time in his life, Jimmy knew what fear, real fear, was like. He felt it crowding in on his mind and fought it off, trying to think clearly and reasonably. He found that cursing under his breath helped, and cursing out loud was even better. What did it matter if someone beyond the wall heard him?

When he had steadied himself, he considered the possibilities calmly. If he was going to do anything effective, he must do it soon. One arm, trapped and unable to move, was showing ominous signs of impending cramp. The other was free and he used it to explore the situation. Perhaps he could move sideways, digging gravel from between the boulders to make more room. He wrestled with the problem for a while, meeting with no success at all, and was gathering his strength for a desperate final effort when he got the biggest shock of his life.

Somewhere behind him, he heard his name spoken softly.

He lay still, wondering if his mind had given way, until the voice came again, asking if he was all right. It was Pat's voice. How she came to be there, he couldn't imagine, but that didn't matter. She might be able to get him free, but she mustn't take the risk of getting jammed herself. He heard slithering noises behind him and the scratching of gravel being pushed aside, then he felt a touch on his leg.

He spoke urgently, fearful now for Pat's safety. 'Don't come any further. You'll get stuck, too.'

'I'm all right. I took my coat off and left my rucksack further back.'

The rucksack... That was probably the trouble. He managed to get one strap off and free it. The other was out of reach.

'Try moving to your right.' Pat sounded cool and practical, infinitely reassuring after his panic.

He tried her suggestion and gradually succeeded in moving six inches. His left arm was almost free and with a tremendous effort he undid the second strap. By painful degrees, he wriggled further to the right until the rucksack was beside him, when he could begin to retreat towards freedom.

For a while, he and Pat crouched near the beginning of the debris, sipping water and getting back to normal. Then he produced a flask and they took a tot of whisky each. As the spirit began to make itself felt, he at last thought to ask Pat how she had been able to appear so providentially.

She laughed, sounding rather shaky now that the danger had passed. 'I knew you were up to some little game of your own and I guessed it might be something to do with this part of the world. You never stopped wondering about that new wing of the Colonel's house, did you?'

'Curiosity was always my weakness. By the way, keep your voice down. We're only about fifty feet from his cellar.'

'As near as that?' Pat was startled. 'Congratulations. You can still work your little miracles, can't you? Well, I guessed you had some reason for wanting to work on your own, but I was a bit worried. We've always said that solo work's a mistake. So I came up here to see if I could stand by. I watched you prospecting up the river yesterday and guessed you would come again today. It was as simple as that.'

Jimmy was silent for a few moments, then he spoke quietly. 'You followed me into the cave. I'm glad you did, because without you I'd probably be stuck up there still. I thought I'd really done it, this time.'

'So I gathered, from what you were saying to yourself. I learned quite a few new words.' Pat was evidently regaining her sense of humour.

Jimmy sighed. There was a lot more to be said, but that could wait until later. 'I suppose we'd better be getting back. It's a long way to the entrance and we don't want to be here all night.'

'Go back? But I thought you said we were quite close.'

'Unfortunately, we can't get far enough. The gap's too small, even without rucksacks.'

Pat insisted on seeing for herself and got rather further than the point where Jimmy had got stuck by picking her course carefully. Studying the lie of the boulders, she began brushing the gravel away. After a while she gave a heave, and a medium sized boulder rolled to one side. That gave her more room to work, and she was soon making the gap much deeper. Jimmy fetched the lid of the paint tin, and by using this as a scoop she was able to clear the gravel more easily. Another boulder rolled down towards the breeze block wall, but that wasn't serious. Nobody who heard it would believe that it had been moved by human hands.

In the end, she was able to wriggle right through, but she warned Jimmy to wait while she enlarged the gap still further. Working more freely now, she quickly rolled away more boulders until there was an easy path.

When he stood beside her, he shook his head admiringly. 'This is the last time I make the mistake of going solo. Now what? This wall looks uncomfortably solid.'

'If you can give me a leg up, I may be able to do something at the top. The lower part is all keyed in properly, but it looks as if there's a gap up there.'

Once again, she patiently worked to clear a path, taking down one block at a time until there was room to scramble over.

Beyond the wall, the cave was lined with row upon row of steel lockers. The nearest lockers were empty, but from about half way along they were fully occupied.

Jimmy looked at the contents with satisfaction. 'Reels of computer tape. There must be hundreds of them. These are his master records.'

'Is it any good taking them away?'

'I doubt it.' Jimmy hesitated uncertainly. 'I think we'd need access to the Colonel's computer before we could hope to make any sense out of them.'

'Then what was the point of coming down here?'

'There must be other records, written ones, that we can understand more easily. That's what I'm after.'

Pat's expressions suggested that she felt her husband was being less than frank about his reasons for raiding the Colonel's cellar, but she followed him down the rows of lockers without comment.

Beyond the lockers, they came to a partition set across the cave, and saw that a thin line of light was gleaming under the door in the partition.

Jimmy eyed the light thoughtfully and glanced at his watch. 'I wonder if someone has left the light on. They might be working as late as this, I suppose.'

'There's only one way of finding out.'

Jimmy sighed. Pat was right, as usual, but he wished she wasn't. Grasping the handle of the door firmly, he edged it open and peered through the gap. Then he sighed again, this time in relief. 'No one in this room, anyway.'

He spoke very softly, because he saw that the light came from the glass panel of another door, set in a second partition, and he thought he could detect movement beyond the panel. Slipping through the first door, he tiptoed towards the second, only to come to an abrupt halt as he heard a voice, faint but distinct, coming from beyond it.

'Well, that's the lot. We've only got to sort and file these and then we can pack up.'

'About time, too. Copying blasted tapes all day, then this. What's the rush?'

'The computer goes on the air on Monday. Whitebrook and his pals seem to have pulled a few rabbits out of the hat and gained a couple of weeks.'

'You mean they allowed themselves plenty of time, and then found they didn't need it.'

'Comes to the same thing. Where do these plans of the computer room go?'

'File fifty three A, with all the other plans. I don't know why we need to keep them, now that the place is finished.'

'They're the masters. Markham keeps losing copies, so we have to send him more. I suppose they may need them when alterations or repairs have to be done.'

'How does he manage to lose them? Surely no one could get in to pinch anything like that.'

'They might get in, but they wouldn't get out again. That's why the boss is down there now. He showed himself the other day, when all the crowds were about, hoping that someone would follow him when he went back. He was hopping mad when they didn't and the lads down there say he's been driving them up the wall ever since. He had triple watches on duty for a time and he's been going round looking as worried as hell.'

'What's he worried about?'

'I don't know, but it isn't like him. I thought he had everything sewn up. Did you put out the light in the tape store?'

'Yes, I did. All set? Let's go.'

A few seconds later, the light went out and Jimmy relaxed. If someone had come through to check the light, he would have been prepared to give battle. It would have upset his plans, but he had no intention of allowing success to be snatched from him at the crucial moment.

The room he was standing in seemed to be a stationery store, still very obviously part of the cave, but the next room was a comprehensively fitted office, with panelled walls and roof and a soft rubber covering on the level floor. Apart from its shape and the absence of windows, it could have been part of any ordinary business premises.

Slipping quickly to the far end, Jimmy found another glass panelled door. The space beyond it was dark and he opened the door without hesitation, finding another storage area beyond with a rather more massive door on the far side. Considering this briefly, he grinned and beckoned Pat to his side.

'We could work more efficiently if we aren't likely to be disturbed. Let's block the outer door with these boxes. That'll give them something to think about.'

The boxes, stacked against the side of the storage area, were heavy and solid. It was quite an effort to slide and tumble them into position across the outer door, but once the boxes were there it was impossible to open the door more than an inch or two. No one would be able to come in by that route without a great deal of pushing and shoving.

Switching on the office lights, Jimmy announced that he was hungry, and insisted that they made themselves comfortable and put his stock of food to good use. They even found a kettle and the necessary materials for two cups of coffee.

While he ate, Jimmy used his eyes and made plans. The two machines looking like overgrown tape recorders he dismissed as unimportant. They were probably used for copying the magnetic tapes. Even if he knew how to operate them, the results would be of little value. Other copying devices interested him more and he was glad to find they were in working order and simple to use.

Pat listened to his instructions without comment and they got to work. Before long, she was amassing an imposing pile of prints taken from the masters in file fifty three A, tying them in bundles and carrying the bundles to the far end of the tape store. Meanwhile, Jimmy was working his way through the correspondence files section by section, now and then removing a sheet and copying it. His pile of copies grew more slowly, for he had to be more selective, but he soon had two complete bundles and was well on the way with a third.

Not long after that, however, his copying machine ran out of paper. Although he could probably have found a fresh supply in the stationery store, he had no idea how to load it into the machine, so he gave up, content to check through the remaining correspondence files to ensure that nothing important was in them. Pat had finished the original set of masters and gone on to copy more, but she was quite willing to call it a day when he made the suggestion.

Jimmy's last act before switching the lights out was to scribble a note of thanks for the coffee. Pat was puzzled by this, but he said he knew what he was doing.

'I don't mind them knowing I've been in here. They won't know what I've taken away and they probably won't find out how we got in if we rebuild that wall reasonably. That should give them something to think about. You get down to the wall and I'll put out the lights and take away one of the boxes. I don't want to make it impossible to get in and the other boxes should hold them up for a while if they happen to try the door before we're ready.'

That seemed unlikely, for it was now past midnight. It had been a long day. and it was by no means over yet. The bundles had to be passed over the wall and manoeuvred to the far side of the pile of boulders. The wall then had to be reconstructed. When they eventually set off on the long walk back through the cave, they were tired but satisfied. They had tweaked the Colonel's nose with a vengeance and thought there might be some very useful information in their heavy load of bundles.

Walking with more confidence than Jimmy had been able to summon up earlier, they completed the return journey well within the hour, in spite of their burdens. The only difficulty came at the cave entrance, where Jimmy had failed to mark the way he had come in. They had to make three attempts before finding a through route.

When they were at last standing in the starlight, considerably relieved to be out of the depths, Jimmy sniffed the air and said they deserved a couple of days holiday as a reward for their efforts. Pat entirely agreed.

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| The Fiction of Don Thomasson |

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Mail me Keith Thomasson February 11th 2002