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Strictly Illegal - Chapter 22

The Fiction of Donald William Thomasson
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Red line

XXII

During the first weekend in May, the motor racing world converged on the new circuit, eager to see if it would be as good as its advance publicity, which had been generous. The date was well chosen. The European season was getting under way, with the Spanish Grand Prix a week earlier and the Monaco Grand Prix the following week, but, by chance or careful planning, there were no significant meetings elsewhere that weekend. All the great figures of the sport were present.

Practice began with untimed sessions on the Thursday. By Wednesday evening most of the hotels within easy reach were full. Later arrivals had to look further afield, some ending up in London or Bristol, filled with grim forebodings about the difficulties of reaching the circuit on race day.

Anticipating this problem, Jimmy had arranged with a local farmer to establish a camp site half way between the circuit and Lambourn, in a pleasantly sheltered spot in the lee of a copse, an ideally positioned base for the final assault.

For that was what was planned, no less than a really determined attack in force.

During the previous few weeks, all had gone smoothly. A team of volunteers had used Simon's equipment to ransack the Colonel's files under Geoff's direction, making photographic records of the more interesting entries. The potty politician, as he was still tactfully known, had been shown the copies of his correspondence with the Colonel and given a chance to examine the entry against his name in the files. He had immediately reversed his instructions, but had been disconcerted to learn that the evidence would be filedfor future reference.

The apparently eccentric and erratic behaviour of a rebellious member of the Government and a particularly vocal member of the opposition became easier to understand, while senior members of other bodies in the public eye were shown in their true colours. Previously golden reputations began to look tarnished, while certain political mysteries of long standing were cleared up overnight. All this was on an international scale and had to be handled with extreme care to avoid upsetting the always delicate balance of world affairs. Much of the information relating to foreigners was sent anonymously to persons whose names appeared on the Colonel's Negative List. In two of these cases, Geoff was amused to receive tactful letters of thanks that implied that no one else could or would have sent the information.

Geoff also worked through Robin, whose reputation as a forecaster grew enormously. He was a little embarrassed by this at first, but Geoff convinced him that reputations are much less important than they way in which they are used. The big man had changed even more now and had become almost fanatical in his desire to defeat the Colonel.

This defeat was not likely to be achieved merely by exposing his supporters. That had weakened him, but he was still capable of doing serious damage. His files contained ample material for counter attack, and in using it he would have no regard for the well being of the world. Once he realised what was happening, he would go into action with devastating effect.

It was known, through information collected by tapping his lines, that he was no more than suspicious, but his suspicions were growing. If necessary, it would be possible to block all ingoing and outgoing calls, but that would give only a temporary respite. He must be winkled out of his underground stronghold and put out of action permanently.

Given a free choice, Geoff would have preferred to use professional soldiers for the task, but this might be awkward. Military men would want to know why the Colonel had been allowed to go so far and might want to examine the files in detail. That could be disastrous to their morale.

Soldiers could and would be used for the assault on the Welsh base, making a simultaneous approach through the cave and on the surface. This was important, because the Colonel planned to dispose of his technicians when their work was complete and they might be used as hostages if the attack were not carried through vigorously. The cave approach had already been cleared and the assault party would have a clear route to the breeze block wall.

For the assault at the circuit, Geoff had been forced to rely on his team of irregular assistants, who would be content to do the job for its own sake, without asking awkward questions afterwards. He was far from happy about this arrangement, but could see no alternative.

On the Thursday evening, he and Jimmy sat under the awning of a tent looking down at the busy road below the camp site. It had recently been a lonely country lane, but it was now one of the main routes to the circuit and it was filled with colourful cars homeward bound after an eventful day of exploratory practice.

In and about other tents and caravans nearby, members of the Uffington Club were studying folders of information that Robin had circulated to them, learning about the details of the underground complex.

Jimmy grinned a little wryly. 'It all feels a bit unreal, doesn't it? I don't know whether we're here to watch motor racing or waiting to go over the top...'

Geoff smiled quietly. 'It seems strange to hear that phrase from you. It belongs to a time before I was born, to the First World War, when an attack was started by men climbing out of their trenches and over the parapet into no man's land. I hope our plans aren't based on that sort of death-or-glory recklessness.'

'I've done all I can to avoid it.' Jimmy looked a little worried now. 'The trouble is that most of our people are amateurs who haven't been trained in the rigid discipline that's needed to tackle this job sensibly. I've seen battle conditions myself, which is more than can be said for most of the people who express strong opinions on the subject. I know how hard it is to hang on to ordinary standards. War isn't a glorified game of chess. The pieces are human and can move in an unpredictable way. I hope none of our people lose their heads.'

'I'll be happy, for my part, if none of them lose their lives.' Geoff sounded grim. 'It might relieve my mind a little if you told me the outline of your plans.'

They began to talk of details. Susan and Pat, sitting together not far away, watched them unhappily, well aware of what the men were discussing.

Susan shook her head sadly. 'I wish Simon wasn't involved in this. It isn't in his line at all. He doesn't think in the right way.'

Pat was inclined to agree, thinking that Susan might be more useful in a fight than her husband, but she merely said that she was sure Jimmy would make certain everyone was given the sort of job they could do properly.

'He was saying, only the other day, that we wouldn't have got anywhere if we hadn't used the talents of a lot of different people, getting each one to do something they were good at doing.'

She might have added that Jimmy would probably reserve the most dangerous tasks for himself. As the cave episode had shown, he was much better at visualising dangers threatening others than at recognising any threat to his own safety. She could only hope that he would be reasonably careful.

Simon was in the paddock, a mile away up the valley, discussing with Sandy the problems created by the long sweeping curves of the new circuit, trying to reconcile his own highly technical approach with Sandy's more practical ideas. They were both getting tied up in knots. Jock, working on the engine of the Formula Three car nearby, seemed completely absorbed in his work, but his eyes occasionally wandered to the hill behind the grandstands, as if wondering what was happening inside it.

That night, Jimmy set a guard on the camp, in case the Colonel had discovered its presence by following someone down from the circuit. He felt no regret when the night passed peacefully.

Serious practice began on the Friday morning. Before long the circuit's safety precautions were being thoroughly tested. A Porsche left the road at the start of the main straight, opposite the grandstands, but came to rest in a shower of gravel with minor body damage. The driver of a Mirage was over optimistic in estimating his speed off the straight, failing to stay on the subsequent curve, but was in circulation again quite soon. At the hairpin, an Alfa tried to take the corner twice, providing the mechanics with some overnight work.

During the lunch break, minor alterations were made to deal with track imperfections and the like, then the Formula Three cars came out.

By this time, there was quite a fair sprinkling of spectators. There was plenty to watch, not least a group of famous drivers of the past, who looked wistfully at the passing cars, wishing there had been such a circuit in their own days.

With more people about, Jimmy felt it was safe to take some of his troops for a tour of the circuit, the real objective being to keep up to date on any changes in the vicinity of the entrances to the underground complex. Nevertheless, they found time to notice that Sandy was circulating in two twenty three, a respectable hundred and ten miles an hour. Few who saw them would have thought twice before placing them as typical enthusiasts, which, after all, most of them were.

Friday night passed quietly. At dawn on Saturday the spectators began to arrive in earnest. They came by Lambourn, the streams from Newbury and Hungerford passing through separately to different car parks. They came by the Icknield Way, by Blowingstone Hill, by Highworth, Swindon and Wanborough. The seven carefully planned routes were passing over twenty thousand cars an hour into the circuit by mid morning, the traffic flowing steadily at a level well below the calculated capacity. By noon, an hour before the start of the first Formula Three heat, a hundred thousand spectators had passed the barriers and there was plenty of room for the thousands still to come.

At about this time, the party from the camp were strolling along the ridge of Odstone Down, planning to enjoy a last day of relaxation before getting down to serious matters on the morrow. Almost as far as the eye could see, the valley was thronged with people, their cars parked rank upon rank in the further distance. There was an air of gay excitement everywhere, an atmosphere of eager anticipation.

At a quarter to one, Jimmy and his friends stood on the terrace formed by the grandstand roof to watch the cars going out for the first heat. Circling the track independently, they came round to take their places on the starting grid. They were surrounded at once by helpers, hangers on, photographers, officials, and all the confused excitement that precedes the start of every race. Sandy, in pole position, waved up to them cheerfully before settling into his seat.

The starter climbed onto his rostrum, raised the flag, hesitated briefly, then brought it down. With a mighty roar, the cars sped away into the distance. It seemed that anything else must be an anti-climax, but when the close packed leading bunch rounded Paddock Curve, twelve of them fighting for one position, all thoughts of an anti-climax were swept away.

Sandy said later that he always seemed to be in the middle of the bunch. 'I mucked up the start and lost the advantage of being in front. I needed eyes in the back of my head and at the sides as well. Having only the normal pair, I watched the cars in front and prayed. They were going to take eight cars from each of the three heats, so four of that bunch would have to be out, one way or another. I thought some of the ones at the front might blow their engines, not having the advantage of a slipstream, which meant that they had to hold the lower gears a bit longer.'

With three of the fifteen laps to go, however, ten of the bunch were still circulating in a solid mass and Sandy decided that something drastic was needed.

'As I wasn't getting anywhere by doing what the others were doing, I tried something different. I took Paddock Curve right on the outside, whereas the main bunch were holding close to the inner kerb. I had further to go, and there wasn't anyone to slipstream, but I could go round a bit faster and come out faster. Half way round, I was level with the front men, and they hadn't seen me. Coming out of the curve, I found I was drawing away a bit.'

It didn't work - that time. The other leaders saw him sneaking away along the far side of the track and put in an extra effort to stay with him. On the Woolstone Straight, high up on the far side of the valley, he was back in third place, but there were now only nine in the bunch. The extra effort had been too much for the engine in one car, which was losing ground rapidly.

Sandy completed that lap in orthodox fashion, in the middle of the bunch, but at the end of the final lap he seemed to draw back a little as he approached the last curve, then launched himself round the outside, passing the whole bunch to take first place by half a length.

The crowd applauded enthusiastically and the group on the grandstand roof seemed to make more noise than all the rest put together. Jimmy began to wonder if they were making themselves too conspicuous, but he realised that they were really no more than a few tiny figures in a sea of human beings, and gave up worrying.

Sandy's friend Charles, who had helped them in Monaco, copied the last curve manoeuvre to take an unexpected second place in the next heat, while the third heat went to a Frenchman who had evidently been studying the same technique. A race for saloon cars followed, the majority looking absurdly slow in the wide open spaces of the main straight. Then it was time for the Formula Three final.

Despite the hopes of his supporters, Sandy had to be content with second place. He had shown his hand too early and the Frenchman had thought of an improvement in the technique. Slipstreaming Sandy into the last bend, he pulled to the inside on the exit from the curve and took the flag inches ahead.

The crowd seemed oddly reluctant to disperse, fading away so gradually that the commentator was able to announce triumphantly that traffic was flowing freely on all routes. The valley slowly fell silent and an army of men began to clear up the enclosures ready for the second day's racing.

In the camp, they had supper and gathered for a briefing session. Jimmy outlined the final details and then spoke gravely of the need for caution. 'Don't get the wrong idea. This isn't a film or a play, where the bullets always miss and the roof falls in on the villain. We've got a lot of advantages. Don't throw them away. Stick to your orders and remember the importance of accurate timing. If any of you don't know exactly what you're supposed to so, say so now. It will be too late tomorrow.'

Russ Simson, chairman of the Uffington Club, raised a languid hand. 'There's one point I'd like to clear up. A few of us, who have firearms experience, will be carrying guns. You said we shouldn't use them unless it's absolutely necessary, and that I agree with entirely. If we do use them, do we follow the rule attributed to the FBI, and shoot to kill? Or do we aim to bring 'em back alive?'

Jimmy had arranged for this question to be asked, thinking that the blunt reference to killing might make a useful impression on the wilder members of the party, but before he could produce his prepared answer Geoff was on his feet.

'I'd like to answer that for Jimmy, if he doesn't mind. In my opinion, the value of a gun diminishes when it is fired. Until then, it represents a threat and may be used as such to give one man control over others. Once he pulls the trigger, he has lost control and is admitting the fact. There may still be a threat, but it is a weaker threat.

'Remember, the threat lies, not in the gun itself, but in the man who holds it. Say he appears, a stranger with a gun in his hand. You don't know if he is a good shot, or if he even knows how to use a gun. He may not have the nerve to fire. The gun may not even be loaded. However, it's sensible to act on the assumption that he can and will fire if need be, because that's the only safe assumption.

'Perhaps you hope that he won't fire, that something will happen to save the situation. While you feel that, he has control. If, however, you decide that you're going to be shot in the end, whatever you do, or have some other reason to disregard the threat, you may force him to fire. The situation then changes completely. He may kill you, and that's the end of it. You may, on the other hand, discover that he can't shoot usefully. You may find that he goes on firing in panic. A lot of unknowns disappear, not necessarily to the gunman's advantage.

'There is, perhaps, one way he can fire without losing the initiative, providing he has the skill. He can fire a demonstration shot at some unimportant target. That also removes uncertainties without diminishing the threat. His only other course is to shoot to kill.'

Geoff had spoken seriously, rather instructively, but he now relaxed into a smile. 'Sorry. I didn't mean to produce a lecture, but I feel rather strongly on this point. There are obvious exceptions to what I've been saying, such as a shot fired without a prior threat, or a shot fired to deal with a trigger happy gunman, but I think you will see my point if you think about it.'

'Yes, indeed. That's very helpful.' Russ had been a little taken aback by Geoff's intervention, but he thought the answer should suit Jimmy very well. A nodded signal confirmed that opinion. 'Do we know if we'll be facing armed opposition?'

Jimmy provided the answer this time, basing it on information he had obtained from Al and George. 'Guns will not be numerous, I gather, but there will be some. To remove some of the uncertainties Geoff spoke of, I may as well warn you that the Colonel doesn't allow anyone to carry a gun unless he's a crack shot and keeps in good practice. Other men carry knives, which is why you've been issued with special gloves. Just remember how to use them.

'Now, the final point is the time of the attack. The twelve hour race starts at ten o'clock tomorrow morning. That is zero hour. We can be fairly sure that everybody will have their attention on the track at that moment. Sorry you'll miss part of the race, but if we keep to schedule you should be able to watch about three quarters of it. Any more questions?'

There were none and the meeting broke up quietly. Those detailed as guards went to their posts to relieve the early watch, which had been manned by Robin and the girls, while the others went to bed. Jimmy had other matters to attend to before he could relax. He wanted to make a final reconnaissance to check that nothing would be likely to upset his plans, which were based on the closely timed co-operation of several groups of attackers. A simple alteration to a lock or a gate might throw out the timing catastrophically.

He was a little surprised to see that there were still signs of life in the valley. A few scattered tents to the north and a bigger group on the further ridge showed how some enthusiasts were solving the accommodation problem, while lights in the paddock area hinted at urgent repair work in progress. Up on the ridge of Odstone Down, however, all was quiet.

Jimmy's first call was at the spot where he and Simon had once seen a light shining out of the slope on the western side of the ridge. He found it after searching for a few minutes and stayed there for half an hour, during which time he saw neither man nor beast, on the ridge above or on the road below.

Climbing the ridge again, he crossed to the paybox office that had been built over the original shaft. He had written this off as a possible attack route, because an assault here would inevitably be misconstrued as an attempt to steal the takings, but he was anxious to make sure that the Colonel would be unable to use it as an escape route. That meant double-locking the door from the outside. How Geoff had obtained the key he had preferred not to ask, but it fitted well, sliding the bolt over smoothly. He was careful not to open the door, as it was probably fitted with alarms.

Finding his way through a gap in the perimeter fence that had been prepared two nights before, he went down to the back of the grandstands, heading for the central ramp to check that the keys for the doors leading to the internal passages fitted properly. They might not be needed, but the doors might be locked to keep the public out.

As he padded along silently, he was suddenly aware of voices somewhere ahead. He took cover behind one of the arches. Peering out cautiously, he saw two men strolling towards him and decided to remove himself from their path. The easiest way to do that was to climb the adjacent ramp to the grandstand promenade, but when he reached the top he was disconcerted to find that the two men had hit on the same idea. They were still strolling along idly, looking at the ground in front of them, and evidently had no idea he was there.

Fortunately, ample cover was available among the seats and Jimmy was soon making good use of it. He lay flat under the row immediately below the promenade as the two men appeared and sat down in the row in front. They were still relaxed and seemed to be merely seeking a little fresh air and exercise.

After a while, one of them spoke with idle amusement. 'The old man isn't very happy, is he?'

The second man laughed. 'One of his little tricks didn't come off, that's why.'

'The extra guards?'

'Yeah. He thought some old pals of his might break in during the racing, but nothing happened. I reckon they were too interested in the cars. Did you see any of the races?'

'No. I thought we weren't supposed to come out when all the people were here.'

'Hogwash! You weren't on duty, were you? Some were out here who were supposed to be on guard duty, so why should you worry?'

'I'll admit I'd like a look. It looks pretty impressive even now, with no cars running.'

'You wait until tomorrow night, when they're racing in the dark. That'll be something to watch, you can bet.'

'I'd like to see the start, if I could.'

'Then come up early, before there are too many folk about. He'll probably be snooping around the entrance about half past nine, then he'll go back to control, but he'll be able to see who goes out on the monitor.'

'I think I'll do that. D'you reckon his pals will have a go at all?'

'After the racing, maybe. Around half past ten tomorrow evening, when everyone's going home. Did you hear they got in at the other place? I don't think the boss knows yet. They daren't tell him. Nobody knows how it was done. They're going nuts trying to work it out. Luigi says it was that bloke Ferguson he talks about. Reckons he's like Houdini in reverse and can get in anywhere.'

The men fell silent. After a while they got up and disappeared down the ramp. Jimmy got up and dusted himself off, well satisfied with what he had heard. He trotted back to the camp, got into bed, and fell sound asleep.

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Red line

Mail me Keith Thomasson February 11th 2002