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Strictly Illegal - Chapter 23

The Fiction of Donald William Thomasson
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Red line

XXIII

Shortly after nine the next morning, Jimmy and Simon were strolling up the road to the west of Odstone Down, past the spot where Simon's rash blow had killed the man in the Mini. Jimmy had thought it would do no harm to remind his friend of the incident, which might have a usefully sobering effect.

As on the previous day, cars were flooding into the circuit by the seven access routes, but this stretch of road lay between two entrances and was almost deserted. They were able to stroll undisturbed, except perhaps by their thoughts.

Jimmy was thinking of his responsibilities, which were heavy. It was the first time the well being of a large number of people had been directly dependent on his judgement and he hoped that his judgement had been sound.

The camp had been astir early, everyone looking a little tense and excited as they made their final preparations before setting off in small groups to take up their positions. Jimmy had spoken to some of them, counselling caution or offering encouragement. He thought they would all do their best. Any failure would be his own fault.

He had chosen to take Simon as his companion in the spearhead of the attack, mainly because electrical knowledge would be needed, but also because he wanted to keep an eye on the erratic genius during the early stages of the attack. Simon would probably get along fine once things were under way, but the first few minutes might be risky.

Coming to the point where the roadside wall had collapsed, Jimmy leaned on the wall and glanced at his watch. No hurry. Ten minutes to go. They must be accurate about time, to make sure that the various actions were properly synchronised with each other.

Jimmy turned to Simon. 'We shouldn't have any difficulty about getting in. I undid the fastenings of the grille last night and tied it in place with string.'

Simon looked up the slope anxiously. 'If anyone sees us on the way up, it may look a bit odd. I hope they're all looking the other way.'

'The cars will be coming out soon, so I don't suppose we'll have any trouble. The boundary of the circuit is up on the edge of the down, so we won't be suspected of trying to get in free.'

'You don't think there'll be any guards on watch?'

'I doubt it. I'm counting on them ignoring this entrance. We'd never have found it in the first place except by a lucky chance, and we wouldn't know that it led anywhere useful without the detailed plans. Come on, we may as well get up there and wait near the hole.'

The slope was steep and the climb took longer than he had expected, but there was time to sit down and get their breath back before going on. Looking round to see that the coast was clear, Jimmy saw that an elderly man on an ancient bicycle was creaking his way slowly up the hill.

He checked his watch again. 'We'll have to take a chance. He looks too intent on what he's doing to notice much else.'

Pulling at the loose ends of the string, he released the grille and prepared to scramble into the hole beyond, but a shout made him pause. Looking up, he cursed with expressive fervour. Some way down the ridge, a policeman was making energetic signs as if warning them to stay where they were until he could reach them and ask some pertinent questions.

Jimmy only hesitated briefly before pulling Simon's arm. 'In you go. I was watching that old boy so hard that I forgot to watch the ridge. If I pull the grating back in place, he may not be able to see where we went. I hope he doesn't yell down the tunnel, but he can follow us if he likes. That would be better than him holding up the second party.'

Pulling the grille back onto its supports, he tried to turn round to follow Simon, but found it more difficult than he had expected. They were in a metal lined tunnel less than a yard square, one of the main air intakes of the ventilation system for the underground complex. As he wriggled in his efforts to turn round, he could feel the air snatching at him, trying to pull him further into the tunnel, but he eventually managed to manoeuvre himself to face the right way.

He found he was looking into pitch darkness. Simon had vanished, but there was a loud humming sound that became louder as he crawled onwards. Rounding a gentle curve in the tunnel, he was startled to see Simon ahead, silhouetted against the dimly lit blades of a huge fan. This section of the tunnel sloped downwards and he began to have visions of sliding straight into the fan. He called a warning and Simon looked over his shoulder and gave a thumbs up signal. When Jimmy came nearer, he saw that Simon was steadying himself against the pull of the air and the slope by pushing sideways against the tunnel walls.

Somewhere to their right, there should be a hatch. Using his torch, Jimmy located it just beyond the point where Simon was waiting. Now, if the hatch wasn't fastened on the other side... He squeezed past Simon to check it.

It didn't open, and that made things difficult.

To get any purchase on the hatch, it was necessary to turn sideways in the tunnel and push with his feet. That increased the pressure of the air and he felt himself sliding steadily towards the unprotected fan. Hastily straightening out, he scrambled back and tried again, lying curled up on his side on the floor to minimise the air pressure. He was feeling a little desperate now, because a failure to open the hatch quickly could throw the whole attack out of gear. The desperation lent him extra strength and a mighty heave was rewarded by the sight of the hatch flying open.

Framed in the opening, a man was staggering back against the further wall. Jimmy launched himself forwards to take immediate action, while Simon scrambled hastily out behind him, glad to be safe from the fan. The man offered no resistance to his unexpected visitors. In response to Jimmy's urgent questions he admitted that he was on duty in the power room alone. From the behaviour of the fan and the rise in air temperature he had guessed there was an obstruction in the tunnel and had come to see how he could clear it.

'It cleared itself.' The first hurdle surmounted, Jimmy could afford to be grimly jocular. 'We've come to take over your job. I'll have to tie you up for a moment, I'm afraid. In this chair, I think. Simon, you jam the outer door while I attend to him, will you?'

'You'd better shut the hatch when you've finished. Otherwise the ventilation will go haywire and we'll be short of air.' Simon sounded composed and Jimmy was glad of it.

'We'll have to open it later when the others are due. They might not manage to stay out of the fan.'

Once the man was secured to the chair and the hatch was shut, he could look round. Jimmy felt an odd sense of familiarity with his surroundings. He had studied the plans in such detail that he felt he could recognise every feature. This was the main power station for the whole complex. The total power load was too great to be taken through the mains supply for the circuit, so two powerful generators had been installed. Only one of these was in use, its steady throb reverberating through the chamber like muted thunder. To one side lay the power distribution board, which Simon was already scanning with eager eyes.

Jimmy stood beside him anxiously. 'Two minutes to go. OK?'

Simon nodded without looking away from the board. 'I'm getting it... We may have to work together. I can't pull all the switches myself, not at the same time, anyway. The monitors are almost certainly on the control room circuit, wouldn't you say? That's number seven. All right, I've got it now. You pull seven, nine, thirteen and fifteen. I'll deal with the rest. Ready when you are.'

Looking at his watch, Jimmy began a count down. At the end of it he pulled the switches two at a time, while Simon pulled the others. The power room light went out and the note of the generator changed, its boom quietening a little. Jimmy sighed, Hurdle number two. With most of the power cut off, the complex should be relatively defenceless. Now the rest of the assault party must be brought into action.

Opening the hatch in the air duct again, he was pleased to see that someone was already crawling down the slope, and that it was not the inconvenient policeman. It proved, in fact, to be Ieuan, with Colin in close attendance and others behind.

When Ieuan emerged, he was almost literally dancing with excitement. 'All serene? This is fun!'

'It won't be fun if anyone slides into the fan. We don't want to use it as a bacon slicer. Colin, will you stand by and give a hand to anyone who looks like slipping? Tell them to press against the sides of the tunnel. Now, Ieuan, did you have any trouble with a policeman?'

'Not really.' Ieuan grinned broadly. 'We had to draw him off. Tony took the job on, so he may be a bit late, if he doesn't get arrested.'

'We can always bail him out. Check your men and get them assembled, but leave Colin to look out for Tony. Give him five minutes, if you think that's enough.'

'Should be ample. The cop didn't look very speedy.'

'Right.' Jimmy checked his watch again. 'Unblock the door, Simon. We should be getting someone to enquire what's gone wrong. They'd probably try the telephone first. As they haven't, I gather you've put it out of action.'

'I think I did. Someone coming now...'

The light of a torch flickered at the door and then a voice called cheerfully, 'What's bust, chum?' Then, in a completely different tone, 'Hey, what's going on? Who are you?'

Jimmy stepped forward and shone his torch on the man, holding his gun in the other hand. Mindful of Geoff's comments on the matter, he had not bothered to load it, but the effect was satisfactory. The man raised his hands, dropping his torch on the floor.

Simon chuckled. 'One of the non-coms, I'd say. What are you, a programmer? I thought so. You have the look of one. Well, you go into an idle loop and you'll be all right. We'll interrupt you when you're free to resume processing.'

The man blinked, but he seemed to understand what Simon was saying, in which matter he was a minority. He made no move when Jimmy checked him for concealed weapons.

Finding none, Jimmy gestured him to one side. 'Stay out of this and you won't get hurt. Ieuan, get number one group lined up, will you.'

It was time to pause and consider. Everything had gone well so far, but the main action had not yet begun. Down at the grandstand entrance, Geoff would be waiting to lead the advance party of the main attack in a sudden onslaught that they hoped would overwhelm the guards there. Providing none of them escape to warn the Colonel of his danger, it should then be possible to advance right into the heart of the complex before the alarm was given.

The loss of electrical power might in itself have warned the Colonel that something was about to happen, but Jimmy hoped he would take a little while to come to that conclusion, suspecting a simple failure at first. In due course, there might be guards climbing through the various levels to see what was wrong, but that would not be for a while yet, and they would have a long way to climb. The control room was a hundred feet lower down in the heart in the hill.

On impulse, Jimmy slipped through the door and looked down the great circular well around which the complex was built. Thirty feet in diameter and over a hundred feet deep, it was encircled by a spiral ramp broad enough to accommodate a small lorry. The plans had made it look impressive, but the real thing was breathtaking. Far below there were torches flashing, while other torches shone from intermediate points on the spiral. Jimmy counted them, trying to estimate how many people there were. After twenty, he gave up. That was quite enough for him to think about at one time.

It was now ten o'clock, time to make a move. He called the ten men who were to accompany him to his side and spoke grimly. 'Time to go. I believe a couple of you have unauthorised air guns, if nothing more lethal. I'll be in the lead, and if you shoot me in the back I'll drop you down the well. Fall in and follow me.'

Simon had worked out that the total distance from the top to the bottom along the ramp would be about seven hundred feet, so there was some way to go. Walking at a steady pace, they completed one and a half circuits before Jimmy called a halt.

'All quiet, so far. We'd better bring the number two party down.'

Carefully screening the light from the lower levels, he flashed a red torch towards the upper end of the ramp and was answered by a green flash. A minute later, Ieuan appeared with the second party of ten.

Jimmy went to meet him and spoke softly. 'No one about up here. I think we're just coming to the dormitory levels. The computer's a lot lower down and the control room's below that again. We'll go on down. You follow us, keeping on the opposite side of the well.'

Before long, Jimmy saw isolated figures leaning on the parapet overlooking the well, but he ignored them, keeping to the outer side of the ramp and walking quietly. He had an idea that files of men might not be too unusual a sight in this strange place. The isolated figures were probably technicians and computer operators who were only interested in killing time until the lights came on.

After circling the well three times, they came to double doors in the outer wall that led to the upper gallery of the computer room. After a brief glance inside, Jimmy decided that this could also be ignored. There were torches in use here, but for peaceful purposes only. One group of men were playing cards by the light of a candle.

A tiny frown was now creasing Jimmy's forehead. He had been unable to find out how many guards the Colonel employed in the complex, but he had assumed that there would be a fair number and that some would be scattered in various places, keeping an eye on the activities of the computer staff. So far, they had not seen anyone who looked remotely like a guard and no one had attempted to challenge or question them. It seemed a little too easy.

On the other hand, it meant that the guards must all be gathered in one place, lower down. The question was how long it would be before Jimmy's party reached that place. By now, there should be three raiding parties descending the ramp, plus a holding force back at the power room, Ieuan's party opposite Jimmy's and Colin's immediately overhead. The crunch must come before long.

The canteen and recreation rooms were opposite the computer room and again Jimmy saw no reason for delay, though a man did emerge from the canteen to ask a question. He wanted to know how long it would take to get the power on again. Jimmy replied truthfully that he hoped it would be on again quite soon.

Moving more cautiously now, Jimmy wondered where Geoff had got to. By this time, he should have got his main party along the entrance tunnel and into position to start the attack proper. Indeed, he should already have started it. The crease in Jimmy's forehead grew a little deeper.

Quite suddenly, everything changed. There was a rattle of gunfire from somewhere below, the echoes mingling with startled shouts from those who had been idly awaiting the restoration of power. The alarm had been given and there was no longer any point in being too cautious. Jimmy hurried on down the ramp towards the control room.

As the control room door came into sight round the curve of the ramp, they saw that men were streaming out, evidently on their way to give a hand with the battle below, which was still producing an occasional isolated shot. Feeling in his pocket, Jimmy brought out a capsule that represented one of Simon's contributions to the equipment of the raiding party. He threw it accurately across the well to fall among the hurrying men. Almost instantaneously there was a brilliant glare and the men hesitated and stumbled, blinded by the sudden light.

Their eyes protected by the screen of the parapet, Jimmy's group ran on and caught the disabled men, dealing with them easily, even before Ieuan arrived with reinforcements. One of Ieuan's men produced a length of thin rope, which was used to hobble-tie the prisoners.

Going to the balcony edge, Jimmy looked down to where, at the bottom of the well, occasional flashes showed the location of the battle. A voice in his ear begged him to shine a torch down. He decided that it would do no harm and might even put the enemy gunmen off. He was careful, however, to hold the torch at arm's length, in case someone thought it a good target.

The owner of the voice leaned over the parapet a yard away, sighting an air gun with care. There was a plop and the sniper chuckled. Risking a glance, Jimmy saw that one of the men below was holding his wrist in agony. With a grin of respect for such shooting, he pointed the torch at another and was astonished to see the man leap up, rubbing his posterior. The voice rather quietly said that the backside did make rather a tempting target.

By this time, there were other guns in action from the parapet, not all of them airguns. The defending guards began to realise they were exposed to crossfire. A number had been hit, not seriously, but enough to distract them from the job in hand, and they belatedly sought cover from the new threat. In this, they were hampered by not knowing for certain where the threat lay. Meanwhile, the attackers had seized the chance to break through. They swarmed in, inflicting appreciably more damage by direct physical contact than had been achieved by gunfire.

Seeing Geoff appear below, Jimmy flashed him a red signal and got a green in reply. Jimmy felt he needed a conference. The battles above and below seemed over, but one thing was missing. The Colonel.

When they met a little way down the ramp, Geoff grinned cheerfully. 'Untidy, but effective, I think. We have nothing worse than a few scratches. How about your lot?'

'Nothing, so far.' Jimmy was not as happy as Geoff and his tone showed it. 'But it isn't over, yet. Unless you know where the Colonel is.'

'I'm afraid I don't.' Geoff's face fell. 'Didn't you expect to find him in the control room?'

'I did. We haven't been in there yet. There are men watching the door, but I had a feeling we might be able to tackle him better if we were together.'

'It could be an idea. There's something else on you mind, as well, though. Isn't there?'

Jimmy sighed. 'Yes, there is. All these people, the ones working here. They've been as quiet as lambs. It doesn't seem natural. Don't they know what's been going on? What's going to happen to them?'

'I suspect they think they've been working for the government. They probably think we're foreign spies. That can be dealt with. I doubt if we need act against them. That can all be worked out.'

'Good.' Jimmy seemed relieved. 'Well, let's go and see if we can get the old badger out of his earth.'

Geoff, however, favoured a less direct approach. He made Jimmy wait while he asked a few questions, then he called for the plans of the complex.

Spreading the plans out on the floor of the ramp, just below the control room entrance, he explained the position carefully. 'The Colonel is probably in his private suite, which is only accessible through the control room. It's just on the other side of this wall beside us, in fact. His men say he had no idea that we would attack him in such force and he had no plans for getting away except a private lift that runs right up to the top level, near the power plant.'

'He probably intended to get out through the paybox office.' Jimmy was dryly amused. 'The lift wouldn't work with the power off and if it did, he wouldn't find it easy to get out that way.'

'No, I don't think he can get out, but I don't see how we can get in, either. The door to his suite commands any possible entrance through the control room.'

Considering this for a while, Jimmy began to grin. 'He probably eats in his private rooms, wouldn't you think?'

'I expect so.' Geoff seemed puzzled. 'Why?'

'Well, he wouldn't have his food brought down the ramp, would he? It might get cold, or gritty, or something.'

Geoff began to smile. 'You know, I think you've got something there. Shall we go and see?'

Leaving instructions for various tidying up operations and sending word to Simon that he could restore power and light if it was possible to leave the Colonel's lift out of action, Jimmy and Geoff went up to the canteen, which was immediately above the control room. Penetrating to the kitchen without hindrance, they found the cooks were becoming increasingly worried about the problem of providing lunch without power. They had heard nothing of the battle outside and were mystified by Jimmy's question. Then one of them pointed.

'It's over there. I don't know why you're worried about that. It isn't electrical.'

Jimmy went over and examined the small service lift by which meals were passed down to the Colonel's private apartment. He asked if the shelves could be removed.

More mystified than ever, the kitchen staff pulled the shelves out of the lift. Jimmy eyed the space that was left rather dubiously. Then, with Geoff's help, he managed to squeeze in, doubled up like a packet of sausages. Satisfied that there was room for him, he pushed himself out again at once.

'Tight, but possible. I think I'll load my gun before I go down. I should be able to control the lift myself. The rope's just within reach, though I'll only be able to use one hand. When I'm in, you go down and get ready for fireworks. If I can, I'll call to you from the door of the suite.'

Watched by the astonished cooks, he climbed back into the lift and started on his uncomfortable descent. He really had no firm plans to put into effect when he reached the bottom. He knew that he and Geoff had agreed that the Colonel must eventually be killed and that Geoff saw that as his reluctant duty. Perhaps the simplest thing to do would be to shoot the Colonel on the spot...only Geoff might want to ask some questions first. Besides, explanations might be difficult.

Pulling steadily on the drive rope, he took himself down slowly. There was no hurry, as Geoff must have time to get ready. He wondered whether Simon would be able to put the power on without making the Colonel's private lift work. In a few minutes, it might not matter.

He knew he would emerge in a small pantry opening off both the Colonel's lounge and a servant's room. He should have asked about servants. It was too late, now.

The lift grounded and he was still in an enclosed space. He realised that there must be doors that were shut and must be opened. Feeling around cautiously, he located them and pushed gently. A gap appeared, dimly lit. Someone must be using a torch. Not close, though. He pushed further and then slid out of the lift into the pantry.

Stretching to ease his joints, he moved towards the lounge entrance, stepping warily. He dare not use his own torch and must be careful not to knock anything over.

Now, should he wait to see if Simon managed to put on the lights? Yes, that should be possible, and it would take the Colonel by surprise.

A long minute passed. He could see the Colonel now, standing by the outer door of the suite, gun in hand. It might be necessary to shoot him, after all.

With an almost physical impact, the lights glared out suddenly. Jimmy himself was a little startled, but the Colonel merely smiled and moved to the panel concealing the entrance to his private lift. He kept his gun pointed to his right, elbow at hip to steady his lower arm. Jimmy's lips twitched. It was too good a chance to miss. While the Colonel was wondering why there was no response to his pressure on the lift button, Jimmy took two swift and silent paces into the room and fired one shot.

The Colonel's gun slammed against the wall and bounced off onto the floor. Jimmy stepped forward and picked it up.

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| The Fiction of Don Thomasson |

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Mail me Keith Thomasson February 11th 2002