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Strictly Illegal - Chapter 24

The Fiction of Donald William Thomasson
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XXIV

'Considering that I'm rather out of practice, I reckon it wasn't a bad shot.'

Jimmy was comfortably seated in one of the Colonel's best chairs, trying not to make the gun in his hand too conspicuous. He had a glass in the other hand and there was whisky in the glass. Geoff and the Colonel also had glasses, but Geoff's contained sherry and the Colonel had chosen some special concoction of his own. It all looked very civilised, apart from the two guns pointed unobtrusively in the Colonel's direction.

The unwilling host answered Jimmy's remark politely. 'I think it was a very good shot, Mr Ferguson, practice or no, but if had not been...'

He left the comment unfinished and Jimmy smiled. 'Then I would have had time for a second, before you could turn, and perhaps a third, to a larger target, if the second had missed.'

'Ah, no. That is overconfidence. However, who can blame you, when the question did not arise?'

Conversation languished for a moment or so. Then Geoff spoke quietly. 'These are interesting speculations, but I think we should get down to business.'

'Indeed. I am very willing.' The Colonel still seemed to feel he was in command of the situation and the others watched him warily. 'Tell me how you see the present position. I think that would be the best way to start.'

Geoff shrugged his shoulders. 'I should have thought that it was fairly obvious. We are now in control here. Your guards have been put out of action. You are, if you will forgive my mentioning the fact, a prisoner.'

'That is the situation at the moment, I grant you, but how long can that situation be preserved? I am the owner of this place. It is, from time to time, my home. In England, I believe, you have a saying to the effect that a man's home is his castle. It is a place that may not be violated by intruders except in certain legally authorised circumstances. How would the law view your actions today?'

'Our actions might be strictly illegal.' Geoff smiled, but his eyes were still wary. 'It would make no difference if they were. In fact, they are not. They were specifically authorised.'

'By whom, may I ask?'

Geoff named the potty politician and the Colonel smiled confidently. 'I doubt that, very much. He would not authorise a raid on this place, for very good reasons.'

'Those reasons no longer apply. Copies of his letters to you, and your replies, have been filed for reference. He has also seen the entry under his name on your Positive List.'

There was absolute silence. Then the Colonel shook his head, no longer as confident. 'I would have thought that impossible. Yet I would also have thought it impossible that you should know of the very existence of the Positive List. Who is the first entry on that list?'

'Markham.' Jimmy supplied the answer, to show that he could. 'Mr Farnfield and myself head the Negative List, in that order. You don't know my address.'

These words obviously sapped the Colonel's confidence still further. He nevertheless looked at Jimmy with an air of interest, rather than of enmity. 'It would seem that my private files have become public knowledge. You are quite right, Mr Ferguson. I do not know your address. It seems that it may have been an oversight on my part. Perhaps you would be willing to tell me how you know all this?'

'We've been tapping your records for some weeks. Since the day after the computer started work, in fact. It wasn't difficult.'

'I see.' For the first time since they had sat down to talk, the Colonel began to look a little worried. 'And my private correspondence. That was not in the computer files.'

'No.' Jimmy sounded almost apologetic. 'I found that in a cave. An unusually comfortable cave, in parts. Your men knew I had called, but they decided not to risk telling you, in case you were annoyed.'

'They need have been in no doubt. I would have been very annoyed indeed.' The Colonel's urbanity was slipping away. 'It seems that I have been ill served. Did someone let you in?'

Jimmy smiled with the kind of confidence the Colonel had shown a little earlier. 'I let myself in. The breeze block wall was a tedious obstacle, but by no means an impregnable one.'

'You came by the cave!' The Colonel was startled now and Jimmy felt they had him on the run. 'That was bold and enterprising. I believed the cave was blocked. You are telling me things that I would not have thought possible, but they are clearly true. You give evidence of that.'

Now Geoff returned to the attack. 'We are straying from the main point, though I think the digression was necessary. Perhaps you now appreciate that an appeal to the law would not be of much use to you. They might not entirely approve of us, but they would approve of your activities even less. Your supporters have been deserting you. I doubt if a single one would come to your assistance now.'

'Do not be too sure.' The words had a heavy emphasis. 'I can think of one who might help me. His interest in the matter is financial and that might be enough to persuade him. He provided the money to build this place...'

'And he provided the money to enable us to take it over.' Jimmy threw the words away casually. He had noticed that when Geoff spoke, the Colonel seemed to recover his confidence a little, while Jimmy's own words seemed to depress him and infuriate him. This time, the effect was startling.

The Colonel sprang to his feet, the others following suit, guns at the ready. The man was obviously in a towering rage, a vivid contrast to his earlier control. 'Livingstone backed you? That rat? I'll ruin him! He shall come to me, begging for mercy. His daughter shall...'

'Leave Jean out of this.' Jimmy's voice was like a whiplash. 'Before you start making threats against other people, consider your own position sensibly. How can we let you live? You'd never give up your insane dreams of international intrigue. Why shouldn't we shoot you now, like the mad dog you are?'

The Colonel stood proudly, shouting his defiance. 'Because you dare not. Because you call yourselves civilised. You might have killed me earlier, when I had a gun, but you could never bring yourself to kill a man who was unarmed, to kill a man in cold blood. Could you?'

With a sudden feeling of impotence, Jimmy knew that this was true. A dozen reasons chased each other through his mind, reasons why he should or should not kill this man, but the reasons against were dominant. Above all, he knew that he would never be able to will his finger to make the simple pressure on the trigger. Simon could kill by a rash blow and live with his guilt for months. How would he have felt if the act had been deliberate?

He began to understand what Geoff had said about a gun being a greater threat before it was fired. The Colonel believed that he was safe from death at the hands of the enemies facing him, but he could not be sure. By the very act of shooting to hit the gun, rather than the man, Jimmy had given himself away, but even now, the Colonel could not be sure.

But the situation changed. Geoff, who had been the lesser threat, spoke in a new voice. 'Look at me and say that, if you dare. Mr Ferguson is young and has never been faced with the problem before. I am older and I have faced it many times. I like it less each time, but it has to be done. Do you remember Riccione? Do you remember Pelster? Do you remember Hartfield? Those are only three, three that you will recognise, three who could not be allowed to live. Why should I spare you, when I did not spare them?'

These words hit the Colonel hard. He recognised the names, that was clear. He also recognised the grim fixity of purpose in Geoff's voice. His eyes narrowed and he stood very still. 'So. You would kill me. But not, I think, here. I know you now. You were once called Todtmeister, until Pfaffenberger took over your name. But your killings were executions, in bare yards against bare walls, where you could forget your civilisation for a moment and become an animal again. You could not kill me here, in this so civilised room.'

As surely as he had seen his own limitations, Jimmy saw that the Colonel was right. Geoff wavered, ever so slightly, in the aim of his gun.

The Colonel began to smile. 'You agree with me. I can see that. Come! We make progress at last. We begin to understand each other. If I walked out of this room now, what would you do? Shoot me? No. You might try to stop me by other means, but your guns would be silent.'

He was moving now, inch by inch, forcing them to change ground, as a skilful actor manoeuvres one less experienced. Jimmy saw what was happening, but could not see a remedy. The Colonel moved a little further and the others retreated, trying to gain time. His eyes hypnotised them and when those eyes dropped suddenly, it was too late. The coffee table, grasped by one firm hand, flew at them viciously. By the time they had recovered, the Colonel was at the door, turning for a grim wave of farewell.

Furious, Jimmy was the first to follow. He threw himself at the door and crossed the control room in great leaping strides, to emerge on the ramp. The Colonel was still in sight, further down, but the table had knocked the gun out of Jimmy's hand and he had not stopped to pick it up. He raced down the slope, knowing that he should be able to outrun the Colonel...in time.

There were others about, but none sized the situation up in time to take action. Instead, they scattered to make way for the running figures, belatedly following behind when they realised what was happening.

At the foot of the ramp, Jimmy checked, momentarily lost, but he remembered the layout after a pause and guessed that the Colonel was making for the main tunnel. Dodging through to the ring tunnel surrounding the base of the circular well, he saw his quarry thirty yards ahead. He put on a spurt, but the Colonel was moving fast, his age counteracted by fanatical determination.

By the end of the tunnel, Jimmy had halved the Colonel's lead, but he was again on unfamiliar ground. By the time he emerged under the grandstand his advantage was lost. Guessing the Colonel's path by the startled expressions on the faces of the spectators who were standing around, he began to climb the adjacent ramp leading to the grandstand promenade.

Reaching the top of the ramp, he remembered, with a sense of shock, the twelve hour race. He had forgotten all about it, yet here were the great sports cars hurling themselves past at speeds close to two hundred miles an hour.

He had a race of his own to worry about. The Colonel was running along the promenade, leaping barriers like an Olympic hurdler, pushing aside anyone who stood in his way. Jimmy, less ruthless in his mode of progress, might have lost ground if it had not been clear that he was chasing the Colonel. A crowd always assumes that any man who chases another man in public is the one in the right, however, illogical that conclusion may be.

A few men made a half hearted attempt to stop the fugitive, but he eluded them automatically, running on with a strange singleness of purpose. Jimmy found time to wonder where the man thought he was going, twisting and turning through a vast crowd of people.

As the Colonel neared the far end of the grandstand, he turned to run down the lower ramp, towards the circuit, and an awful suspicion began to surface in Jimmy's mind. When he reached the top of the ramp, the Colonel was almost at the bottom, and in a moment more was leaping the low parapet to land on the grassy bank below. He was now on the edge of the track itself, separated from it only by the safety barrier of gravel.

He crossed the gravel and the watchers in the stands rose with horror as they saw his intention. A pause, a glance down the track, and he was crossing, heedless of the fact that cars were hurtling towards him at almost a hundred yards a second. It was a simple case of misjudgement. He knew he could cross the track in less than five seconds, but failed to appreciate that the cars could cover the length of the great grandstands in half that time.

If there had been only one car, he might have escaped, but there were two, and two of the fastest. One passed behind him, but it had hidden him from the driver of the second until the very last moment, when there was no time for evasive action. A brief squeal of brakes, a mere flick from the rear wing when the car was almost past and clear, and a rag doll figure was flying through the air in an interminable parabola ending in a great spray of gravel.

The crowd sighed and men ran to the spot where the figure had landed. The car straightened up within in ace of disaster and sped away up the track. Jimmy leaned on the parapet for a few moments, then turned and walked unseeingly up the ramp. He could only think of one thing as he pushed his way through the crowds. They wouldn't have to argue whether he or Geoff should kill the Colonel. The man had at least solved one of their problems.

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| The Fiction of Don Thomasson |

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Mail me Keith Thomasson February 11th 2002