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Strictly Illegal - Chapter 1

The Fiction of Donald William Thomasson
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Throttled back until it almost hovered, the light plane touched down on the hill ridge as lightly as thistledown, ran a few bumpy yards over the rough turf and came to a halt. As the engine coughed into silence, two men emerged, leaving the pilot impassive in his seat. The shorter man, slim and of faintly military appearance, led his companion to the point where the ground began to slope away into the broad valley below.

'Is it not ideal? A deserted valley, forgotten because it leads nowhere, yet close enough to main roads. Is it not a perfect centre for our work?'

The taller man had been frightened by the apparently dangerous landing on the narrow ridge, as the slim man had expected and intended, but he tried to pull himself together. He normally appeared rather majestic, but there was more pathos than majesty about him as he nodded doubtfully.

The slim man pressed home his advantage. 'We could not build secretly, of course, so we would have to build something that would raise no objections. That would provide cover for our other building work. It would have to be something quite different. Perhaps some kind of arena. This great valley would make a fine setting.'

The big man nodded, a little more composed now. 'Yes, that would fit with other plans I have in mind. As you know, I have interests in the motor racing world. I think this would be a good place to build a new circuit, if that would be suitable.'

An ugly smile appeared on the other man's face. 'More than suitable. Ideal. It might well provide the bait for a trap I am very anxious to set.'

His object achieved, he led the way back to the light plane. When they were aboard, the engine sprang to life and after a short take off run, the plane lifted steeply into the air. Within seconds, it had vanished into low cloud. The bare and lonely ridge of Odstone Down was again deserted and empty.

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The houses lining Mildmay Hill, Finchley, were discreet, detached, blandly orthodox, their architecture typical of suburban North London. Each was set back from the road far enough to leave room for a forecourt in which the household cars were parked. Most of the cars were as orthodox as the houses.

The exception was number fifteen, whose forecourt was often occupied by cars of a more exotic kind which reflected the comparative youth of the occupants. In their late twenties, two months married, Simon and Susan Carter were a generation younger than most of their neighbours, some of whom could remember the time when Simon's parents had lived in the house.

Apart from their age, the young couple appeared to be cast in much the same mould as the other occupants of Mildmay Hill, but the select circle of contemporaries who made the house their rallying point knew that their hosts were by no means commonplace. Simon was a young man of rare brilliance, who had won a great reputation in the field of economic science and was now beginning to branch out into other erudite activities. His capable brain made conversation a fascinating challenge, whether he was talking about the international monetary situation or about motor racing. Susan's talents were less flamboyant, but her hospitality was an enduring delight and she earned the respect of all who knew her.

Of all the visitors, Jimmy Ferguson was the one the Carters made most welcome. This had little to do with the fact that he had once saved Simon's life. What really counted was that he was a congenial companion, easy going and liberal in outlook, who could be relied on to contribute something interesting and enlivening to any occasion. For his part, Jimmy thoroughly enjoyed visiting the Carters, almost his only close friends, but there came a day when he felt an unusual reluctance to call, for he could see problems ahead.

All went smoothly enough at first, largely because Simon was bubbling over with some news he had picked up earlier in the day. 'I ran into Ian Mullard, of Car Sport, this morning. He was beside himself with excitement over a press release they'd received just too late to be included in the latest issue. It's going to shake up the motor racing world a bit. Do you remember Brent Livingstone?'

'The majestic looking gent?' Jimmy was suddenly alert, but took care not to show his interest. Anything to do with Brent Livingstone might concern him professionally, but that was something the Carters must not be told. They believed that Jimmy was a freelance writer, which was true as far as it went. Jimmy's other activities were not for general publication.

'It seems that he's planning to build a new circuit. A pretty fabulous one. A lap of more than four miles, with two-hundred foot changes in level. Grandstands seating thirty thousand or more and enclosures planned for another seventy thousand.'

His eyebrows rapidly approaching his hair line, Jimmy was able to express genuine astonishment. 'What on earth is he playing at? I won't deny that it sounds a marvellous scheme, but the cost of building a circuit like that would be astronomical. He'd never get any sort of return for his investment.'

'Who cares?' Simon chuckled. 'I was always told not to look a gift horse in the mouth. If he wants to throw his money away for our benefit, why should we worry?'

Susan provided the answer. 'I think Jimmy's wondering if it really is for our benefit. Is Brent Livingstone really likely to turn out to be a philanthropist?'

'That's true.' Simon was always willing to admit that he needed a prod from Susan now and then to get his brain working properly. Like many brilliant men, he was inclined to think superficially when deeper consideration seemed unnecessary. After a moment's silence, he said that Brent Livingstone could afford to spend about five million pounds.

Jimmy groaned, knowing that Simon's mind must have been juggling figures like a computer in reaching this conclusion. 'Hang on. Let me get a bit of paper. Now then, how do you work that out?'

Simon's eyes twinkled. He was innocently proud of his abilities at mental arithmetic, but never expected his friends to compete with him, confident that they could beat him hands down in many other types of activity. 'They propose to have six big meetings a year. That could bring in just over a million, at present prices. Starting money would run away with three hundred thousand. Allow another hundred thousand for permanent staff and the same sum for maintenance and you've got half a million left. That would be ten per cent gross return on five million invested.'

While Jimmy scribbled furiously, Susan looked at Simon with gentle reproof. 'It's all very well throwing figures around like that, but you seem to be making some big assumptions. You assume they're going to get a full house every time. Is that likely? Attendances have been falling off lately.'

'They've been falling off for a number of good reasons. When a race doesn't live up to its advance publicity, it hits attendance all round. People don't like being let down. Nor do they like being overcrowded. There isn't a circuit in this country that will take more than fifty thousand spectators in reasonable comfort.'

Susan pointed out that Silverstone had once claimed an attendance of a hundred and twenty thousand.

Simon laughed. 'That's a good example. Work it out. If you exclude the stand enclosures, which might account for thirty thousand at a push, you've got a two mile perimeter. That would take seven thousand standing shoulder to shoulder. There would be an average of thirteen deep all round the circuit. I doubt if the people at the back could see much.'

Still scribbling, Jimmy chuckled. 'I thought it was a bit crowded that day. I didn't see much myself.'

'So what did you do next time?'

Jimmy hesitated, smiling reminiscently. When the British Grand Prix had returned to Silverstone two years later, he had been far away in Central Europe, hiding in a forest hut from people who had been very anxious to find him. He had been equally anxious not to be found.

That was when he had met Arnold Hale, never dreaming at the time that he would one day meet the hero's daughter in somewhat different circumstances. The daughter, Pat Hale, was the source and centre of the difficulties which Jimmy could see looming ahead that evening.

Suddenly aware that Simon was looking at him oddly, puzzled by his silence, he brought his mind back to the matter in hand. 'Since then, I've tried to get a grandstand seat. If I missed that, I usually went to practice only and stayed at home on race day.'

'There you are.' Simon was too triumphant to stop and ask what Jimmy had been thinking about. 'I'll bet a lot of people don't bother to go at all. It isn't only the crush inside the circuit. You have to put up with all the traffic jams and delays getting in and out. Livingstone must have realised that. He's talking about establishing at least seven independent access routes. The customers are there, if only they aren't put off.'

'All right, if we grant your million gate money, and starting money doesn't escalate any more, and your other assumptions are valid, would five million be enough?'

This made Simon pause. 'Frankly, I don't know. It would depend on detail so much. I suspect it wouldn't be enough on its own, but you must remember we haven't taken advertising and sponsorship contributions into account.'

Once again, Susan intervened with a crucial comment. 'Look at it this way, Simon. Would you consider it a good business proposition, or put money into it yourself?'

This time the pause was even longer. Then Simon grinned sheepishly. 'No, I suppose I wouldn't. Dammit, you've spoilt the whole thing. The idea of a new circuit was so exciting that I didn't think of the possible implications. Now we come down to it, the whole thing does look rather fishy. I wonder what we ought to do.'

The last words were the key to the whole atmosphere of the Carters and their circle. Where most people would have accepted the news at face value, the Carters dissected it and, having reached a conclusion, felt that they ought to take some positive action.

'We could tell Geoff Farnfield.' Susan carefully looked at the ceiling as she made the suggestion and Jimmy wondered, not for the first time, just how much she knew or guessed. For Geoff Farnfield was Jimmy's boss, a fact which was supposed to be known only to the two men concerned. Although Geoff could call on a more orthodox team of helpers, it was quite likely that he would pick Jimmy to deal with a matter of this kind.

It was a job for Geoff which had brought Jimmy and the Carters together in the first place, the job being to act as an unobtrusive bodyguard to Simon during a trip to Monaco. In the end, Simon had accepted Jimmy's help as that of a casual friend, but it was possible that Susan had realised that there was a little more to the matter. Simon might have the brilliant brain, but Susan could beat her husband every time in matters involving the observation of human behaviour.

Simon evidently saw no indirect implications in her suggestion, immediately voting it an excellent idea. That decision being carried unanimously, Jimmy sought to divert the conversation by asking where the new circuit was to be built.

Simon went over to the bookcase and began to delve in the pile of one inch ordnance maps on the bottom shelf. 'Near Swindon. A bit to the east. Not one five seven...ah, just on one five eight. Oxford and Newbury. Know the area?'

'A bit.' Jimmy hoped this understatement was casual enough to be convincing. He was remembering the hectic night when he and Pat Hale had found that map very useful.

'Then you probably know the Uffington White Horse, the carving in the chalk hillside that looks like modern art but isn't anything of the sort.'

'I do indeed.'

'Well, just above that is Uffington Castle, the old earthwork. The circuit is to be built in the valley to the southwest of the castle.'

Jimmy found this information very surprising. 'How on earth did they get away with that? I would have thought it would make for one hell of an outcry, despoiling the sacred downland and all that sort of thing.'

'So would I, now you come to mention it.' Simon scanned the map thoughtfully. 'I know they organised themselves very thoroughly, producing a brief which set out the advantages and disadvantages in full. Ian Mullard was tickled by the fact that nobody heard a whisper about the project before this release, yet it must have gone through the planning authorities. The more we talk about it, the more it looks as if some very high powered effort had been in action.'

'It certainly does look that way.' Jimmy was so intrigued that he forgot the need to watch his words and went on, 'I'll be in the area on Sunday, so I may have a chance to look the place over.'

'On Sunday?' Simon sounded horrified and Jimmy realised that he had precipitated the difficulties he had been fearing. He nodded dumbly and Simon shook his head in bewilderment. 'But won't you be at Brands Hatch? You've got to be! You can't miss Sandy's first outing in the new car.'

When Sandy Clarewood, Susan's brother, had decided to replace his old and rather unreliable Formula Three racing car with a more up to date machine, they had all been delighted. Simon had helped to find the necessary cash and Jimmy had been expected to lend moral support, if not assistance of a more concrete nature. It was most unfortunate that the car's first race happened to coincide with the one day of the year when Jimmy could not be present. It was even more unfortunate that the underlying reasons were going to be very difficult to explain, very difficult indeed.

Eyeing his friends warily, Jimmy sought a way out of his dilemma. If he told them that he had a long standing appointment to meet Pat Hale, they would suggest that he should bring her to Brands Hatch instead. Jimmy would then have to explain that he had not seen Pat for almost a year and had no idea where she was at the moment. It was true that Geoff Farnfield would probably be able to tell him, as Pat was a member of Geoff's regular staff, but even that idea led to complications. For example, Pat was unaware that Jimmy had been working with Geoff and would want to know how Jimmy had found her. It was all very tricky.

In any case, Jimmy had no desire to take Pat to Brands Hatch. However enjoyable a day there might be, it would be a poor substitute for the plans he had been elaborating in his mind for months past.

The mere mention of Pat would create difficulties enough. Simon and Susan would want to know where he had met her. If he told them that he and Pat had spent one hectic week together, during which they had faced a gang who had murdered two people and tried to kill Geoff Farnfield, they would be very surprised and would demand further details, details which simply could not be given.

Susan, comfortably curled up in a corner of the big settee, looked at Jimmy with pleased amusement. Turning to her husband, she grinned wickedly. 'You know, Simon, I believe he's meeting a girl on Sunday. I never did believe in his pose as a confirmed bachelor.'

Simon looked at Jimmy thoughtfully. 'If you're right, he's been darned secretive about it. Come on, my lad, give with the facts.'

Groaning inwardly, Jimmy did his best to produce a carefully edited version of the matter, but Simon pounced on each evasion like a hawk, demanding further information.

In the end, Susan, who was very fond of Jimmy, decided to divert the pressure. 'Don't be too hard on him, Simon. You might not have been too willing to talk about me when you and Jimmy first met.'

Much relieved, Jimmy smiled. 'He nearly bit my head off when I mentioned you by accident. Look, I've told you that I'm meeting Pat, by a long standing arrangement. I'd love to come along with you on Sunday, but I can't. When you see Pat, you may understand why.'

'Suppose she doesn't turn up?' Simon was reluctant to let the matter drop completely and hit on the one point that had been a constant worry at the back of Jimmy's mind.

Controlling his voice with care, he answered the point cheerfully. 'In that case, I should have time to get to Brands. The race isn't until three o'clock, is it?'

'Fair enough.' Simon threw up his hands. 'You've obviously got it bad. I hope she's worth it. We'll ring you on Sunday evening, late, to tell you what happened, unless you feel that's likely to be an unwelcome intrusion.'

'If it is, you won't get an answer!' Jimmy felt able to laugh easily for the first time that evening.

However, if he had got over one worrying difficulty, he now had something else to worry about. He had never really considered the possibility that Pat might not turn up, but Simon's suggestion had brought the idea to the surface and it nagged him continually as he drove out of London on the Sunday.

There had been road changes in the past year, including a relevant motorway extension that cut the journey time considerably. Jimmy reached his destination nearly an hour early. Coasting to a stop beside the wood that shelters under Knollend Down, he decided to wait. There seemed to be no point in driving round idly to kill time. It was more pleasant to sit beside this strangely deserted stretch of road and recall happy memories.

A few miles to the south, the roads round Newbury would be thronged with cars, but Jimmy saw only one car in half an hour. It was very peaceful, quite different from the occasion of his first visit to the spot. The wood, now empty and silent, had concealed a whole crowd of people waiting in the hour before dawn for the climax to an eventful and exciting night.

Pleasant though the country peace was, it gave Jimmy too much time to think of unwelcome possibilities. He wondered how Pat would arrive. It could be a nuisance if she came by car, though they could leave it parked by the wood while they went off to spend the day together. No thief would be likely to come along that lonely road in the day time.

Without a car, she would have a long walk. The nearest main road was two miles away. Getting out his map, Jimmy began to consider the options, mainly to keep his mind occupied. There was one thought he wanted to erase. He refused to believe that she would let him down.

After a while, Jimmy found a fresh subject to think about. Simon had reported the plan to build a new circuit to Geoff, but Jimmy had received no instructions to look into the matter. This might mean that Geoff wanted to carry out other investigations first, but there could be another less welcome explanation.

In the past year, Jimmy had concealed his secret work easily enough. Living alone, his main problem had been to prevent the Carters becoming too curious about his activities. He suspected that Susan had given him some unobtrusive help in that respect. She always seemed to change the subject providentially when Simon began to ask awkward questions.

With Pat around, the situation would be quite different. It would be almost impossible to conceal anything from her and Geoff had been emphatic that none of his regular staff must know about Jimmy's work. Perhaps that was why Jimmy had heard nothing about the Brent Livingstone affair. Perhaps Geoff considered he was no longer suitable for work of that kind.

Still turning this very unpleasant thought over in his mind, Jimmy glanced at his watch to discover that the hands were at last approaching the vertical. Pat had said noon and it was now five to twelve. If she was coming on foot she should be in sight by now. He scanned the road in either direction and even took a look up the side track leading to the Ridgeway, but nobody was in sight.

The last five minutes passed slowly and when the hands of his watch at last stood together Jimmy sighed. It rather looked as if she wasn't coming after all.

Then a slight sound from the wood caught his attention and he saw her standing under the trees, smiling at him.

Dice Divider

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| The Fiction of Don Thomasson |

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Mail me Keith Thomasson February 11th 2002