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The Fiction of Don Thomasson
The Bent Wheel - Chapter 2

The Fiction of Donald William Thomasson
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II

As Jimmy headed out of Dorchester the traffic was down to a mere trickle. Here, at last, was a chance to try out his new possession under ideal conditions. After a wary glance in his driving mirrors, he pressed his foot firmly on the accelerator and revelled in the surge of power which the engine produced. Seconds later, however, his foot was pressing with equal firmness on the brake pedal.

Fencing with Henry Lessor had left him keyed up and alert, otherwise he might not have noticed, far down the headlight beam, a girl rising suddenly from a seat on a milestone. His first thought was that she was a belated hitch-hiker, but she made no gesture, simply standing and waiting as if she was quite sure that he would stop. Remembering Henry Lessor's amusement when they parted, Jimmy wondered whether this was the reason. It looked as if the day's excitements were not over yet.

As he coasted to a stop beside her, the girl picked up a duffle-bag and stepped forward. 'I thought you were never...'

The words stopped abruptly, and she stood staring at him in amazement. He grinned at her cheerfully. 'Want a lift? I'm going to Monckton, if that's any use.'

The girl's hesitation made the situation crystal clear. She had been expecting Mr Farnfield to pick her up. He was late, but she was reluctant to assume that he was not coming, even though that might leave her stranded. Jimmy decided to help out. 'You were expecting someone else, in a similar car? Well, there's only one other car like this, and it won't be passing here tonight. It crashed early this morning. The driver's in hospital, but not badly hurt.'

'I see.' The girl's tone was calm and businesslike. 'In that case, I'd better accept your offer. I have to get back to Monckton, and there haven't been many cars past here for some time.'

As she spoke, she was climbing into the passenger seat, and Jimmy found himself admiring her forthright approach, although he felt she had accepted his story rather readily. Once again, he felt he should help out. 'I know now what was amusing Henry. If I hadn't been coming this way he would have had to come out and pick you up.'

'Henry Lessor?' There was caution in the girl's tone. 'Just who are you?'

'No one in particular. I happened to be running in company with Mr Farnfield when he crashed, and when Henry saw this car in Dorchester he thought it was the other one...if you see what I mean.'

'Oh...' The girl thought this over, but made no further comment, as the roar of the engine and the sound of the slipstream made conversation difficult. Jimmy wanted time to think.

A pattern of events was beginning to emerge, only the timetable seemed wrong. But for the accident, Farnfield would have reached Dorchester well before lunch-time. There would presumably have been a meeting with Lessor, but it seemed that Farnfield had intended to stay in the town for several hours before picking the girl up on his way to Monckton. And it all seemed rather complicated, as if the three people concerned wanted to hide the connection between them.

This was sheer speculation, and not particularly profitable, but Jimmy was becoming intrigued by the odd train of events. The car was obviously the connecting link. Perhaps it would lead him to more surprises.

The straight road out of Dorchester had given way to the twisty section through Winterbourne Abbas, and Jimmy was forced to concentrate more on his driving, glad to notice that his companion showed no sign of alarm at their considerable speed. He began to consider her as a person, rather than as an element in a mysterious situation.

So far, she had been little more than a vague shape in the gloom, but her voice had been pleasant, and she had shown considerable self-possession. Jimmy usually steered clear of the fair sex, as they were liable to try to persuade him to settle down and abandon his adventurous ways, but it seemed possible that this girl might be different. He hoped her appearance in daylight would not be a disappointment.

They were climbing now, leaving the Winterbourne valley by the switchback ascent to Askerwell Down. A few wisps of mist fluttered through the headlight beam, and Jimmy immediately slowed. 'Easy does it! I know this road. You can run into thick mist just like...that!'

On the last word, they plunged into a world of cotton wool, and Jimmy braked to a crawl. At the touch of a switch a fog beam sprang to life, but even with the main headlights doused it was difficult to see where the road went, the metalled surface merging vaguely into the roadside grass. The girl sat forward tensely, peering ahead as anxiously as Jimmy, and he gave a passing thought to this change in her attitude.

Before the thought could mature, the girl called an urgent warning, and Jimmy swung to the right just in time to miss the tail of a large lorry which had loomed up in the fog beam. Pulling on to the grass verge beyond the lorry, he looked back and said that some people have no commonsense whatsoever. 'I don't think he's on the road, but he isn't far off it. He might at least show some lights.'

Pulling a torch from under his seat, he went off to investigate. The near side door of the cabin was locked, so he made his way to the other side, pausing to touch the radiator in passing. 'Still a bit warm. Can't have been here all that long.'

Finding the driver's door open, he switched on some lights, but felt that further action was needed. After exploring the ground behind the lorry, he said that there was room to move it further from the road. 'If you'll guide me with the torch, I should be able to get it about six feet clear. That ought to be enough.'

The girl seemed to doubt the wisdom of this, but she took the torch willingly enough, while he climbed aboard and sorted out the controls. With no difficulty at all he moved the lorry back some twenty feet, leaving it well clear of the road. Jumping down, he viewed the result with satisfaction. 'There you are. Much better.'

'You've driven this sort of thing before, haven't you?' The girl sounded almost reproachful. 'I hate driving anything big, but you made it look easy.'

'They're only like overgrown cars.' Jimmy laughed, but the laugh was cut short. On the grass in front of the lorry lay a still figure clad in overalls.

Switching on the lorry's headlights, Jimmy went forward to investigate, the girl following closely behind. It scarcely needed any tests to assure him that the man was dead. As he shone the torch on the face of the corpse, he heard the girl gasp. 'Why it's - the lorry driver, I suppose.'

Making no comment on what she had said, or what he thought she had been about to say, Jimmy stood up decisively. 'He didn't drive it here.'

'How do you know that?'

'Not to mince matters, he's cold, and the lorry isn't... Could you drive my car?'

'I...I expect so.'

'Good. It's clearing a bit, so you shouldn't have too much trouble in getting to Bridport. Gearbox orthodox - four speeds, top back towards you. Go easy on the loud pedal. There are lots of horses in there waiting to get out.'

As he talked, he was urging the girl towards the car, and he lost no time in pointing out the essential controls. Asked if she could cope, she nodded efficiently, and he strode off to the lorry without waiting to watch her start. Putting out all the lights, he made his way along the grass verge for some twenty yards and began to feel about for something soft to sit on.

Making himself comfortable on a grassy bank, he reflected that there was no point in looking for trouble, especially when trouble was cropping up so freely without any effort on his part. If there was any trouble hereabouts, it would probably be concentrated on the lorry. That was why he had moved away while the sound of the departing car would cover any noise he might make. Now that the car had gone, the silence was complete. The slightest movement would be very audible indeed.

There might have been no ears but Jimmy's own to hear such a sound. This was a lonely spot, the road crossing the high downs well away from the villages sheltering in the valleys on either side. No one would walk this way at night without a good reason to do so.

All the same, someone had parked that lorry at the roadside quite recently, and they might still be around, watching events. This was no simple killing. The corpse had been left under the lorry for a purpose. The sea, not so far away, would have provided a convenient way of concealing the body, the scour along Chesil Beach making an effective scavenger.

Yet the dead man had been hidden, so that he would not be noticed by a casual passerby. He would only be discovered by someone who stopped to investigate. Someone, perhaps, who had planned to meet him here? The girl had been expecting something. Had there been an arrangement, for Farnfield and herself to make a rendezvous?

Or perhaps they would have taken the lorry with them. No, that wouldn't do. The girl would not have driven the lorry, and Farnfield might have been reluctant to trust her with his car. Jimmy had done so only under the pressure of necessity.

Tiny sounds were beginning to creep into the silence as Jimmy's ears became attuned. A city dweller might have imagined a thousand ghostly footsteps, but Jimmy had known silence before, and his imagination was unlikely to play him false. He remained quietly alert.

No cars had passed since they had arrived. Perhaps drivers shunned this mist-ridden stretch of road at night. There seemed to be no one lying in wait, hoping the corpse would serve as bait for another victim. The cab of the lorry would be more comfortable than this rough bank, and Jimmy was on the point of moving in that direction when a shred of sound made him draw back.

A faint hum and a slight glow in the mist told of a car approaching from the Dorchester direction, and a single spotlight, canted towards the grass verge, soon became apparent. Jimmy silently withdrew into the cover of a nearby furze bush.

As the spotlight picked up the lorry, the car slowed, and for a brief moment a torch shone from a window directly on the corpse. The car immediately accelerated away, its rear lights glowing briefly through the mist just long enough for Jimmy to pick out the number plate.

For the first time, he had a fact that he had picked up for himself, rather than those that had been thrust at him since early morning. He regarded it as a fixed point in a morass of uncertainty.

The girl had been gone for some twenty minutes or so. Twelve miles to Bridport and back would take longer than that in these conditions, even without allowing for the time needed to organise the police. She might not come back at all, of course, in which case he would be very cold before dawn. She might have good reasons for steering clear of the police, though Jimmy found this difficult to believe.

Even so, it was a relief to hear the familiar sound of his car's engine approaching through the mist. Standing up, Jimmy flashed the torch as a guide, and a minute later the whole area was swarming with cars, police and an ambulance team.

Jimmy had no chance to speak to the girl for some time, as they went separately to Bridport police station, where they were questioned in different rooms. Eventually, however, a friendly constable brought in two steaming mugs of tea, the girl following close behind him. 'I expect you could do with a hot drink. I know I could.'

For once in a while, Jimmy found it difficult to concentrate. The girl looked even more attractive than he could have hoped. Dark hair and a trim figure matched her voice, cool and efficient. With something of an effort he managed to speak normally. 'How did you get on with the car?'

'Fine. Though I did see what you meant about the loud pedal. You have to sort of stroke it, don't you? It's an awful shame about the other one. I gather Geoff is all right, but from what you said it sounded as if the car was a write-off.'

'That depends. It would cost a lot to repair, for sure. Meanwhile, mine's unique, which is a consolation of a kind... Someone had damaged the steering. Have you any idea who might have done that?'

The girl's eyes clouded. 'You may have been mistaken. It could have been a natural break.'

'It couldn't, as a matter of fact, but I won't argue the point.'

'I'd rather you didn't... Look, we have to sign statements, then we can go. Where are you staying?'

'I was planning to take over Mr Farnfield's room at the Weslake. Are you staying there, too?'

'Yes. I've been there a week, so I count as the oldest resident.'

'You could have fooled me... I suppose we'll be able to get in at this time of day.'

'Oh, yes. No problem. There's a character called Sam Williams, who runs the bar during the evening, and stays awake most of the night. Then he does the early morning tea. I don't know when he sleeps.'

'Sounds quite a character...' Jimmy wasn't really listening. He was wondering what colour the girl's eyes would be in daylight.

The statements arrived, and were duly read and signed, after which they were free to go. Jimmy dug out a coat for the girl and a rally jacket for himself, and they found the run most enjoyable, the car making short work of the steep hills in a most exhilarating manner. The mist had gone, and the moon was up, silvering the whole landscape.

Something was still nagging at the back of Jimmy's mind, and the reason for this came to him as they neared the top of the final descent into Monckton. Someone had sabotaged Farnfield's car, and must have expected that the steering would fail reasonably soon, certainly before he could get as far as Dorchester. In that case, the planting of the corpse under the lorry seemed pointless... Unless there were two parties involved, acting independently, which made Mr Farnfield seem a rather unpopular person.

However, he clearly had excellent taste where his female associates were concerned. Jimmy stole a glance at the girl, and a little smile touched his lips. Then he sent the car rushing almost silently down the long slope into the little town, his mind diverted for a moment to softer thoughts.

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Red line

Mail me Keith Thomasson February 11th 2002