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The Bent Wheel - Chapter 3

The Fiction of Donald William Thomasson
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III

Monckton nestles in comfortable isolation in a steep sided valley running down to the sea. Its tiny harbour, too dangerous for amateurs and deserted by the fishermen, serves mainly as a focus for strolling holiday makers, who provide the main source of Monckton's income. The little houses of the old town are too small to accommodate many visitors, but a number of big hotels have sprung up round the outskirts, and in summer their patrons throng the streets, window shopping and even buying something now and then.

After dark, the crowds melt away. There is little in the way of night life, not even a cinema. The pubs do a little business, but many people prefer the bars of their hotels, or livelier establishments along the coast road.

By the time Jimmy and the girl arrived, the town was empty, the houses dark and silent, the only sign of movement a marauding cat that sped suicidally across the road in front of the car.

The girl explained that the Weslake was some way up the further side of the valley, looking out over the sea. In deference to the sleeping town, Jimmy tackled the climb gently, and when they reached the hotel he thought that the noise of wheels on gravel sounded like hail on a tin roof. Sam Williams certainly heard the sound, for he appeared almost before they had time to get out of the car. Coming forward briskly, he took Jimmy's bag with a smile. 'Nice to see you, sir. Your room's all ready.'

A tiny frown creased Jimmy's forehead, but he followed Sam into the building without comment. At his side, the girl seemed suddenly on edge, for no obvious reason, and Jimmy wondered why.

'No need to bother with the register tonight, sir. I expect you'll want to turn in soon, after such a long day. Maybe you'd like a drink first, though.'

Jimmy voted this a good idea, and invited the girl to join him. After a momentary hesitation, she nodded. 'All right. The usual for me, Sam... Look, I'll just slip upstairs for a moment, then I'll be with you. Go and make yourself comfortable in the lounge.'

Leading the way, Jimmy switched on the lights in the room the girl had indicated, revealing a number of comfortable chairs. After the chilly night the warmth of the place was pleasant, and Jimmy was glad to relax. He was tired now, but his mind was active enough, and it had fresh material to work on.

Sam had greeted him without question or comment, speaking with an odd familiarity, as if he was welcoming an old friend or someone he knew already, at least by reputation. But he had been expecting to see Geoff Farnfield, and should have been surprised to see Jimmy instead. And how had Sam known that Jimmy had had a long day? It looked very much as if he thought Jimmy was Farnfield, but that didn't make sense.

Before Jimmy could reach any useful conclusions, the drinks and the girl arrived simultaneously, and Jimmy decided to do a little probing. He began by introducing himself, saying that there seemed to be no point in being too formal after their adventures together.

The girl managed a smile. 'I'm Pat Hale, for what it's worth...'

For a few moments, Jimmy was speechless, a most unusual phenomenon. His mind went back to a hut set in dense forest in central Europe, a refuge he had shared with a man called Arnold Hale. During the days when they had been forced to hide from the local police and military, they had talked a great deal, there being little else to do, and they had become firm friends. Arnold Hale, a military man of the old school working as an undercover agent, had paid Jimmy a great compliment. 'You know, young feller, you're just about the first chap I've met who would make a sensible husband for my daughter.'

The daughter's name had been Patricia, and Jimmy thought he could see a hint of Arnold Hale's face echoed in the girl's. It wasn't possible. Yet it made sense in an odd sort of way. Jimmy had learned by experience that only a limited number of people enjoy adventure in the raw, and this was not the first time he had encountered an apparent coincidence as a result.

For the moment, he chose to say nothing about the coincidence, in case he might say too much or too little. Instead, he changed the subject. 'It's been quite a day, one way and another. First Farnfield, then Lessor, then the corpse under the lorry. I should have stayed at home.'

'In that case I would probably be sitting on that milestone still waiting for Geoff. I didn't see any other cars on that bit of road.'

'I did.' Jimmy spoke casually. 'A car slowed down as it passed the lorry, and someone shone a torch on the corpse. Then the car accelerated away.'

'You're suggesting that they knew the corpse was there?'

'They did. No question.'

'Where were you at the time?'

'Hiding in a bush. I thought that might be advisable.'

The girl looked at his innocent face and laughed. 'You've been around a bit, haven't you?'

'Life has had its moments.'

'Did you see the number of the car?'

'I did.'

'And you told the police.'

'No.'

'Why ever not?'

'I chose not to. Not until I knew a bit more about what has been going on. That applies to other things, as well.'

'Such as?'

'You expected the lorry to be there, you recognised the corpse. Will that do for a start?'

The girl smiled rather wanly. 'I must say you don't miss much. I suppose it all looks rather suspicious to an outsider, but it isn't, really. You ought to trust the police, you know.'

'It was more a question of trusting your crowd, to be honest. However, I'm willing to trust you now, if that's any consolation.'

'Why? What has changed?'

Jimmy smiled gently, but refused to answer. Instead, he leaned back lazily and sipped his drink. 'I am on holiday. I was afraid I might be bored, but this business solves that problem nicely. I can spend the time getting to the bottom of it.'

'But you mustn't.' The girl was alarmed. 'One man has been killed, and they might have killed Geoff, too. Can't you see the danger?'

'It obviously hasn't scared you off, so why should it scare me?'

'I'm involved, and you aren't.'

'Who said so? Just because I drive a car like your Mr Farnfield's, someone might think I was working with him. I'd hate to be killed without knowing why. It would be most annoying.'

'I'm afraid you may be right.' The girl sounded more worried than ever, which Jimmy took as a compliment. 'The best thing would be to go and spend your holiday somewhere else, as far away as possible.'

'It wouldn't be the best thing for me.' Jimmy spoke firmly. 'I'd be like a cat on hot bricks wondering what was happening here, and I might never find out what it was all about. Quite apart from that, I can't leave you to face the danger alone.'

An odd look of disappointment and distaste appeared on the girl's face. 'I suppose you're one of those men who think women always need to be protected. I can manage quite well on my own, thank you.'

Jimmy chuckled richly. 'Hooroar for Women's Lib! You always overdo it. Do you think I would take a different attitude if you were a man whose partner had been put out of action? Mind you, I wouldn't object to keeping an eye on you even if you didn't need help, but that's a different matter. And as for protecting you, I have a strong suspicion that you'd be quite capable of protecting me, if the occasion arose. Otherwise I wouldn't offer to help, I'd do the job on my own.'

The effect of this speech on the girl amused Jimmy greatly. Her expression changed from moment to moment, and he found all the variations attractive. In the end, she shook her head sadly.

'You make it very difficult for me. I can't accept your help, and I can't explain why. I won't be working entirely on my own.'

'Have you got a car?'

'No, but I borrow one from Sam Williams sometimes. I hadn't realised how essential it is to have your own transport in a place like this.'

'You must be city bred. Well, suppose I provide you with transport now and then. How about that?'

The girl smiled rather weakly. 'We'll see. Let's talk about it over breakfast. I'm too tired to think clearly. Sorry I was rude. You really have been a help - more than you know. I wish we could work as partners, but we can't. Good night...'

Watching her go, Jimmy was content. Too wise to rush his fences, he had every intention of overcoming Pat Hale's objections, given time.

Sam appeared to take Jimmy up to his room, which proved to be very pleasant. After explaining the efficient little switch panel that controlled the lights, and showing off the compact bathroom, he hovered for a moment at the door to ask if there was anything else Jimmy needed, then vanished like a wraith. Jimmy noted that the man had not expected a tip, which was unusual, and added that to his list of facts needing explanation.

Now that his bed was close at hand, Jimmy felt wide awake. He checked the small balcony outside the window to make sure it would not provide a convenient route for one of Mr Farnfield's enemies, who might not check on the identity of the room's occupant before going into action. Satisfied that no one could get in by that route, he locked the door and got out the local ordnance map to refresh his memory of the are a. A good visual memory had proved to be one of his more useful assets in the past, but he still liked to refresh the stored data from time to time.

When he was putting the map away in his pocket, it encountered an obstruction, which proved to be the small black notebook that Jimmy had picked up at the scene of the crash. The shock of finding the damaged steering had put the thing out of his mind completely.

Leafing through the pages, he found they were covered by shorthand notes, but though the shapes were familiar enough it was clear that they did not convey the meanings normally assigned to them. Looking disgustedly at something that might usually read 'Thuspath masktub', Jimmy gave it up.

There were figures scattered through the notes, but they meant nothing coherent. At the back of the book, however, he found a table of six figure numbers:

    557865 529985 506070
    552899 518006 490110
    547945 508035 483145
    526973 512050 465160

There was something infuriatingly familiar about this list, something which touched a chord on the edge of Jimmy's consciousness, but refused to come to the surface of his mind. Then, like a flash of light, the answer became clear. These must be map references.

Turning to the map again, Jimmy checked this carefully. The first number gave the old earthwork at Abbotsbury Castle, or more precisely a point on the track passing east of the mound. The second marked the junction of a lane and a farm track south of Litton Cheney. Each in turn pointed to a recognisable location well away from main roads. Taken together, they marked out a wide arc across Dorset and Somerset.

That, Jimmy felt, was enough for the moment. Whatever the business in which Mr Farnfield and his crew were engaged, it clearly covered a lot of ground. Deciding that he was ready for bed after all, he began to get undressed.

Pulling back the bed covers, he felt his foot touch something cold and clammy. Looking down, he saw an outstretched hand. Crouching, he could see an arm and a body. That was when he realised that he would get very little sleep that night.

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Mail me Keith Thomasson February 11th 2002