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The Fiction of Don Thomasson
The Bent Wheel - Chapter 6

The Fiction of Donald William Thomasson
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VI

Feeling that they had earned a few minutes of quiet relaxation, Jimmy drove out to Woodbury Common, on the ridge to the east of the Exe valley, and parked among the Sunday motorists enjoying the view and the sunshine. Stretching across the scene was the broad river valley, always worth looking at, but on this occasion everyone's attention had been drawn to a column of thick smoke far away to the right.

Jimmy said that it looked better from a distance, and Pat was inclined to agree. 'Kellberg is a bit wholesale, isn't he? I mean, what does he expect to gain by destroying the garage? Gurney will be annoyed, to put it mildly, and that might not be a good thing from Kellberg's point of view.'

'Perhaps Gurney's on the hit list, too.'

'He can't kill off everyone in sight. Or can he?'

'I think he panicked when he found out that Carson and Weston had fresh information for Farnfield.'

'How could he find out?'

Jimmy shrugged his shoulders. 'There must be a leak somewhere. Meanwhile, I feel we're getting nowhere fast. We need to take some positive action.'

Settling in her seat with a wry grin, Pat asked him what he had in mind. Jimmy chuckled. 'You'd be surprised... If you tell me a bit more about what's going on, I might be able to make some sensible suggestions.'

Ignoring Jimmy's innuendo, Pat said that she only knew part of the story. 'My job was at a very junior level, helping the others and passing messages, most of which didn't seem to make much sense. All Geoff told me was that diamonds were being smuggled in through this area. The original story came from Carson, the lorry driver. Calvin got the bare bones out of him, but he wanted to talk to Geoff, so we arranged to meet him on Askerwell Down. You know what came of that.'

'Once again, there was a leak.'

'There must have been, but I can't imagine who could have been responsible.'

'Presumably someone working for Farnfield, unless bugs were used. Or perhaps Carson talked too much.'

'I don't think he would have been so foolish. He and Calvin Weston were very careful when they met.'

'Let it go for the moment, but remember that a leak may still exist. Don't trust anyone - except me.'

'I'll have to think about that.' Pat smiled quietly, then shook her head. 'I feel we ought to have found out a lot more by now. You've done nearly as much in a very short time.'

'Put it down to luck. Was Carson carrying the diamonds?'

'Yes. He collected them from strangers and passed them to Gurney. At first, he didn't know what they were, until a packet came open and he saw what was inside.'

'And curiosity proved fatal... I think Kellberg's our best lead. Where's this Bent Wheel place?'

'About three miles from here, on the Sidmouth road. We'd better stay away from it. Kellberg's dangerous.'

Jimmy chuckled. 'Quite right. He is. I'll go alone.'

As he had expected, Pat reacted strongly. 'You'll do nothing of the sort! Are you suggesting that I'm chicken?'

'Calm down...' Jimmy spoke soothingly. 'Think. Kellberg thinks I'm Farnfield, but isn't sure. He's seen you as a customer, and he's seen you in my company. Perhaps he knew you were working with Farnfield before that. What he doesn't know is that we've discovered his connection with Gurney. So what would he gain by attacking us? It would make him a marked man at once.'

'That sounds plausible.' Pat obviously had lingering doubts. 'I'd like another look at the place. I suppose we could go there for a meal.'

'We could, indeed. Now, we're a bit mussed up after the afternoon's excitements, so I suggest that we go back to Monckton, clean up, and aim to get to the Bent Wheel at about half past seven. How's that?'

'Fine. It would give me a chance to check whether Geoff has sent any messages.'

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When the sports car pulled into the Bent Wheel car park that evening, the figures that emerged were smart and neat, the picture of a couple out to enjoy themselves. They looked totally relaxed, and Pat paused to point out the sign, based on a battered car wheel, from which the place took its name. Jimmy eyed the sign blandly, though it brought back memories of the front wheel of Geoff Farnfield's car. As they drifted idly towards the restaurant entrance, he talked casually about the pleasant Devon countryside. All in all, it was quite a performance.

Jimmy deduced from the exterior of the place that it was a converted farmhouse, the restaurant occupying what had once been a great barn. Set at a little distance from the road, the buildings were surrounded by a broad stretch of grass, encircled by a stout wooden fence. The overall effect was attractive, but there was a fleeting resemblance to an old fashioned castle and moat. It would be difficult to approach the main building unseen.

The interior had been fitted out with care and ingenuity. The tables were spread out in individual booths divided by imitation rustic fencing, each table discreetly lit by concealed spotlights. Similar illumination of the bar at the end of the room produced an almost theatrical effect. Jimmy said the place pleased his eyes and scared his pocket, but Pat laughed and said the prices were surprisingly low.

'Not cheap, of course. That would be silly. I think they aim to keep the place well filled, and make a reasonable profit.'

'Interesting.' Jimmy paused to acknowledge the barman's friendly greeting, and to order aperitifs. Then he took up the thought again. 'A place like this has to make its profit during the summer, though there might be a bit of winter trade as well...'

He rambled on for a while in this fashion, words and tone chosen to suit the setting. Pat's eyes flickered with amusement, but she did her best to play along. After a few minutes, Kellberg appeared, with a startled expression quickly hidden. He came forward obsequiously.

'Good evening. Are you dining?'

'If we may...' Jimmy's voice and smile were languid. 'This young lady advised me that it would be quite an experience. I wasn't expecting to find a good restaurant hereabouts, but she assures me that this one is well up to London standards.'

'I am grateful to Miss Hale. Perhaps you would like to study the menu for a while...'

When they were alone again, Pat pulled Jimmy to one side, and spoke in a fierce undertone. 'If you go on talking like that, I'll burst out laughing and spoil everything. You sound like a proper lounge lizard.'

'How did he know your name? Did you mention it when you were here last time?'

'No.' Pat's eyes opened wide. 'No, I didn't. I'm sure of that.'

'A small point, but one worth noting. Let's see if he admits to knowing mine.'

Returning to take their order, Kellberg still looked a little wary, and perhaps a little puzzled. Noting down their choice, he glanced out of the window. 'The barman tells me that the magnificent car outside is yours. Would you like a cover over it? The dew can fall heavily in these parts.'

Jimmy smiled and shook his head. 'Thank you, but no. It will have to stand in the open every night while I'm in the area, so protecting it for one evening would be rather pointless. I'm glad you called it magnificent. It's the only one of its kind - now.'

Kellberg's eyes seemed to flicker, but he managed to assume an expression of polite enquiry. Jimmy condescended to explain. 'The other one like it was wrecked yesterday morning, as someone had sabotaged the steering. Rather a shame, but as the crash led indirectly to my meeting Miss Hale, I can't complain too much.'

This obviously surprised Kellberg considerably, but he merely bowed regretfully and went to pass their order to the chef.

'That's got him in a tizzy.' Jimmy was quietly amused, but Pat thought he should have said nothing about the crash.

'No? We can be reasonably sure that he wasn't involved in the sabotage. Otherwise he wouldn't have been so surprised. That's a step forward... By the way, we don't talk shop when we get to the table. It might be bugged.'

Pat nodded, and glanced around to estimate the chance of their words being overheard. There were a few other couples waiting near the bar, but they were all out of earshot. More diners were arriving all the time, however, and greater discretion was needed. 'What do we talk about, then?'

Jimmy was amused by the rather nervous air of the question. 'Well, I could tell you how attractive you look, and things like that...'

She looked at him with a baffled expression. 'We've got a job to do. How can we concentrate if you keep introducing personal matters?'

'I only wish we could concentrate on the personal matters and let the rest go to blazes. You're not married, or anything, are you?'

'No.' Pat looked at him with a wry grin. 'I've been too busy.'

'So have I. That makes working with you doubly pleasurable.'

Before long, Pat had given up trying to stop Jimmy talking in this way, and she even began to admit that she, too, was enjoying their partnership. Jimmy reflected that anyone who was eavesdropping would probably be very puzzled by what they heard.

After the meal, Kellberg invited then to have a final drink with him, and wished them a safe journey. As they went out to the car, Pat slipped her hand quite naturally into the crook of Jimmy's arm, and Kellberg stood in the doorway to watch them go. The whole procedure seemed to mark them as especially honoured guests.

Half a mile down the road, Jimmy turned into a side lane which he had marked down, and parked the car in the shelter of a field gate. It was dusk now, and the car would be quite invisible from the road. Pat got out a pair of slacks and a pullover from the space behind her seat and disappeared into the field to change, while Jimmy pulled on the working overalls which he always kept in the car.

When Pat reappeared, their transformation was so complete that it made them laugh, and Jimmy hugged Pat briefly. She pushed him away, however, and sighed. 'Blast you. You're spoiling all my plans and ideas. I wish I'd never met you.'

Since her tone made the remark unconvincing, Jimmy was content.

It would have been unwise to risk using a torch, and that made the return to the Bent Wheel, across rough fields, a fraction more difficult, but they eventually reached the massive wooden fence surrounding their objective. It was too high to climb, but a careful search revealed a loose board, and a little persuasion opened up a gap big enough for them to squeeze through. There was still the grassy expanse to be crossed, and that was uncomfortably well lit by windows. Apart from that, they still had to select a target for their intrusion.

Studying the outline of the buildings carefully, Jimmy drew Pat a little closer and whispered in her ear, pointing to the silhouette of the roof. 'Remember the shape of the restaurant ceiling? Over the bar, the wall went straight up, didn't it? But the roof is rounded and sloping at both ends. There must be quite a big space above the bar, just the thing for a hidden room.'

'You could be right, as usual, but how can we get at it? We'd have to climb the roof.'

'Exactly. The old farmhouse roof runs away from the barn end at right angles, making a nice convenient gully. If we can get onto that outhouse roof, it should all be plain sailing from there on.'

There were still ample sounds of activity from inside the building, so they hoped that these would mask any noises they might make. A heavy crate provided a useful stepping stone to the outhouse roof, and once there they felt a little less conspicuous.

The gully lay above them and to the left. Pay eyed it dubiously. It might provide a handy route to the ridge, but one slip would lead to a long and fast glissade ending in a nasty crunch on the ground below.

They moved forward cautiously. Jimmy hauled himself up into the start of the gully, and found that he could brace himself quite satisfactorily against the adjacent roof planes. Slithering back onto the outhouse roof, he regained his balance with some difficulty, feeling a little muzzy. Shaking his head to clear it, he whispered instructions. 'I'll lock myself into the gully, and you climb over me. At full stretch, I should be able to push you up until you can reach the ridge. Then you can help to pull me up. OK?'

Setting himself in position, he was surprised when Pat began to push past him, rather than climbing on his back, but he had a firm foothold in the gutter, so this was not too serious. It was nice to rest his head against the cool tiles as he lay stretched out in the gully.

A kick suggested that Pat had secured a grip on the ridge, and he tested this by a gentle pull at her ankles. Satisfied that it was safe to proceed, he began to follow her up, supporting himself partly by the roof planes and partly by clutching at Pat's slacks. He hoped he wouldn't pull them off, for his own sake as well as hers.

At last, he could grasp the rounded tiles of the ridge, his face a lather of sweat. A breather would have been welcome, but Pat had to be pulled up to join him on the ridge. She immediately began fumbling with the tiles of the end of the barn roof, muttering as she did so. 'Give me a hand. I can hear someone talking. If I get this tile out, we may be able to hear what they're saying.'

'If you go at it like that, they'll hear us first. Take it easy. Lift one tile, and take out the one underneath. Here, let me show you.'

Leaning over her shoulder, he demonstrated his scheme to good effect, and the voice became much clearer. Placing the loose tiles on the ridge behind him, Jimmy strained to hear the words. It was Kellberg's voice.

'...dealt with the man Farnfield you're so worried about... What do you mean, he isn't Farnfield? How do you know?'

Jimmy's lips twitched a little. Trust Kellberg to bluster if he makes a mistake.

'Yes, this man told me about that. He must be one of Farnfield's lot. Otherwise, how could he know about the crash? He came here tonight with the Hale girl, quite openly...'

There was silence for a while, and Jimmy found difficulty in concentrating. When the voice came again, he could barely hear it.

'It doesn't make much difference now. I put something in their nightcaps. He'll pass out and either crash the car or stop by the roadside. Peter Mays has gone to tidy up. It's slow acting. Probably taking effect just about now. I'll let you know what happens.'

Jimmy struggled to make sense of this. Nightcaps. Wrecking the car... Suddenly his brain cleared for a moment. They had both been drugged. If they passed out up here on the roof, nothing could save them from a nasty fall and certain exposure, to say the least. They must get down at once.

He shook Pat's shoulder, but she slumped towards him, almost knocking him off the roof.

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Mail me Keith Thomasson February 11th 2002