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The Bent Wheel - Chapter 8

The Fiction of Donald William Thomasson
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VIII

Jimmy was quite used to situations which threatened danger to himself, but this was the first time he had ever been concerned about danger to someone else. As his imagination reviewed the possibilities, the intensity of his alarm stifled all other thought. It was only with a stern effort that he forced himself to take a cold shower to clear his brain. Then he was able to think properly.

That note Pat had received when they got back from the Bent Wheel... Tired as she was, it must have made her go out again. On foot? No. She would have taken Sam's car, as she had done before. That could be checked easily enough. The car lived in a lean-to shed behind the hotel.

The shed was empty. Was Sam missing, too? Jimmy marched into the porter's room with scant ceremony. Remembering the way Sam had greeted him, it seemed possible that the porter was associated with Farnfield, and this gave Jimmy an inspiration based on what he had read in the notebook.

'Wake up, forty-five. Where's eighty-one?'

Sam's eyes opened slightly, then opened wider. 'Who are you, then?'

'Never mind that. Miss Hale never slept in her bed last night, and she hasn't come back. Did you lend her your car?'

Massaging a scrubby chin, the porter sat up and thought for a moment, then put a leg out of bed. 'I'd better get up. I wouldn't sleep, after this.' He began to dress, talking as he moved about the room. 'You seem to know a lot, so I suppose there's no harm in telling you. That message she picked up last night was from number one, telling her to meet him at once.'

'From Farnfield? He's still in hospital. Did you check?'

Scratching his scalp frowsily, the porter shook his head. 'There was the proper authentication. If you don't know what that is, I can't tell you. I was a bit surprised that he was out so soon, I admit.'

'You could have checked with the hospital. Remember, they probably got Weston's papers, and that may have given the code away.'

Somewhat flummoxed by this, Sam stood rasping his chin helplessly. Jimmy looked at him in disgust. 'Get a shave and freshen up while I ring the hospital.'

After some impatient wrestling with Directory Enquiries, Jimmy got through to Basingstoke, and he was soon back in Sam's room. 'He's still in hospital. What was the message.'

Sam quailed before Jimmy's ferocity. 'Just the instruction to meet Farnfield and a map reference.'

'What map reference?'

'I don't remember. It was none of my business.'

Even after a wash and a shave, Sam was a mere shadow of his usual self, a rather gaunt specimen with shifty eyes. However, Jimmy had no reason to suspect that he had heard anything but the truth. The man was obviously scared stiff.

There was not the slightest clue to Pat's destination, let alone to where she might subsequently have been taken, but Jimmy saw a slender chance. 'Right! You're going to ring the police and report that your car has been stolen. It's just possible that they may find it. That may not help much, but it's better than nothing.'

For a further hour and a half, Jimmy suffered the tortures of purgatory. Then the police rang through to say that the car had been found near Abbotsbury Castle. Within seconds, Sam had been persuaded into the passenger seat of Jimmy's car, and they were speeding away through the town.

With something useful to do, Jimmy found that his mind was working more effectively, and he realised that there was a point he had missed. He shouted a question at Sam, who was hanging on for dear life, clearly petrified by the speed at which they were going. The question had to be repeated before he responded.

'The call came at about eight o'clock. I explained that she was out, so I was told to pass the message.'

Jimmy considered the timetable. At eight, they had just begun their meal, and Kellberg was planning to drug them, unaware that another trap had been set. But after Kellberg's telephone conversation with the boss it would have been natural to cancel the bogus message and leave Pat to Kellberg's tender mercy. Unless, of course, the boss had little faith in Kellberg...

Their speed increased, and Sam appeared to be praying. The road between Monckton and Bridport is like an overgrown switchback, swinging steeply over the ridges and valleys that run down to the coast. Sedate drivers may be able to find the time to admire the view, but Jimmy's eyes were focused on the road ahead. He was in a hurry, and was using his car's considerable performance to the full.

A comparatively slow passage through Bridport gave Sam momentary relief, then they were on the coast road, with their speed rising again as they climbed from sea level to a height of nearly six hundred feet. Below to their right lay the waters of Lyme Bay, the majestic curve of Chesil Beach stretching out to the distant Isle of Portland. As they climbed, the view opened out into one of the great spectacles of southern England, but neither Jimmy nor Sam spared it a glance. Jimmy was too busy watching the road ahead, and Sam's eyes were turned heavenwards so that he couldn't see what was coming next.

Near the crest of the climb, just short of the sudden drop into Abbotsbury, Jimmy saw Sam's car, a battered Austin Mini, parked in a layby on the seaward side of the road. Braking to a stop with the front bumpers of the two cars almost touching, he leapt out, Sam following more slowly.

The car was empty, unlocked and cold. The ignition key was in place, as if the last driver had stepped out for a moment to enjoy the view. Sam said nothing was missing. 'They even left my binoculars.'

'Just what we need.' Jimmy stretched out a long arm and began to study the surroundings. Abbotsbury itself was hidden by a hill shoulder, and there was little else that interested him. Nor did the car seem to provide any clue. The layby seemed an odd place to choose for an abduction, though it would probably have been deserted at four in the morning. On the whole, Jimmy felt that it was not the place identified by the map reference Sam had forgotten. The car was pointing the wrong way, for one thing.

'Sam... You'd better take your car back and ring the police to tell them you've got it and that Miss Hale is missing. What's that map on the back seat? It looks a lot more recent than mine. You can have it back tonight. On your way.'

Left on his own, Jimmy sat in his car trying to think what to do next. To occupy his mind, he began to copy the twelve map references to Sam's map, which showed a number of relevant differences when compared with his own. At the same time, he rubbed out the original markings, not wanting to have too many versions in existence.

Cars had stopped at the layby from time to time, their occupants obviously holiday makers wanting to enjoy the view, but Jimmy paid them no attention. A quiet voice in his ear therefore came as something of a shock. Looking up, Jimmy saw the rubicund face of Henry Lessor.

'Admiring the view?'

Jimmy's response was superficially cordial, but he was a little wary as he invited Lessor to come aboard. The rubicund man seemed equally wary, although he accepted the invitation willingly enough.

'I feel it's time we had another talk, Mr Ferguson.'

'About what?' Jimmy's eyes were watchful, but he kept his voice level and casual in tone.

'Oh, I don't know...' Lessor's voice was also casual. 'Murder... Arson...'

'Meaty subjects.' Jimmy braced himself, wondering what was coming. 'Did you find me by chance, or did you expect me to be here?'

'I guessed you were here or hereabouts. A report about a missing car was passed to me, and then I heard you were passing through Bridport and heading for Burton Bradstock. Putting the reports together, I thought you might be coming to pick up the car.'

'You've obviously been keeping pretty close tabs on me. May I ask why?'

'I thought you might help me to find certain things I'm looking for, that's all.'

'Are you looking for Miss Hale?'

Lessor stiffened visibly. 'Why should I be doing that?'

'She's been missing since about half past three this morning.'

'Has she, now...' Lessor's casual tone had gone. He sounded grim. 'You'd better do some talking. You know too much. You're not one of us, but you can't pretend you aren't involved. Who are you?'

'I might ask you that.' Jimmy had a sudden inspiration. 'Unless you're a south dozen...'

This startled Lessor. 'I'm damned. You do know too much. Yes, I'm S12. What do you answer to?'

'James Arbuthnot Ferguson. No more, no less. What were you due to do at ten last Saturday morning?'

Lessor's eyes twinkled. 'Caution personified. I was to meet number one at that time. Good enough? Now tell me how you know all this.'

'Out of a notebook I picked up after Farnfield crashed. I should have handed it to the police, but I forgot.'

'Geoff always writes in code.' Lessor was puzzled.

'Here's a transcript. I decoded it this morning.'

'The hell you did! That'll shake the old man, and not many things do that. Let's have a look.'

After a rapid scan through the pages Jimmy passed to him, he looked up with a mock severe expression. 'You aren't safe to have around. I suspected that anyway, but now I'm quite sure. Look, we've got a fair idea of what you did on Saturday and Sunday, up to the point where you drove out of a blazing garage. What did you do after that?'

'Sat on a roof watching someone spread diamonds on a table and put them into small packets. How's that, for a start?'

Lessor's jaw dropped. 'Where?'

'Place called the Bent Wheel. Know it?'

'Of course I do. Now you tell me, it's the obvious place. Come on, I want the complete story, in reasonable detail and as fast as you can tell it.'

Jimmy did his best to oblige, while Lessor made scribbled notes. At the end, Lessor looked at Jimmy with something approaching awe.

'Do you realise that you've found out a damned sight more than our team and the police of three counties have discovered in three weeks? You only need to tell us how the cars vanish, and we're out of business.'

'There's Miss Hale...'

'Don't worry. We'll find her. With so much more data, it should be a great deal easier than it might have been. You leave police work to the police, and concentrate on performing miracles. We need them.'

'All right.' Despite his worries, Jimmy sounded almost cheerful. 'State your problem, and I'll see what I can do.'

Lessor looked a trifle suspicious, but he decided to take Jimmy's words literally.

'Carson started it, by telling the Exeter police that he and some of Gurney's other drivers were picking up packets of diamonds. They were told to meet a man here, a woman there, and they would be given something to take back to Gurney. At first, he didn't know what he was carrying, though he thought it was dope. Then one of the packets came open, and he saw the diamonds.'

'I wonder if some stuck to his fingers.' Jimmy seemed to find the idea amusing, but Lessor did not.

'Diamonds aren't much use to him now, are they? Anyhow, by listening when he wasn't supposed to, he found that there was going to be a 'run', as he called it, last Wednesday. He didn't know where it would start, but he thought that a number of cars would begin the trip at about ten in the evening. We laid on a massive cordon of road blocks, and checked every car. All that achieved was to annoy a large number of innocent people, not to mention a few who were not so innocent.'

'Maybe the run was cancelled.'

'It wasn't. One car crashed near Swindon. The driver was killed, but the diamonds were found in his pocket. He wasn't picked up at any of the road blocks.'

'Then he must have used back routes.'

'What back routes? The main roads in this part of the world are pretty tortuous in places, but the lanes are sheer murder. The man who crashed must have covered some ninety miles in two and a half hours. It would take that long by the main roads. You'd never average more than twenty five in the lanes.'

'That depends on the car and the driver. The problem would be finding the route. There wouldn't be time to stop and look at signposts.'

'The car that crashed was an ordinary saloon.'

'That doesn't mean much these days. It could have been hotted up. In any case, it wouldn't be necessary to use the lanes all the way, only in the danger area.'

'What do you call the danger area?'

By way of answer, Jimmy spread out Sam's map.

'Your cordon couldn't be put just anywhere. I would guess that it stretched from around Dorchester to the region of Bridgewater.'

'Full marks. That was the broad idea, with special checks on motorway access points. How did you make that guess - or have you a solid reason for it?'

'A bit of both. If the line had been further east or west there would have been more roads to watch. If you look only at the main roads, there are relatively few in the area I suggested, largely because there are limited river crossings or valleys and ridges running north and south. Quite apart from that, these map references all lie in a similar line, but off the main roads. I think they might be checkpoints. Kellberg sends the cars to the checkpoints, where someone meets them and gives further instructions.'

'That would fit in with the fragmentation of the setup. Gurney does a bit, then Kellberg, and then the 'boss', whoever he might be. Can I take this map? I'd like to study it more carefully.'

'By all means. I've got another. That one belongs to Sam, so don't lose it. You know, there doesn't seem to be anything I can do to help in finding Pat. As you said, that's a job for the police. I think I'll try an experiment to see what sort of speed is possible in the lanes.'

'That would be very useful.'

'Suppose we meet again, here, at nine tonight. Would that suit you?'

'I'm relying on you to work a miracle.'

'Produce Pat safe and sound, and I'll work any miracle you want!'

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Mail me Keith Thomasson February 11th 2002