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The Fiction of Don Thomasson
The Bent Wheel - Chapter 9

The Fiction of Donald William Thomasson
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IX

The experiment which Jimmy had in mind could best be carried out in the evening, when there was less traffic about, but a certain amount of advance planning was needed. He was also beginning to feel very hungry. While he was seriously worried about Pat, he saw that there was little he could do at the moment to find out where she was. Common sense suggested that he would be better occupied in more practicable ways.

Finding a cafe in Bridport where he could obtain a meal midway between a belated lunch and an early high tea, he propped up his maps so that he could study them while he ate, and considered his plan between mouthfuls.

The scheme involved driving from the Bent Wheel to the first map reference point, at Abbotsbury Castle, using byways to skirt round any points on the main roads where a road block might be established. Picking such a route was not an easy task. The A35 through Charmouth and Bridport lay too close to the coast to allow any deviation to the south, and he would have to begin by swinging north, then aiming to cross the main road somewhere east or west of Bridport.

He rather regretted giving Lessor the newer map, which might have provided better guidance. A long deviation would be needed to avoid the main road between Chideock and the turning to Eype. The other map might show a way through. However, by the time he had finished his meal he had a possible route pencilled in, and was ready to go, but it was still much too early. He began to worry about Pat again.

It had been painfully clear that she was inclined to take risks. Her acceptance of Jimmy's offer of a lift had been the first example, and walking into Gurney's garage had been another. Yet it was not simple foolishness. Something was driving her on to take risks, making her shut her eyes to danger, pushing her past the fragile boundary dividing bravery from rashness.

She had been grateful for Jimmy's help in rescuing her from difficulties, but he suspected that she had also resented the need to rely on him. That alone might have persuaded her to go off without him to a doubtful rendezvous.

It seemed improbable that her disappearance had been organised by Kellberg, which was a comfort. Whoever the 'boss' was, he could scarcely be as dangerous as the proprietor of the Bent Wheel.

Shaking his head, Jimmy drove westwards in a pessimistic mood. Pulling into a lane short of the restaurant, the one which he had used the night before, he decided to snatch an hour's sleep. For some people, sleep will only come when they are physically and mentally relaxed, but Jimmy had the knack of sleeping in the most improbable circumstances. Promptly at the end of the intended hour, he awoke refreshed and alert. It was time to go to the Bent Wheel.

There was really no need to go near the place for the purpose of the experiment, but Jimmy wanted to see Kellberg's reaction to his appearance. After the barman had provided Jimmy with a schooner of sherry - poured under Jimmy's watchful eye - the proprietor appeared, looking wary.

'How nice to see you again, Mr Ferguson.'

Jimmy was delighted to seize on the error. 'I can't imagine how you know my name, Mr Kellberg. How very clever of you.'

Visibly shaken, Kellberg rallied well. 'Ah, in this business we have our little secrets. And you are a man in the news since you found a body under your bed.'

Mildly raising his eyebrows, Jimmy remarked that there had been no report of the incident in the papers, but Kellberg had recovered and was blandly at ease.

'Not only the newspapers carry news, you know. Especially in this part of the world. Someone from Monckton told me about it. But are you alone tonight?'

Jimmy's eyes narrowed, but he answered naturally enough. 'Yes. Miss Hale wasn't about when I left this morning. We got back very late, and she was probably sleeping it off.'

'You were not so late leaving here.' Kellberg tried to make a joke of it, but his eyes were watchful.

'No, we can't blame you. We found a nice quiet spot out on the Common, but before we'd been there a couple of minutes we both dropped off to sleep. By the time we woke up, we were cold and stiff, so we went straight home. Not exactly what I had in mind.'

'Most unfortunate.' Kellberg attempted to sound sympathetic. 'And tonight - you will be dining?'

'I'm afraid not.' Jimmy sounded regretful. 'I must get back and see if Miss Hale has recovered. I left a note saying I would meet her at eight. Perhaps I could have one of those excellent sandwiches that I can see behind the bar, though, just to tide me over. We may come again on Wednesday.'

Kellberg spread apologetic hands. 'If you come early, I will try to find you a table, but we will be very crowded. It is a gala night and we have many regulars who come every week.'

When Kellberg had left him to speak to other guests, Jimmy sat in a shadowed corner by the bar, eating his sandwich thoughtfully. A gala night would make a good cover for a dozen extra cars. It was surprising that the police had not noticed the coincidence, but perhaps there were other places that were equally eligible.

Deciding that he could risk a second sherry, straight from the bottle, Jimmy found that the barman was engaged in conversation with someone out of sight behind the door giving access to the back of the bar. A few words came clearly.

'...can't get near the Boss. He's too busy. Tell him I'm going to Monckton and then the Blue Swan. I'll be back by half ten.'

The voice sounded familiar, and recognition was confirmed when a burly figure passed him on the way to the door. It was the man who had been with Kellberg in the secret room, Peter Mays. Unnoticed in his corner, Jimmy wondered what errand the man had in Monckton, and where the Blue Swan might be.

But it was time to begin his experiment, and he waved goodbye to Kellberg and went out to the car. After a quick glance at the map to refresh his memory, he started his wrist stopwatch and drove off.

At first, he stayed on the main road, but before long he was in a narrow lane. Dipping into the valley of the Axe, he threaded his way through Colyton, finding the route more by luck than by sure knowledge.

Whitford and Musbury led to a steep climb, then a ridge road. At a bridge over an abandoned railway Jimmy was anxiously looking for the next turning. Seeing it at the last moment, he swung left at crossroads, heading north as fast as he dared. Since leaving the main road, he had seen few cars on the move, but if one appeared in front of him there would be little room to pass.

Crossing the main A35 near Hunter's Lodge, he plunged into rougher country, where the hills were steep and the lanes tortuous. He had covered twenty miles in less than half an hour, but his speed now began to fall, and he was at fault when an expected signpost failed to appear. Stopping both car and watch, he scanned the map intently, but it took minutes to locate his error.

Car and watch restarted, he found his way round Whitchurch Canonicorum and out onto the old Roman road to Dorchester. Bypassing Bridport to the north, he emerged, after one more pause for a map check, on the windy heights of Eggardon Hill.

Ninety minutes after leaving the Bent Wheel, he was hurrying towards Abbotsbury. His watch showed that his actual running time had been little more than an hour, during which he had covered some forty five miles, thirty five of them in lanes.

The result both supported and undermined his theory. It was certainly possible to keep up a high average speed in the lanes, but it was only too easy to get lost. If he could see a solution to that, his theory might be validated.

Henry Lessor was waiting for him at the layby, and he was inclined to agree with Jimmy's own assessment of the matter. They discussed the possibilities for a while, but in the end Jimmy had to let his major preoccupation show. 'Er - any news of Miss Hale?'

He had tried to speak casually, but he tried a little too hard. Lessor glanced at him sharply, and then gave a sympathetic grin. 'I'm afraid not. I was forgetting that you aren't really one of us. We get hardened, and protect ourselves by taking an impersonal attitude. Otherwise, we'd never be able to concentrate on the job. I'm sure the police will find her. Don't worry too much.'

Jimmy looked a little sheepish, but Lessor patted his shoulder. 'Don't get the wrong idea. I would prefer to be doing something about her myself, but I know I'd only get in the way. Oddly enough, your attitude is making me realise how upset I'd be if something drastic happened to her. I suppose the personal feelings are there all the time, but we push them down out of sight. The best thing we could do is to find out more about the people we're up against. Got any more rabbits you can pull out of your hat?'

Jimmy shook his head doubtfully. 'Nothing very meaty. I heard a scrap of talk at the Bent Wheel, but I don't know enough to interpret it. One of Kellberg's people was off to Monckton and then to a place, presumably a pub, called the Blue Swan. Where that might be, I haven't the slightest idea.'

'About a mile from where we're standing. Lessor pulled out a map. 'Smack in the middle of Abbotsbury. Just here, in fact.'

Jimmy stared at the map without really seeing it, an idea taking shape in his mind. If the Blue Swan was linked with Kellberg, it might lead on to the 'boss', and thence to Pat.

Suddenly he snatched the map out of Lessor's hands and peered at the place to which the rubicund man had been pointing. Lessor got out a torch, since dusk was now falling. When he shone it on the map, Jimmy gave a great sigh. 'I don't suppose you had occasion to mark the Blue Swan with a pencilled cross.'

'I certainly did not.' Lessor peered at the map incredulously. 'I only know it as a pub with drinkable beer.'

'This is the map I gave you this afternoon?' Jimmy barely waited for Lessor's nod. 'I thought so. It belongs to Sam Williams, and it was in the car when we arrived here this afternoon. Pat must have used it last night.'

'And marked the map reference she was given!' Lessor was suddenly excited. 'Steady, now. No use dashing in yelling 'The Marines are here!'. We've got to work it out.'

Jimmy looked at his companion with a ghost of a grin. 'Those subconscious feelings you mentioned seem to be taking control. I'm cool enough. And I have worked it out. I'll go down and spy out the land. You find a phone box and arrange official support, then follow me in. How long will you need to get a posse on its way?'

'Ten minutes, maybe less. They could be here in another ten or fifteen. There are two bars. I suggest the one on the left as you go in.'

'OK. See you in ten minutes.'

By the time Lessor had got to his car, Jimmy was half way down the hill leading to Abbotsbury. Coolness was one thing. Wasting valuable time was a totally different matter.

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Mail me Keith Thomasson February 11th 2002