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The Bent Wheel - Chapter 13

The Fiction of Donald William Thomasson
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Red line

XIII

There was something eerie about the way the voices echoed faintly but distinctly up the boxed in stairway. The discussion was matter of fact, a cold blooded analysis of ways and means. A sudden attack, then the bodies would be loaded into weighted hampers and dumped in the sea.

Since Jimmy hoped that these plans would never be put into action, he wasted little time listening to them. Instead, he made a rapid survey of the first floor of the house, moving in cat like silence. Then he pointed upwards, to indicate a return to the upper floor, where he issued precise instructions.

'Take the sheets off the beds and tie them end to end. Then tie one end to this bed, and chuck the other end out of the window.'

'They'll never reach the ground.'

'They don't have to. Hurry up.'

Ignoring Pat's rebellious expression, he went to the window and opened it wide, making as little noise as he could. Peering down into the darkness, he could see enough to confirm his suspicion that there was no practicable way out of the yard at the back of the house. They might climb a fence into another yard, but the surrounding houses formed a closed barrier. Even if they found an exit, it would probably be too late.

When the improvised rope was in position, he led the way down to a first floor bedroom at the rear of the house. Closing the door carefully he turned on the light and glanced round at the furniture, which was ancient and solid. His eyes began to dance with quiet amusement. 'Pat, will you clear everything off the washstand while I get the window open?'

Mystified but hopeful, Pat moved a wash bowl and other items to the bed, leaving the massive marble top clear. Jimmy viewed the result with satisfaction.

'Right. First, we have to balance the top of the washstand on the window sill. Steady... Now put the china back on it. Yes, that thing too... Now put out the light and open the door a crack so that we can see what happens.'

'What are you going to do?'

'Tip this lot into the yard. It should make a very nice crash. I'm hoping that some of them will go into the yard to investigate and that the others will go upstairs. By the time they realise the sheets are a red herring, we might be on our way, with luck. All set?'

Giving a mighty heave to upset the marble slab, he immediately closed the windows, the sound of this being masked by an extremely satisfactory explosion of noise from the yard outside. Before the echoes had died away, there was the tramp of heavy feet on the stairs, and they caught a glimpse of Sam and another man hurrying past and disappearing up the second flight. Without hesitation, Jimmy pulled Pat across the landing and down the lower stairs. The ground floor room was empty, and they only had to open the door and step into the street.

That was fine, as far as it went, but it was not enough. Jimmy wanted to get back to the Weslake and pick up his car, so that they could get away to a safer place. If they went on foot, Sam might get to the Weslake first. Ah! Perhaps they could take his car...

It was a relief to find that the car was still in the cul-de-sac, and an even greater relief to find that the doors were unlocked and the key in the ignition switch. Blessing Sam's reprehensible carelessness, Jimmy started the engine and backed out into West Street.

The obvious route to the Weslake would have taken them past the house they had just left, so Jimmy chose the opposite direction. Glancing in the mirror he saw three men tumble into the street, and was thankful that they were almost immediately masked by a bend in the road. Fury at being outwitted might have made them overlook the dangers of using guns in the middle of a sleeping town.

Half an hour later, Jimmy was driving his own car through a maze of lanes at more than comfortable speed. They had stayed at the Weslake just long enough to collect the rest of their belongings, and had then departed in haste, climbing the hill out of Monckton with the exhaust note howling defiance at the men they had left behind.

After some ten miles in the lanes, Jimmy eased back the throttle and began to cruise, the exhaust emitting a quiet burble that was less likely to attract attention. Pat, who had been bewildered by their twists and turns, asked where they were, and Jimmy laughed. 'Where would you think?'

'I haven't the foggiest. Somewhere west of Monckton. I can't improve on that.'

'I hope you're wrong, because I think we're due east of the place. What's this coming up? Chideock? Yes, bang on the nose. Now, if we can sneak across the main road without being seen, we should be able to park undisturbed and decide what we do next.'

When he had turned the car to face towards the main road again, the utter silence was almost oppressive, though after a while they could hear a faint whisper of surf somewhere behind them. Jimmy pulled out a rug. 'Might as well keep warm. This road only leads down to the sea, and I doubt if we'll see another car coming down it until morning.'

'That's one blessing.' Pat carefully shared out the rug and tucked in the edges. 'Do I gather you mean to stay here for the rest of the night?'

'There may be no alternative. If we go traipsing about the main roads we might be spotted, and the chance of finding a place open and with vacant rooms is pretty slim.'

'You seem sure they'll be looking for us. Won't they be too busy trying to explain the noise to the neighbours?'

Laughing, Jimmy said that was quite possible. 'But it would be silly to take risks. We might try Henry Lessor. He ought to be told about this.'

'He may know already. That letter...' Pat broke off the listen to the sound of a fairly powerful engine not far away. The glow of headlights was visible in the direction of the main road, but the engine note paused and the light beam swung round to point in their direction. Pat snorted. 'I thought you said no one would use this road tonight.'

The headlights appeared round the last bend in the road, and Jimmy reached for the self starter as the other car coasted to a stop beside them. However, a cheerful voice made him relax.

'Excuse me. Are we right for West Bay?'

Jimmy laughed. 'Only if you're amphibious.'

'Oh! That's a nice thought, but we've already failed to get through a simple ford without drowning the engine, so we'd better not risk it.' In response to a rebellious noise from the driving seat, the spokesman became plaintive. 'Steady on, Ieuan, it's only a practice run, and we're nearly home now. You should be able to turn somewhere down here, as long as you don't overshoot and land us in the water.'

Calling out thanks, the car sped away. Almost immediately, however, it came back and stopped again. This time the driver was the spokesman. 'Colin, being a mere navigator, never thought to ask if you were all right. I mean, you aren't stuck, or anything?'

'Only for a place to sleep.' Jimmy grinned into the darkness. 'You don't happen to know a nice all night motel hereabouts, I suppose?'

After a brief conference in the other car, the driver called out. 'Look, we're staying in a camp near West Bay. It isn't exactly palatial, but I'm sure we could find room for you somewhere. Why not tag along and see? In fact, if you know the area, it might be a good idea if you led the way. Colin's a bit off form tonight.'

This offer was accepted without hesitation, and they were soon on the move. By cutting down towards Eype it was possible to bypass Bridport, and they would only be on the main road for something over a mile. That seemed to constitute an acceptable risk in exchange for shelter and company.

The camp proved to be a mixture of caravans, tents and chalets clustered round a large hut serving as a communal dining and recreation hall. Jimmy and Pat were welcomed by one and all, especially after their car had been surrounded by an admiring crowd.

The whole camp had been taken over by a motor car club which was trying out the idea of a holiday designed for motor sport enthusiasts. There was a navigational run of some sort each evening, and by day there were driving tests and a mild form of autocross.

It was intended that the night sorties would provide experience for budding navigators. There were no time checks, and each team was given a set of envelopes which they could open if they got lost. Tokens could be picked up at the checkpoints to prove that they had been visited, and honour required that a team should return with a complete set of tokens and all envelopes intact. Colin admitted that he and Ieuan had yet to come anywhere near such a glorious achievement.

The holiday had tended to become somewhat nocturnal, and though it was long past midnight the main hut was packed with members discussing the latest outing. Jimmy listened with great interest, for what was being said tended to confirm his doubts about finding back routes without a navigator. Asked for his opinion, Ieuan agreed wholeheartedly.

'It's a nice thought. Less weight to carry. There's a psychological point, too. I would only have myself to worry about, and if I did run into trouble I might be able to make sure that the nearside got the worst of it. Colin would object to that if he was with me. But you'd never stay on course. It's bad enough with someone else doing the map reading.'

Colin said the idea reminded him of a story he had heard. 'Wasn't it Mike who told us about a man who tried to do without a navigator?'

Laughing, Ieuan said that anything was possible in Mike's stories. 'Let's ask him. Hey, Mike, come over here. One of your improbable stories is wanted.'

Mike proved to be one of the older members, a mournful looking individual who smoked an ancient pipe and affected a sardonic chuckle which was never allowed to disturb the sadness of his expression. When the required story had been identified, he nodded gloomily. Removing his pipe and giving it a shake, he said 'You means Sykie. That man was a nut case.'

'Nut case or not, there's a chap here who wants to hear about him. I know you're longing to tell the story, so you might as well be sociable.' Ieuan introduced Jimmy and Pat, saying that they were temporary members. Mike almost brightened up.

'Welcome to the madhouse. Sykie? Well, let's see. Sykie was fast. A bit too fast, really. He didn't often bend anything, but he was expected to have a bad crunch at any moment, and navigators were reluctant to team up with him. In fact, the supply ran out. Nobody would play, and Sykie got peeved. He said if no one would navigate for him he'd do it himself. That got a big laugh, which made him more peeved than ever, and he stalked off in high dudgeon, muttering curses on our heads.

'In those days, the Moonlight was run in mid-Wales. All around the old sheet 128, like the Welsh Marches Rally. Good stuff, guaranteed to put navigators in a straight jacket and pretty hard on the drivers and cars, too.

'Sykie turned up alone. There was nothing in the regulations to stop him competing without a navigator, and we could make sure he didn't baulk anyone by making him last starter. If he passed cars in front of him, they had only themselves to blame.

'It was straightforward A to B to C stuff, with the mandatory points defined by map references, plus a few special sections thrown in for good measure. They call them selectives these days. Those were on forestry land off the main road, and the set times were supposed to be impossible. Apart from the initial run in from the start, and a midway recovery section, you needed to press on and avoid making mistakes in either driving or navigation.

'At the first control, near Old Radnor, Sykie got in with seconds to spare, and everyone grinned quietly. If he was late on the run in, what was going to happen in the tight sections?

'The crew from that control went on to Knuckles, after the first selective on Bailey Hill. Everyone was swearing and sweating, and no one had a clean card. Just as they were laughing at the thought of the astronomical total Sykie would have accumulated, he turned up well ahead of some earlier starters, having collected only a two minute penalty on one of the easier road sections.

'By the end of the rally, that two minute penalty had grown to ten, but it was still good enough for second place, fifty second behind the winner. Sykie was most annoyed, saying he would do better next time, now he knew where he had gone wrong.'

Jimmy laughed. 'And did he?'

'No.' Mike obviously wished that he had a better end to the story. 'We never saw him again. I don't know what happened to him. There was a rumour about some legal trouble, but that could be slander.'

Pat, seeing the importance of the story to Jimmy's theory, asked Mike if he knew how it had been done, but he shook his head. 'I'm not sure. The only clue was that he had a small tape recorder strapped to the passenger seat, and he was wearing one of those little ear pieces, like a deaf aid.'

'Oh, come on!' Ieuan was laughing uproariously. 'You aren't suggesting that he recorded the route in advance, are you? When would he do that?'

'Well, remember that he was late on the easy run in, and lost time on another easy section. Maybe he stopped and plotted the route when he thought there was time to spare. I'm only guessing.'

Jimmy drew Ieuan aside for a quiet word. 'What's on tomorrow night?'

Ieuan grimaced. 'Theoretically, a run to be planned by Colin and myself, if we ever get round to it.. Why, have you some alternative in mind?'

'Could be.'

'Then you'd better tell Mike. He's supposed to coordinate the programme.'

Before Jimmy could do this, however, Pat had a question to put. 'Sykie... That seems an odd name, Mike.'

'Ah! It's a bit complicated. First, we thought he was a thorough rogue, and some people called him Bill Sykes, but that might not have stuck if it hadn't been for something else. You've heard of Psyche, who was fancied by Eros, and flew about on butterfly wings? Well, butterfly wings wouldn't have been much use to Sykie. He must have weighed a ton.'

A beatific smile began to spread over Jimmy's face. 'Tallish, black hair cut short, and a bulbous nose. Very talkative?'

'That's right.' Mike looked surprised. 'Do you know him, then?'

'I rather think I do.' Jimmy smiled more broadly than ever. 'Yes, I rather think I do.'

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Red line

Mail me Keith Thomasson February 11th 2002