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The Bent Wheel - Chapter 15

The Fiction of Donald William Thomasson
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Red line

XV

The exercise proper began to get under way at nine that evening. Pat had been able to snatch an hour's sleep, but Jimmy had worked non stop to perfect the last details, checking the interception parties, making sure they had all the information they might need.

Colin and Ieuan, having chosen interception point number one, perhaps with more speed than care, had gone off on a foraging expedition, returning with a dozen little self powered green lights, originally intended as navigation lights on small boats. These were to be used to mark the intercepted cars. Ieuan had also found a pair of walkie-talkies. He admitted that they were little more than toys, and probably illegal, but they might come in handy somewhere.

As with all well planned ventures, zero hour brought a lull. The Dorchester operations room was quiet as the crew awaited the first message. Thirty five miles to the west, the Devon police were watching the Bent Wheel from the cover of a convenient hedge, ready to report movements via a police car hidden nearby.

Geoff Farnfield and Henry Lessor had gone to Salisbury, leaving Jimmy in charge at Dorchester. The regular police tended to eye him warily, for Geoff had left them in no doubt that Jimmy was his deputy.

It was still not clear whether the first car would go to the northern or southern end of the chain of checkpoints, and by the time the answer was known it might be too late to pass word to the interception teams. Putting the problem to the senior police representative, a very stiff and formal inspector, Jimmy explained that the solution might come gradually.

'We'll be able to make better and better guesses as the first car goes on its way. We might know for certain after half an hour, or perhaps three quarters, but by then he would be nearly at the checkpoint.'

'I see.' The inspector ran his fingers through his hair thoughtfully. 'We have got a spare car in reserve, and I think Somerset have one, too. If they carried the message...'

'No need for both.' Jimmy was keyed up and impatient. 'Assume the north end first, barring advice to the contrary. Then the messenger can start at the southern end. I think he could skip the two southernmost points, because I'm joining the second, and if north does come first I would have time to warn the first point. They should assume south first if they don't see me.'

The inspector nodded gravely, then his stiffness was banished by a smile. 'Most ingenious. This is making a lot of work, but I must admit that it's rather enjoyable.'

There was certainly something of a festive air about the whole operation. Jimmy hoped that nothing would happen to spoil that.

For the moment, the operations room staff were gathered round a table on which lay a huge map, covering most of southern England. Standing ready were twelve wooden blocks that were to represent the travellers, as the cars were to be called, and a straggling row of red flags marking the checkpoints. Green flags a little further east marked the location of the interception teams, while blue flags showed the reserves. Looking at it all rather doubtfully, Jimmy felt that there were too many chances of something going wrong.

The first telephone call made everyone jump. A sergeant lifted the receiver with deliberate slowness and listened in silence, acknowledging the message with a grunt. Then he walked majestically across to the map table and raked three of the wooden markers into position by the Bent Wheel. In response to Jimmy's unspoken but clamorous enquiry, he condescended to explain. 'Three cars have arrived at he expected starting point, and have been parked away from the rest. It looks as if they want to be sure of being able to get out easily.'

Sketching a salute by way of acknowledgement, Jimmy felt a little foolish. It was too early for anything exciting to happen, though he felt that the news was confirmation of his belief that the run would go ahead. To salve his pride, he passed the information to Geoff, in Salisbury, and the thin voice over the line expressed the same view.

'Well, perhaps we won't be wasting our time, after all. I hope they are noting the car numbers, which may be useful later on.'

The sergeant confirmed that the numbers had been taken, and he, in turn, looked a little sheepish when Jimmy pointed out that such information should be passed to everyone concerned.

Pat, who had been seeing the interception teams on their way, reported that they had all left on schedule, and Jimmy nodded absently. Recognising his mood, she smiled and left him alone, as she had learned to do when her father was preoccupied.

Jimmy's mind was reaching out to the army of men he had helped to create, seeing in his mind what they would be doing. The interception teams would be tense and nervous, looking at their watches every minute or so, discussing their plans over and over again.

Further afield, police observation teams would be more relaxed. All they had to do was to watch for the green lights and the numbers of any cars that escaped interception. Some might see nothing at all.

On many occasions, Jimmy had found himself in such a role, but this time he was at the centre of it all, in charge, aware of what every move might mean. He found this task far more interesting.

The phones rang at various intervals, reporting that more cars had joined the segregated group at the Bent Wheel, but Jimmy took little notice. He had estimated that the run proper would start at about ten, when darkness had fallen and the roads were a little clearer. As the hour approached, he became tense, visualising the time delays that the expected message would suffer. Walkie-talkie to police car, police car to base, base to Dorchester. However, a mere seventy seconds past ten brought a call.

Once again, the sergeant took the message with agonising deliberation, put the phone down and walked over to move a marker. Then he turned to Jimmy to report. 'Suspect car left the Bent Wheel at ten o'clock, going straight along the A35.'

Nodding, Jimmy began to work out times. He could be at the Abbotsbury interception point in ten minutes, at a push, and if that came first he had forty or fifty minutes to spare. The northernmost point, on the other hand, was twenty miles away, and to get a messenger there via the interception points would take perhaps half an hour. It was decision time.

A call from Geoff, wanting some guesses, broke into Jimmy's thoughts, though Geoff admitted it was too soon for anything concrete. Jimmy did his best. 'I still think it's south first. He could go through Ottery, or turn north at Sidford. If he goes up Trow Hill, I'd expect him at Colyford or Colyton around a quarter part ten. If he was heading for the north end, I think he would have cut across to the A30.'

The sergeant listened to Jimmy's comments, and began to send out messages.

Ten seven. No message of another departure, so the interval was not five minutes. Jimmy moved the first marker on a little way, and then realised that Pat had spoken to him. 'Sorry, I'm being rude. I was visualising it all. The cars using the A35 will probably stick to the main road as long as possible, because there aren't too many back routes to the north, and none at all to the south.'

Another call came in, and the sergeant was more brisk this time. 'Up Trow Hill, as you said, sir.'

At ten past ten, Jimmy was on tenterhooks, but he had little more than a minute to wait before the departure of the second car was reported. The sergeant watched him with some amusement. 'Early days, yet, sir. They won't reach the checkpoints for the best part of an hour.'

Checking an impatient retort, Jimmy answered quietly. 'This is the critical time. If anything unexpected happens, we may need to move fast.'

Another call came, and this time Jimmy got there ahead of the sergeant. A faint voice said that the first car had passed through Colyford, which made Jimmy frown. That was still on the main road. Then the voice became excited. 'They say he turned left over by Boshill!'

'What map reference? Jimmy spoke curtly, and the man at the other end of the line pulled himself together. '264927, I make it. 'Tis a lane up to Bruckland and Combpyne.'

'Tell Hunter's Lodge to look out for him at...when did he make the turning?'

'Ten sixteen.' The distant voice sounded brisk and efficient now, and Jimmy smiled at the mouthpiece. 'Then they should see him between twenty five and thirty minutes past the hour. They may see another car ten minutes later.'

Putting the phone down, he found that the sergeant was regarding him with rather more respect. In the stress of the moment, Jimmy had used the tone of real authority, and the sergeant was seeing him in a new light.

'Right.' Jimmy spoke crisply. 'I don't think the first car will get involved with Uplyme. It's too complicated. That suggests this road over Trinity Hill and west of Hunter's Lodge. They'll look out for him there.'

'Yes, sir.' The sergeant hesitated, and Jimmy gave him an encouraging grin.

'I was thinking, sir, that this first man must have made pretty good speed. He covered that thirteen miles in no time at all.'

'Sixteen minutes. That's about fifty miles an hour. I need a calculator.'

'Fifty miles an hour over that road is fast.'

Jimmy laughed. 'I did better than that the other evening. Remember, he's probably got a fairly clear road, and will be pretty experienced. You can't apply ordinary standards.'

'I suppose not.' The sergeant shook his head doubtfully. 'If they keep up that sort of pace, we'll need to be pretty nippy.'

The phone rang again, and he put his thoughts into practice by positively jumping across to it. Jimmy could guess that this would be the third car leaving. Reports from the Bent Wheel were almost a formality, now that the pattern had been established. The police there would wait until the last car had left, then move in to arrest Kellberg and his men. Jimmy would have enjoyed watching that, but he had other commitments.

Car two passed Colyford at ten twenty six, taking the same route as the first. As Jimmy had predicted, the first car passed Hunter's Lodge one minute later. Car four left at ten thirty. The pattern was now clear, and Jimmy saw no reason to stay at Dorchester any longer.

'Sergeant, I'm on my way. Tell Mr Farnfield that I'm pretty sure the southern end comes first. I'm going up to the RAC box on Askerwell Down, and I'll ring you from there to get the latest information.'

Soaring along the arrow straight road leading out of Dorchester to the west, at a highly illegal pace, with Pat at his side, Jimmy spared time to point to the milestone where he had first met Pat, and said it was now a historic monument. Pat laughed gaily. Now that they were really in action all tension had gone, and she was no longer being ignored.

At the RAC box, not far from where they had found the lorry, they were surprised to see a car already waiting. Jimmy chuckled. 'That's the police team waiting to tour the interception points. Hi, there. You're in for an interesting run. I hope you're good at navigation.'

'We'll manage.' The police driver chuckled. 'I gather you think we're going to be needed.'

'Looks like it. Could you raise Dorchester? Ask for any news for Mr Ferguson. They'll know what I want.'

Looking out over the lower lying land towards the sea, Jimmy noted the way that headlight beams revealed the passage of cars along the coast road, three miles away. None of the travellers could have got as far as that yet, but the 'marshal' might already be in position. Suddenly remembering that he still had Sam's binoculars, he took an ironic pleasure in putting them to good use, but could see no sign of life at the Abbotsbury checkpoint.

The response to the radio enquiry was more satisfactory, since the leading car had been seen at Ryall, just north of the main road to the west of Bridport. That made a southern start virtually certain, and he said as much to the waiting police team. 'Before you go, there's one loose end. We need the number and description of the car we expect to visit the checkpoints in turn. He should cross this road about half a mile west of here at about ten to a quarter past eleven. You'll have gone by then, and so will I. Could you see if someone could cover the crossing? Try the Dorchester inspector. A private car would be best.'

This was soon arranged, the police team being impressed by the way their superior responded to the suggestion. Jimmy was too busy to notice. 'What's the time, Pat? Ten forty three? Number one covered six miles in nine minutes. Not as fast as I expected, but he could reach the first checkpoint by five to eleven. We might see him before long.'

Asking Pat to ring Dorchester, he told the police team to get going. 'Suggest eleven for the first checkpoint, and ten minute intervals thereafter. Same message to Dorchester, Pat. Hang on...'

Headlight beams had suddenly angled skyward in the vicinity of Abbotsbury Castle. Focusing the binoculars hastily, Jimmy caught a brief flash of red brake lights, then all lights were extinguished.

'Someone just arrived at checkpoint one. Ten fifty two. Can't be the first car. Must be the marshal.'

Passing the message, Pat had an immediate response. 'One passed through Burton Bradstock at ten forty six.'

'Five miles in six minutes? Possible, but unlikely. That's probably him going along the coast road. Our friend obviously believes in close timing.'

'Aren't you cutting things a bit fine yourself?' Pat had left the box to stand by Jimmy's side. 'We have to get down to the interception point, you know.'

'Don't panic.' Jimmy chuckled. 'There's a quarter of an hour to spare, at least. Look, there he goes. Five to eleven. Remember, the marshal has a long run to the second point, so perhaps he's giving himself a bit of leeway.'

A second set of headlights had angled up near the ancient castle mound, and there was again a brief flash of brake lights. Jimmy relaxed, and asked what else Pat had heard from Dorchester, but before she could answer the bell in the box shrilled, making them jump. Geoff was calling to check progress. Standing as far from the box as the wires allowed, Jimmy gave a quick round up. Geoff said that car two had passed through Shipton Gorge a few minutes before. 'You'd better be on your way, if you're to help with the interception.'

'I can see his lights coming up the valley. He doesn't know what's in store for him. Mike and his navigator Russ Simson, for a start. No hurry yet. Hullo, someone has switched on his lights at checkpoint one. Now, is that the traveller, or the marshal? The marshal I think. He's turned right onto the coast road. Getting away early, because of the long run to the second point. Even so, the interception can't be earlier than eleven thirteen, and it isn't eleven yet.'

At precisely eleven, the first traveller left the checkpoint, using a rough track across Wears Hill. Jimmy smiled grimly. That would upset Colin and Ieuan, who had been sure that the man would come through Abbotsbury itself. One interception looked doomed to failure.

Even Jimmy had to admit it was time to be moving. Pat was already in the car as he ran to it, and he got away with a real racing start, driving on sidelights alone. He had seen how revealing headlights could be. A mile and a half from the RAC box, he swung right-handed into a lane that dropped headlong into the valley, cutting his sidelights and coasting down in ghostly silence. Somewhere to the right, a headlight beam suddenly vanished, and he braked early for the tee junction at the foot of the hill.

'Number two checkpoint. If I make too much noise, he might get the wind up.'

Picking his way through Long Bredy, with the sidelights on again, he used his engine cautiously for the gently climb round the side of Whatcombe Down. As he came within sight of the interception point he risked a headlight flash, an agreed signal, and saw the team waiting by the roadside.

The team were all anxious to know what had been happening, but Jimmy pointed to his watch. 'You've got six minutes, at the outside. No time for talk.'

'If he comes this way.' Mike, as usual, was pessimistic.

'Not much alternative. Let's stage a crash to block the road, but look out for headlights coming this way. And look out for anyone coming the other way. We don't want to catch anyone by mistake.'

At precisely eleven ten, headlights glowed some two miles to the west, followed by a second glow. Both wavered as they moved off, and Jimmy watched anxiously until one turned away to the north, the other coming more or less straight towards them. As the second car cleared Long Bredy, Jimmy knew the interception point was right, and he called out in triumph.

'Here he comes! Stand by boarding party!'

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Red line

Mail me Keith Thomasson February 11th 2002