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The Bent Wheel - Chapter 16

The Fiction of Donald William Thomasson
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XVI

Rounding the last bend before the interception point, the traveller braked sharply, seeing that two cars had apparently fallen foul of one another, their driver engaged in a slanging match over the wreckage. Mike and Russ were enjoying themselves, rehearsing all the insults that pass between a driver and his navigator in times of stress.

Pulling up close to the wreckage, the traveller opened his window and shouted angrily. Breaking off their argument, Mike and Russ walked towards the newcomer, as if to apologise or explain the situation. This was the signal for the others to go into action.

The two policemen attended to the arrest of the driver, soon discovering the packet of diamonds in his pocket. Pat clipped the green identification light into place and switched it on. Russ plugged a double earpiece into the recorder so that both he and Mike could listen, while Mike familiarised himself with the car's controls. Jimmy cleared the road and pointed the cars in the right direction. It all went like clockwork, as slickly as a well planned pit stop in a grand prix motor race.

The traveller's car looked ordinary enough, but from the way Mike tore away up the hill, it was clearly far from ordinary in performance. Jimmy had commandeered Ieuan's illegal walkie-talkie, so Russ was able to report what the car felt like.

'Fabulous! Mike is actually smiling. There are some lovely pace notes on the tape. Mike says he recognises Sykie's voice. It took me a few seconds before I could stop the recorder, so I reckon we're about half a minute behind, maybe a mile. Mike's trying to make that up.'

At the crest of the hill they found a flat stretch of road with a kink in the middle, and Jimmy's eyebrows rose when he glanced at the speedometer. Then they were heeling to a right hand turn at crossroads, followed by a dive downhill. Judging that Mike was trying out the paces of his new mount, Jimmy dropped back a little, in case Mike tried too hard. Even so, Russ was able to report calmly. 'We're catching up on the notes. Not by much. Say ten seconds a mile.'

The fact that they could exceed the planned schedule by so comfortable a margin was a relief to Jimmy. He hoped that the less experienced drivers would catch up more slowly, perhaps delaying the restart of the tape recorder.

A tight left hander in Portesham took them east towards Upwey, and before long their headlong rush eased a little, Russ reporting that they were back on schedule.

'Mike can manage without my help now, so I'd better tell you about the tape. It tells him exactly what to do and when to do it. Someone must have done a staggering job. I think they must have learned the route by heart, then driven over it at speed. Every corner is graded to severity, with a countdown to the turning point. Now that we've caught up, it's incredibly easy to stay on schedule. Mike says if I think it's that easy I should take over the wheel. He's sweating a bit. I think I'll leave it to the expert.'

A sudden left turn just beyond Upwey nearly caught Jimmy napping, and when he saw the roughness of the road surface he hastily backed up, asking Pat if there was any way round. She directed him to continue on the main road, which dived under a railway bridge, climbed to a hairpin bend and came back above the railway. While Jimmy wrestled with the steering wheel, Pat told Russ what was happening, but the short range radio link was fading rapidly as the distance between the cars grew.

At the top of Ridgeway Hill, Jimmy guessed at a right turn, since the alternative would involve a long stretch of main road. The last fragmentary message had supported this choice. Thankful that this road was reasonably straight, Jimmy kept his foot down, and the radio began to work again, little by little. Russ reported that they had forked off onto another 'white', but it was not too rough, so Jimmy decided to follow them.

After that, it was relatively plain sailing, apart from a detour round a built up area south of Moreton station. Reaching the main road east of Bere Regis, having covered twenty three miles in a hectic half hour, which Jimmy thought was not at all bad given the terrain involved, Russ reported that the worst was over. 'We've been told to turn the recorder off and head for a point near Guildford, defined by a map reference. We're allowed an hour and three quarters for ninety miles. No problem. I've opted for Romsey and Alton, because I know that route.'

On Jimmy's instructions, both cars stopped near Henbury roundabout for a quick conference. Jimmy asked Pat to report to Salisbury by telephone while he talked to Mike and Russ. 'The details for the handover are clear enough for the police to take over, but they may not have the right kind of car, so you'd better complete the run. Let me have the walkie-talkie. It's done its job for the moment.'

As they went on their way, Pat said that Geoff wanted a word, and Jimmy took over the phone. Geoff sounded pleased. 'Your guesses are working out very well. You'd better come and join me. How long will that take?'

Jimmy considered. 'Thirty miles? Say half an hour. We should be with you by half past twelve.'

When they reached the Salisbury base everyone was very busy. Another map table was in use, with pins and markers all over the place. Geoff waved a greeting, but was obviously preoccupied, so Jimmy turned away to talk to Colin and Ieaun, who were standing about looking disappointed and restless. Ieuan was particularly annoyed. 'The blasted man went over Wears Hill. By the time we caught on, he was through and away. I think he went down past the Swannery. Then we saw you and Mike coming down to Portesham hell for leather, so we just poodled up here. Most frustrating.'

'Never mind.' Jimmy saw that Geoff was free, and began to move away. 'We'll probably pick him up before long.'

'We have.' Geoff looked up with a smile. 'We knew his number, and he was seen at Lytchett Minster at eleven forty five. What do you think? Southampton?'

'Or beyond.' Jimmy bent over the map. 'Forty miles through Bournemouth, thirty five through Ringwood. He's probably past Southampton by now.'

Geoff picked up a phone, and Henry Lessor took up the tale. 'Car three reported from Henbury a few minutes after you did. They have to be in Virginia Water by a quarter to two. Nothing from four and five yet. Six was missed. He doubled back from the checkpoint, which was unexpected. The team saw him go, and reported at once. Nothing from the others.'

Glancing at the clock, Jimmy said that was to be expected. 'Ten is due to be intercepted about now, but seven is probably still in the lanes. They can't really stop to report until they're back on the main drag.'

They heard footsteps in the passage, and one of the club members came in, supporting his navigator, who looked rather the worse for wear. He explained that they had taken over the fourth car. 'We had an awful time in those fiendish lanes, and Pete was sick, so I thought we ought to pack it in.'

Ieuan barely let him finish. 'Where were you supposed to go?'

The driver smiled wanly. 'Windsor, two o'clock. You'll never make it.'

'We'll have a damned good try.'

Extracting the rest of the relevant information from the dazed pair, Colin and Ieuan hurried off to see if they could cover rather more than sixty five miles in an hour and a quarter. The unfortunate Pete was revived with rum and coffee, while his driver completed the tale of woe. 'The interception went all right, but it took too long, and we went like stink trying to catch up. I haven't the faintest idea where we went, except that we passed Cattistock Castle and come through Winterborne Whitechurch.'

Jimmy said that a pattern was beginning to show. 'Somewhere beyond Southampton. Guildford, Virginia Water, Windsor. The first one might be Portsmouth, or maybe Chichester. I would think that number five would come through Salisbury. Six might come through Salisbury, too. We might pick him up yet.'

Geoff agreed. 'Henry, will you see what can be laid on? What time would you expect him, Jimmy?'

'One o'clock, or just after.'

Henry bustled off, and Geoff relaxed a little. 'We're not doing too badly. What do you think will happen after the goods have been delivered?'

'I'm not sure.' Jimmy studied the markers. 'I've missed a trick there. With everyone whipping in and out, I never thought to get one of the tapes wound on to see what the final instructions were. We can do that on the next car that comes this way, perhaps.'

Geoff gave appropriate instructions, and turned to Jimmy again. 'While we wait for evidence, go on guessing.'

'One fixed point is that Mike and Russ can't leave Guildford before about one forty, and I would expect them to be told to head west, towards the centre of things. By half past two, they could be in Newbury. If the marshal leaves the last checkpoint at one, he could be in Newbury at about the same time. Mind you, this is sheer guesswork.'

'That's why I'm leaving it to you.' Geoff was bland. 'You can afford to be wrong. I can't. Besides, you guess very well.'

A clatter of feet in the passage announced the arrival of two more club members, who looked very pleased with themselves. 'Hullo! Car number five. Just looked in to report we're OK. Can't stop. Due in Aylesbury by half past two. Smashing run! Thirty miles of lovely lanes, then a glorious bash up from Blandford. Fantastic car. Wish we could keep it!'

They clattered out again, leaving everyone slightly breathless, especially the pair who had called the lanes fiendish. Jimmy hurried after them to run their tape on to look for further data. When he returned, Geoff was amused, and Jimmy grimaced. 'Yes. I know. Bang goes Newbury. From the tape, it's more to the north. I didn't have time to run it right through. What we want is a car that needn't go to the delivery point. Then we could take it to the finish early, and report back. Hallo, Henry looks pleased.'

'With good reason. You were dead right. Number six came through at three minutes past one, and we collared him with no trouble at all. The car's outside'

'Fine!' Jimmy was ready for action. 'Destination?'

'Bicester, half past two. We ran the tape back a bit to find out.'

'Get the police to cover that.' Jimmy turned to Pat, who had been watching the map movements. 'Anything interesting?'

'Number one was seen going slowly through Emsworth.'

'Nearly there. Probably Chichester.'

'They missed number seven, but they saw him go, and made some guesses, which resulted in him being picked up at a place called Fifehead Magdalen. He's in Shaftesbury police station.'

'Nice work.' Jimmy grinned happily. 'I'm glad someone else is guessing well. If he hasn't gone through yet, stop him and get him to make a second check on the finish point.'

'They should be here soon. They were delayed a bit at Shaftesbury, and didn't think they would make their delivery point in time. It was just south of Oxford.'

'Oxford! Then they'd be pushed anyway. Cutting out that bit of the run would only save about twenty miles. Well, they've been lucky once. Perhaps they'll be lucky again. Come on, let's go.'

Collecting maps from his own car, Jimmy settled into the driving seat of car number six, and Pat scrambled in beside him. In no time at all, they were heading out of Salisbury at a more than comfortable rate of knots.

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Mail me Keith Thomasson February 11th 2002