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The Fiction of Don Thomasson
The Bent Wheel - Chapter 17

The Fiction of Donald William Thomasson
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Normally, Jimmy would have treated a strange car with respect until he became familiar with its foibles, but he had no time for that as he began to press on once they were clear of the outskirts of Salisbury. Conscious that time was short, he sought a balance between speed and safety, hoping that he was still guessing well.

His destination was East Ilsley, a village on the Newbury-Oxford road. Pat had worked out the distance to be covered as forty five miles, so he was aiming to arrive between five and ten past two.

By that time, the marshal might have covered sixty miles after leaving the last checkpoint, even if he took a little time to extricate himself from the lanes. He could be within twenty five miles of East Ilsley. If it took Jimmy no more than ten minutes to reach the final checkpoint, he would be happy, but twenty minutes might be too much.

He therefore drove as hard as he dared, covering well over a mile in each minute. Beyond Andover, he was forced to ease off a little, showing more respect for the road conditions, but he completed the run by eight minutes past two.

The instructions had called for a left turn in the centre of the village, but he remembered just in time that this applied to an approach from the north, whereas he was coming from the south. Turning right, he parked at some crossroads, facing the intersection and pointing north. Then he checked his watch. 'The proper start time is three twenty three, and it's now coming up to two thirteen. Ready to follow the route on the map?'

At a thumbs up signal from Pat, he started the tape. The tiny voice in his ear gave him his orders. 'Drive as quietly as possible over this section. The road is very rough, so do not hurry. Start your engine.'

It seemed odd to be obeying Sykie's orders, and Jimmy allowed himself a wry grin.

'Straight ahead. Go!'

The lane was certainly rough, and Jimmy was glad he was not driving his own car, which had much less ground clearance. The next instruction came too soon, and he speeded up a little, bouncing over deep ruts. Climbing steadily, the track eventually levelled out on the edge of the escarpment overlooking the Vale of White Horse, and they crossed the main road near the top of Gore Hill. This was the ancient Ridgeway.

After a while, a left turn took them downhill again, by way of the roughest track yet, alternating between stony hardness and squelchy mud. That brought them to a civilised road again, and Jimmy turned left and stopped beside a small wood.

'This appears to be it. Lonely enough, in all conscience.'

The road disappeared uphill to east and west, and there was no sign on movement. Pat, efficient as always, read the map reference as 453832. 'This scrubby lot of trees on our left is Knollend Wood. We took twelve minutes to get here, so our proper time of arrival would be three thirty five. Hadn't we better be going?'

'Not yet. I want to see the lie of the land. The marshal can't get here for another twenty minutes, at least.'

'Then who's that coming now?'

From somewhere in the darkness behind them came the sound of wheels ploughing through the mud. Jimmy hurriedly turned the car round, switching on the headlights in time to see another car emerging from the stony descent. Noting a glimpse of a green light, he dipped his headlights and chuckled. The other car came to a halt alongside, and the driver wound down his window. 'Blast. You beat us to it after all.'

'Well met by moonlight.' Jimmy gave a cheerful wave. 'Only there isn't much moonlight at the moment. Is it number seven that I see before me?'

'Doctor Livingstone himself. Shall we compare notes, Mr Stanley?'

'Not here. We need a phone box, to report to Geoff. Is there one handy, Pat?'

'Two. One at Lilley, on the main road, the other at Brightwalton.'

'Lilley, then. We won't be as conspicuous on the main road.'

Pat changed places with the navigator in the other car, so that he could bring Jimmy up to date on the way to the phone box. The navigator was a thickset man, rather older than most of the club members, and he told his story succinctly. 'We missed our man. He took the route we expected six to use. I gather six doubled back. That upset things. It upset Tony, too, and he demanded a fall-back. I had to work fast, because he went off up the main road flat out. I picked Fifehead Magdalen as a good view point, and he got us there in no time at all. We left the police backup standing. Fortunately, perhaps. They might not have approved of our speed.'

'I gather your guess was good.'

'Yes.' The navigator seemed faintly surprised. 'We saw him coming miles off, and I suddenly realised that we must be on his route. After that, it was simple. I sat on his head until we got to Shaftesbury, and that was it.'

Noting the calm tone in which the story was told, Jimmy stole a quick glance at the rather craggy face beside him, and decided that no false modesty was involved. He put an urgent question. 'When do you reckon you were due at Knollend Wood - the place where we met you?'

'Three twenty, near enough.'

'Blast! That means the finishing order isn't the same as the starting order.'

'That'll make things interesting.' The navigator's voice was still placid, and Jimmy glanced at him again, but said nothing.

Geoff, on the other hand, had a good deal to say. 'Travellers one and eleven are still in their cars. We spotted the customers they met, and picked them up when the travellers had gone. The marshal went through Amesbury at about two, and hasn't been seen since. He hasn't appeared at Andover.'

'He wouldn't. He'd cut through from Weyhill to Enham Alamein, and ought to reach Newbury by two thirty five.'

'Newbury haven't seen him, either. Could he have gone through Hungerford?'

'Yes.' Jimmy was wrestling with a map, and wishing the box was bigger. 'Through Tidworth. Fast, if he knows it. Can you check?'

'They're doing that now... Yes, he went through there five minutes ago. That puts him at the finish within ten minutes!'

'We're on our way. If you can, get road blocks set up at West Ilsley and Farnborough. Let anyone in, no one out. Password 'Knollend'.' Jimmy slammed down the phone and leapt for the car. Number seven was to be left where it was, to be picked up later, and the other three were all in number six.

'How long?' The navigator put the question, and Jimmy glanced at his watch before answering.

'Not long enough. Ten minutes, at the most. Pat, you'll have to take the car on out of sight. If we left it there the marshal might be suspicious.'

'And the road blocks?' It was the navigator again.

'Twenty minutes, at least. We'll need some delaying tactics.'

'Sure.' The calm voice worried Jimmy, because it hinted at extreme self confidence.

'Pat, you've got about half a mile before cover to get out of sight. Don't use the brakes with the ignition on. You know how the stop lights show up in the dark.'

They got back to the wood by a quarter to three, the time at which the marshal was due, but there was no sign of him. Pat drove away without argument, though she suspected that Jimmy had wanted to keep her away from any possible trouble. The three men melted into the wood.

The gnarled trees provided little in the way of cover, and the clouds which had gathered earlier were clearing away, allowing the moon to appear, rather late on its cue. The navigator said that a foxhole might be useful, if there had been time to dig one, and Jimmy looked at him sharply again.

As the sound of the car died away in the distance, only the nocturnal rustlings of the wood were left, and Jimmy felt the tension growing as he watched for headlight beams. They came at last, and he gave final instructions. 'Stay here until I give the word. If anyone starts shooting, lie down flat. Heroics are out.'

The car coasted to a halt opposite the wood, stopping with a faint squeal from the brakes. The unmistakable shape of the fat man emerged and stretched. After a glance at his watch, he hesitated, and then disappeared into the trees a little way down the road. Jimmy chuckled softly. 'Call of nature. He's been on the road a long time.'

A slight movement caught Jimmy's attention, and he saw to his alarm that the navigator had slipped away towards the car, moving in uncanny silence. His driver whispered reassurance. 'Don't worry about Joe. He used to be a commando.'

What worried Jimmy was the total lack of cover, but then he heard the ghost of a click, and the car rocked slightly. Joe was inside, about to crouch down out of sight. That changed the situation entirely.

Joe had barely settled himself when a rustle of leaves heralded the fat man's return. It was now two minutes to three, and they could just hear the sound of a car coming down the rough track. The descent seemed to take ages, but the headlights appeared at last as the car swung left handed towards the wood. At that critical moment, a light touch on Jimmy's shoulder made him jump. Pat had rejoined the party. Jimmy wished she had stayed with the car.

To add to his worries, he was not certain whether the approaching car was still under the control of the original traveller, or had been taken over, but he thought there was only one occupant, and was able to confirm this when the headlights faded out. The fat man's greeting and the traveller's reply were faint but clearly audible.

'Good run?'

'Not bad. Lot of bogies about.'

'Really?' The tone expressed interest, but not concern.

'All over the shop. Just sat and watched me pass. Gave me the creeps.'

'Coincidence.' The fat man was almost impatient. 'But we'd better get you going. Two cars in a lonely place like this could be explained away, but if you're still here when the next car arrives it could look more suspicious.'

'OK. I'll get the tape.'

'And the money, I hope. You had no difficulty?'

'None. It was just those coppers that got me going.'

Jimmy was in a quandary. He could let the traveller go, but the police might not have their road blocks in position yet, and the man might escape completely. If he delayed the man's departure, it might make trouble. The next car was almost certain to have been taken over, and that could mean problems if the traveller was still around to help his fat boss.

As the traveller brought the tape back, Jimmy made up his mind. Moving quietly out of the shelter of the trees, behind the fat man's back, he cleared his throat.

The loudness of the sound after the comparative silence was startling in itself, and the reaction of the two men on the road was entirely satisfactory. The fat man swung round abruptly, the other man nearly dropped the tape, and both looked at Jimmy as if he was an intruder from another planet.

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Mail me Keith Thomasson February 11th 2002