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The Fiction of Don Thomasson
The Bent Wheel - Chapter 1

The Fiction of Donald William Thomasson
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Red line

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Red line

Prologue

Early in the morning of a summer Saturday, two open sports cars of unusual and identical design were heading out of London in a south-westerly direction. After a while, one car caught up with the other, and the drivers exchanged cheerful waves. Thereafter, it was natural that they should run in company. In these days of tight little hardtops and saloons, the design of the cars was an anachronism, for they were open tourers with distinctive lines that were known to many motoring enthusiasts, and especially to followers of motor racing.

The hardy dawn-risers had gone on their way, and the more leisurely travellers who would soon jam the roads to suffocation were still yawning over breakfast, so conditions were ideal for civilised motoring. On the broad emptiness of the M3, the two drivers played a gentle game of challenge and reply, but in a very low key.

The end was all the more surprising. On a sweeping right-hand curve the leading car went straight on, making no attempt to follow the road. With a flurry of branches it disappeared into undergrowth, having found a gap in the roadside barriers.

Pulling up with a squeal of protest from his tyres, the other driver ran back to find the runaway overturned and empty. One front wheel was still spinning idly, but the other was too buckled and bent to turn at all.

Red line

I

Kicking the rough turf in idle frustration, Jimmy Ferguson reflected that this was one hell of a way to start a holiday. He had set out early in an attempt to avoid the worst of the traffic, and it was beginning to look as if the effort had been wasted. The broad expanse of the motorway was filling up ominously.

The wrecked car still lay where it had come to rest, its course marked by a long swathe through the undergrowth, cut in line with the road it had left. Not far away, ambulancemen were kneeling by a stretcher, preparing to take the injured driver to hospital.

It hadn't been his fault, poor devil. Jimmy had seen him fighting with the steering wheel as the car veered off the road, but there had been no change of direction whatsoever. There had clearly been a failure in the steering, and Jimmy wondered whether the same thing might happen to his own car, twin to the one that had crashed.

The policeman at Jimmy's side finished writing in his notebook and asked a further question. Jimmy shook his head. 'No, I didn't know him at all. I would never have noticed him if he hadn't been driving this car. It was rather a coincidence, in a way. There isn't another car like these two. They were built for the track, originally, but when the owner gave up racing he had them converted to road trim. Then he died of a heart attack, and the cars were put up for sale. I decided to buy one, and I was just in time. The first had already been sold, and there was another customer breathing down my neck. Fortunately I had cash, and he wanted terms.'

Nodding noncommittally, the policeman suggested that the cars were probably very fast. Jimmy cocked a reproachful eyebrow. 'I won't know the answer to that until I try her on a track. I think the engines were detuned a bit, but they should still make a hundred and fifty at a push. That's about twice what we were doing.'

Accepting this without comment, the policeman scanned what he had written, then closed his notebook. 'I think that covers everything, but I'll have to ask you to stay around while I check with my colleague.'

Strolling over to the wreck, Jimmy resumed his idle kicks at the turf. In one sense, he wished he had been miles away at the time of the accident, which had raised doubts regarding the safety of his own car, and looked like spoiling at least the start of a long-anticipated holiday. On the other hand, he was glad that he had been able to get prompt attention for the casualty, who might otherwise have remained in the bushes for a long time before anyone discovered him. As it was, prompt treatment should ensure that no lasting harm came from his broken arm and concussion, which were believed to be the worst of his injuries.

The kicking dislodged something, which provided on closer inspection to be a small black notebook. Looking around for the police, Jimmy saw that they were some distance away, so he slipped the book into his pocket for safe keeping, and turned his attention back to the wreck.

What had failed? Tracing the steering linkage through, he noted that some parts were bent, but that was only to be expected. What interested him more was a broken link, because the break looked rather odd. Called to express an opinion, the policemen were equally interested. 'Neat bit of hacksaw work, I'd say.' The senior man rubbed his chin. 'Did you expect to find something of the sort?'

'I did not.' Jimmy was emphatic. 'I assumed there had been a normal breakage, which might happen on my car. A fatigue failure, perhaps. This looks like murder.'

'Well, attempted murder, I hope... I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to come along to the station and make a statement. Sorry to delay you further, but we could take a look at your steering while you're there, and make sure someone didn't play the same trick twice.'

Dice Divider

Jimmy found the rest of the morning and the early afternoon rather tedious. The wreck was removed to a police garage and placed beside his own car, both raised on ramps so that the steering gear could be examined and photographed. The cheerful chief mechanic said it was like a 'before and after' comparison, though he admitted that the cause of the crash was clear enough. 'Nothing wrong with your car. You needn't think it might go the same way.'

That was some recompense for a long period of waiting about and answering interminable questions, and Jimmy also had ample leisure to watch the police at work. In particular, he was interested to note that the identity of the injured driver had caused something of a stir, though there was nothing to indicate the reason for this. The inspector in charge seemed to be impressed by the way Jimmy had spotted the 'malicious damage', perhaps in part because his own men had noticed nothing amiss. Had he known a little more about Jimmy he might have been less surprised.

At the age of twenty, Jimmy had been left to fend for himself, and had chosen to follow in his father's footsteps as a free-lance journalist. Very soon, however, that had become no more than a front for more adventurous activities, for Jimmy found the creation of news more appealing - and more profitable - than merely recording it. His name did not appear in the newspaper reports, for he chose to remain as anonymous as possible. Being rather less than average in height, and of stocky build, he had a slightly chubby face that allowed him to pass unrecognised in tricky situations.

After five years, he had built up quite a reputation for being a useful man to have around in a crisis, and his bank account was in excellent shape. Since he had recently become especially unpopular with certain gentlemen in European countries, it had seemed a good idea to take a holiday on home ground while the heat was on. Buying the car had been almost an afterthought, a touch of gilt on the gingerbread which would express his freedom to move about without needing to look over his shoulder too frequently.

His original intention had been to drive south and west, more or less at random, until lunchtime, when he would have begun looking for a quiet place to stay while he explored the countryside. That plan, he suspected, had gone by the board. The hordes of other holiday makers would have snapped up most of the vacancies by the time he reached his target area. He might even have to sleep in the car.

It was late afternoon before he could continue his journey. Even with the advantage of the car's superior acceleration, he had to poodle along behind slow-moving queues for minutes at a time, and he became increasingly frustrated. Jammed in the right-hand lane of the Salisbury bypass, however, he noted that relatively few cars were taking the turning on to the A354, to Blandford, and on the spur of the moment decided to try that route. With a sharp burst of speed he elbowed his way into the left-hand lane, and a few seconds later was in the clear with an empty road ahead of him. The manoeuvre had not been in accordance with the Emily Post school of motoring manners, but it had worked off a lot of frustration. It had also been a highly significant move that was to be a key factor in determining Jimmy's future.

The delays in Blandford were no more than a passing irritation, but the long queue of cars waiting to enter Dorchester was the last straw. As soon as he could, Jimmy found a place to park and went in search of liquid refreshment.

The cool bar of the Stag and the excellent quality of the beer soon revived his good temper, and when a man standing beside him at the bar showed a desire to fraternise he responded willingly enough. The man was rubicund, almost stout, and distinctly taller than Jimmy. There was a hint of the armed services about him, an indefinable trick of mannerism and speech.

At first, they talked of commonplace matters, the weather and the traffic, but the rubicund man later turned to the subject of cars. 'I think I saw you driving into town in a rather impressive model. I didn't recognise the make...'

Now, Jimmy had not been expecting trouble, but something about the tone of these words put him on 'red alert'. A hint of hesitancy suggested that the remark was not completely casual.

Considering the possibilities, Jimmy wondered if the man had followed him to the pub and started up a conversation because he had seen the car. There could be other explanations, but that one fitted the circumstances quite well. It could only mean that the stranger was interested in cars of that kind, and presumably in the one that had been wrecked that morning. He might even be connected with the wreckers.

Pending clarification of the position, Jimmy said as little as possible, though he did comment that the car might have to be used as a bed that night. The rubicund man wished him luck, finished his beer abruptly and departed with the air of someone with a task to perform. Jimmy allowed a discrete interval, and then followed in his wake with equal discretion.

As he had expected, the stranger went directly to the place where Jimmy had parked his car. A careful examination seemed to puzzle him, and Jimmy had to smile as he waited in cover. While the rubicund man still stood looking at the car in perplexity, Jimmy quietly came up behind him. 'Not the one you thought it was?'

The man jumped slightly at the sound of the voice in his ear, but allowed himself a rueful smile. 'I suppose that's obvious. I wasn't allowing for coincidence. You haven't seen the other one, by any chance?'

'As a matter of fact, I have. It's rather a mess.'

'A crash? And the driver?'

'Basingstoke Hospital. Broken arm and concussion.'

'You were there?'

Jimmy explained what had happened, and the stranger thanked him. 'Look, my name is Henry Lessor. I'm most grateful to you for explaining why the other car didn't turn up. And, come to think of it, I can express my gratitude in a practical way. Geoff Farnfield had a room booked at the Weslake Hotel in Monckton. Since you say he's in Basingstoke Hospital, he won't be needing the room, so you might as well have it.'

'I'll get going right away.'

'No need. It's less than half an hour's drive, and if you care to hang on for a while I could buy you a meal.'

Jimmy barely hesitated. It now seemed obvious that Lessor and Farnfield were working together, and he was inclined to see them as being on the side of the angels. Sabotage by official bodies was not unknown, but it was more likely to be carried out by those already on the wrong side of the law. It was possible that the offer of a meal was a delaying tactic, but that would no doubt emerge in due course. Meanwhile, Jimmy might be able to find out more about his host and the injured colleague.

In that, he was disappointed. Henry Lessor evaded all Jimmy's subtle questions, but he did enliven the meal by a string on anecdotes about adventures in far away places, and Jimmy contributed his share, with the result that they began to feel a mutual respect. In a sense, they were two of a kind, though it seemed that Lessor probably used more orthodox methods than Jimmy. He might even be some sort of policeman.

They parted good friends, and as Jimmy prepared to drive off Henry waved him goodbye with a chuckle, for no apparent reason. Jimmy hoped that the man's amusement wasn't due to a distorted sense of humour.

Dice Divider

Red line

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Red line

Mail me Keith Thomasson February 11th 2002