The Fiction of Don Thomasson
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| The Fiction of Don Thomasson |
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As the slower car drifted across its path, the saloon in the fast lane slewed sideways, all four wheels locked by a panicky application of the brakes. The cars touched, and in a moment were rolling over and over. Another car in the fast lane piled into the wreckage, which slid diagonally to the edge of the motorway embankment, leaving behind a trail of debris.
It was a horrifying spectacle, and those who ran to give assistance were both surprised and relieved when one figure after another emerged from the tangle of metal, bruised and shaken but not seriously hurt. Satisfied that the three men were not in need of immediate attention, and that no one was still trapped in the cars, the rescuers began to clear the roadway, anxious to get the traffic moving again before the obstruction led to further accidents.
One of the more prominent among the bits and pieces lying in the road was a suitcase, considerably battered but apparently still intact. A man hurried across and picked it up, then stood stock still in amazement when the seams of the suitcase fell apart and he found himself standing in a sea of money.
A few banknotes fluttered idly in the breeze, and he turned to the three drivers, who still stood, rather dazed, near the wreckage.
'Whoever owns this cash had better give us a hand to collect it before it all blows away.'
The three men merely looked at him with blank faces, and he called out to them again, but none showed any interest in his find. Very puzzled, he set about the task of moving the money to safety.
The office was very quiet, the rumble of traffic so subdued that the buzzing of a fly on the windowpane was clearly audible. The quietness was echoed in the soft browns of the walls and furnishings, the whole atmosphere creating a sense of peaceful repose. The man in the visitor's chair found it soothing, especially after the hubbub and confusion that tended to pervade his own office. Having outlined the purpose of his visit, he felt able to relax and enjoy the peaceful surroundings while the man perched on the windowsill considered what had been said.
Geoff Farnfield, looking equally relaxed, might have been idly watching the fly, but his eyes were focused on more distant objects, an expanse of grass and trees bounded by an ancient wall, one of those oases which make the sprawling desert of London a little more acceptable. The view helped Geoff to think more clearly, and he had much to think about. A slim dapper man with greying hair, he carried very heavy responsibilities.
'An intriguing story.' Geoff spoke without turning his head. 'Over twenty-five thousand pounds in banknotes, and no one wanted to admit ownership. There must have been excellent reasons for keeping quiet. The notes were untraceable, I suppose.'
'Old ones. Random numbers.' The visitor sounded gloomy. 'They could have passed through a dozen hands since they were in a bank.'
'Which is quite a revealing point in itself. Someone must have gone to a lot of trouble to collect such a large sum in used notes. All right, you've got me interested, but I still can't see why you came here. This could be a simple criminal matter. Where do we come in?'
As he spoke, Geoff moved to his desk and pulled up a pad as if he intended to take notes, but the movement also switched on a concealed tape recorder, since he liked to have the full details of a conversation available for later study.
Smiling quietly, the visitor referred to a folder which lay open on his lap.
'There were good reasons for approaching you, which I'll come to in a moment. At first, we thought the case would be fairly simple. Our man, whichever of the three it was, must have felt himself at a disadvantage. If he did anything out of the ordinary, it might make us suspicious. That gave us room to manoeuvre. We started on the obvious lines, such as looking for traces of paint which might have rubbed off on the bag in the course of the crash.'
Showing slight impatience with this leisurely exposition, Geoff raised a monitory finger.
'Let's start with some precise details. You gave me the location of the crash, but I'd like the names of the three drivers.'
Turning over the pages of his file, the visitor smoothed a page out and read the information at dictation speed.
'The man held responsible for the accident was Arthur Climpson. Of the other two cars, the one in front was driven by a man called Helliwell, Clive Helliwell to be precise, and the other by a man named Nicholas Tooley.'
Since he was reading from the file, the visitor failed to notice that one of the names had made Geoff Farnfield's eyebrows twitch, and he continued the story at his own comfortable pace.
'It was suggested that Climpson would have driven more carefully if he had been carrying the money, but the others seem to have been driving even faster. We tried routine checks on all three, and things began to get interesting. Two checked out quite normally, but the third did not. There was no record of his birth, schooling or early history. That struck us as a reasonable basis for devoting rather more detailed attention to him.'
Geoff allowed himself the vestige of a smile. 'It does seem a little unusual, though he might have been born and educated overseas, of course. Was this, by any chance, Nicholas Tooley?'
The visitor was surprised. 'You know him?'
'Not exactly.' Geoff's smile broadened. 'I strongly suspect that no such person really exists. However, go on with your tale of woe. It gets more interesting all the time.'
'Well, we put a watch on Tooley, and got rather more than we expected. For instance, he twice had lunch with Kühlmann, and was seen calling on Squalo.'
'Ah! Now we're getting somewhere.' It was Geoff's turn to be surprised. 'Those two are the best arguments against the system of diplomatic immunity that I've ever come across. I doubt whether their masters approve of all their activities. We certainly don't.'
'I gather you hadn't envisaged Tooley as moving in such exalted circles. Nor had we. It made us a good deal more cautious, but it looks as if Tooley realised that he was being watched. Last Monday, he drove off during the evening rush hour, ducked neatly away from the men who were following him, and hasn't been seen since. The manoeuvre was obviously deliberate, so we concluded that he had some special reason for wanting to move unobserved.'
'Which made you all the more anxious to observe him.' Geoff grinned sardonically. 'So what did you do?'
'Put out a general call. No point in being cautious if he knew we were after him. His car was found near the Devil's Punchbowl last night. It was locked and tucked away out of sight, so we think he meant to pick it up later. How much later, we haven't a clue.'
Geoff frowned thoughtfully. 'It was tucked out of sight, but your people did find it, so it wasn't too thoroughly hidden. He may not have intended to leave it there as long as he did. Come round here, and let me show you something.'
Sliding back a panel in his desk top, Geoff revealed a complex set of controls and a small display screen. Pressing a couple of keys, he turned to smile at his visitor, who had looking at the equipment with a slightly awed expression.
'We don't show off our mysteries to everyone, but you're privileged. I've called a couple of our young men to join us, but meanwhile I'd like to show you some of our parlour tricks.'
His fingers flitted lightly over the keyboard, and the name 'TOOLEY' appeared on the display screen. A few more operations added a list of Christian names. Geoff waved an airy hand at the result.
'I asked our tame computer what it knew about the name Tooley, and it replied by asking me which Tooley I'm talking about. Now I have to say that I'm interested in Nicholas Tooley.'
Taking a slender tube from a clip, he placed the end of the tube over the name Nicholas. The display changed to:
TOOLEY,NICHOLAS NO ORIGIN REFERENCE SHAKESPEAREAN ACTOR LISTED IN FIRST FOLIO 48B/7529 SUSPECTED COMPLICITY DISTURBANCE PRETTYWELL REF 48B/7528 53A/5384 INDIRECT ASSOCIATION 53A/5380 THROUGH LOCAL VISIT AT RELEVANT TIME. IDENTIFICATION NOT POSITIVE 62A/5500
As the visitor gazed at the displayed information with some astonishment, two young men slipped quietly into the room. Geoff waved them to chairs, and began to explain the data that the computer had provided.
'We picked this man up at Prettywell during that nasty affair a couple of months or so back, and he gave his name as Nicholas Tooley. We suspected that he was rather more than a mere casual spectator, but couldn't prove anything.'
'I managed to deduce that much.' The visitor sounded hurt. 'That was an unpleasant business, but I never really understood what it was about. It seemed to boil up from nowhere...'
Geoff snorted. 'It boiled up from a very specific source. Kühlmann was at the back of it, for one, and we've had glimpses of another moving spirit we can't quite identify. You'll understand that isn't for publication, of course.'
'Naturally.' The visitor was insulted, and Geoff grinned disarmingly.
'I have to cover myself, you know. The only other possible contact with Tooley was a tentative identification of him in the vicinity of another incident of the Prettywell type, which we managed to squash before it really came to anything. The information you've given me this morning will extend the record considerably, but Mr Tooley will remain a rather ill-defined character.'
'What's this about Shakespeare?' The visitor's feathers were still slightly ruffled. 'Where does he come into it?'
'Quite simply. A couple of nights after we got back from Prettywell, I happened to look in my Temple Shakespeare and noticed the list of leading actors. The name caught my eye, and I entered the whole list, just for luck. You never know when that sort of thing may be useful.'
'I can't imagine how.' The visitor sounded aggrieved, and Geoff replied gently.
'In this case, it may suggest a possible origin for our friend's name. We can be fairly sure it isn't his own. However, these two chaps are being very patient. They'll be working on your problem, so let me introduce you. Then we can get down to details.'
The subsequent discussion was not very productive, and Geoff was relieved when the visitor said he must be going, after which the matter was examined further in a less formal but more useful manner. Geoff was a great believer in discipline, but he was no martinet, which had gained him both the respect and affection of his staff.
When discussion flagged, he considered his two assistants with a benevolently critical eye. Roger Maitland would be the man in charge. At twenty-four, he was the older of the pair by a few months, but that was less important than his reliable and level-headed temperament. Peter Frost, stocky and fair-haired, might be quicker off the mark, but Roger had more stamina, and would still be maintaining a steady pace when Peter had worn himself out. They made a good working partnership.
Geoff said that the case looked interesting. 'Officially, we're supposed to find Nicholas Tooley, but that could well be a waste of time. He may have ceased to exist by now.'
Peter Frost looked puzzled. 'You mean he may be dead?'
'That is a possibility, but it isn't what I meant. Look at the facts. Involved in a highly suspicious incident on the motorway, he gives the name Tooley, which we can be fairly certain is not his own. Even if he was no more than an innocent bystander, he must have realised that a false name would give rise to questions. The sensible thing would be to disappear and then come back with another name, possibly his own.'
'You're assuming that he gave a false name because he had something to hide?' Roger's question had a dry tone, and Geoff smiled at the implied criticism.
'Is that such a rash assumption? Am I jumping the gun?'
'Not exactly...' Roger squirmed slightly. 'I was thinking about the circumstances. After the crash, he must have known that there would be checks on him, and on the others, too. He'd have to show his licence, his insurance. He must have been sure that his cover was good.'
Geoff nodded approval. 'Which, in turn, suggests that the 'Tooley' identity must have been built up with care over a period of time. Yet he never adopted the name formally, by deed poll, so he wasn't anxious to advertise the change.'
'There could have been reasons for that.' Roger was batting cautiously. 'He might have been getting away from an earlier identity that had become embarrassing, or Tooley might be a stage name...'
'Ah! You have something there.' Geoff broke in with a smile, for the conversation was going in the direction he wanted. 'I certainly feel that our friend must have some connections with the stage, though you mustn't forget Prettywell, which suggests rather different interests, and ones which might well give him reason to want to disappear.'
'That, I accept.' Roger was more confident, now. 'I still wonder why he would throw away a well-established identity to avoid a few difficult questions.'
'A point which may, in due course, give us a lead. Meanwhile, the indicated line is to ask some questions in stage circles. Go round the agents this afternoon, and if necessary tomorrow as well, and try to pick up some association between Tooley and the stage. I'll arrange for an eye to be kept on Kühlmann and Squalo with rather more care than usual, as they seem to be involved. Any other suggestions?'
'The money.' Peter had been itching to get a word in. 'Could we find out where it was going?'
'Nothing easier, I imagine.' Geoff turned to his computer terminal. 'Relevant date, direction in which the money was travelling... Yes, almost immediate. Cressfield. Abortive threat of a big disturbance.'
'No cash, no protest.' Roger sounded cynical. 'I remember wondering why that demo collapsed.'
'There may have been other reasons.' Geoff's mind was suddenly occupied by a fresh stream of thought, and he dismissed his assistants almost abruptly.
When they had gone, he hitched his chair up to the desk and began to key data into the computer keyboard. In his opinion, the police had been a little hasty in some of their conclusions, and it would do no harm to look into some alternatives. Before long, he was absorbed in the process of tracing his way through a vast labyrinth of data, and some of the connections he found proved to be very interesting.
Early the following afternoon, the two young men returned to Geoff's office to report progress. They looked tired, but not dispirited. As senior man, Roger explained what they had found.
'A man called Nicholas Tooley began to appear in theatrical circles about ten or twelve years ago. At first, he did back-stage work, but he also used to amuse people by performing one-man sketches, and that led to him getting small character parts in major productions.'
'As Tooley?' Geoff was eager, and Roger smiled.
'As John Rice. That was his stage name.'
'And another from the First Folio list, I believe.'
'It is. Mind you, Tooley was never a principal, like the people in the list. His acting was well thought of, but his speciality was an ability to change his appearance with the use of a minimum of make up.'
'A useful skill if you want to disappear quietly.'
'You don't know the half of it.' Roger was wryly amused. 'We showed people the photograph which was taken at Prettywell, mixed in with others, and they always picked the right one, but it seemed to amuse them. In the end, one took pity on us and showed us these two pictures, which he took himself. This one is of Tooley about three years ago.'
Geoff studied the photograph carefully, and then grimaced. 'I wouldn't have recognised him. He looks quite different.'
'This one, on the other hand, shows him in one of his favourite character roles.'
One glance was enough. Geoff pushed the photograph away in disgust.
'Oh, dear. He's been playing that part full time, and we don't really know what the man looks like.'
'Positive identification could be quite a problem.' Roger put the point diffidently, not wishing to appear defeatist, but Geoff was inclined to agree, despite Peter's contention that they should be able to see through any disguise in daylight.
'It all depends on the circumstances, Peter. I used to know a man with a noble beard, who dressed smartly and sported a very elegant silver-topped walking stick. We used to meet in a certain pub. One day, someone remarked that our elegant friend hadn't been around lately, and we began to talk about some of his mannerisms. Then we heard his voice, complaining that we were being rude, and that shook us badly. We thought it was his ghost talking, until we realised that the voice was coming from a scruffy clean-shaven man who had been sitting at the other end of the bar for some time without anyone noticing him. It turned out that he was trying to avoid someone he owed money to, and had changed his appearance for that purpose.'
'Thanks for the encouragement.' Peter was disgusted. 'It's just as well we have another line on the man we want. Like me, he's keen on small boats. Quite an expert, it seems, with special knowledge of the area round Spithead, including the harbours. Within fifteen miles of Portsmouth, he was reckoned to be unbeatable.'
'Interesting.' Geoff stroked his chin thoughtfully. 'From the place where he left his car, near the Devil's Punchbowl, he only had to walk three or four miles over the hill to Haslemere, and he could catch a train to Portsmouth. Does he own a boat himself?'
'Not under his own name. I mean, not as Tooley.' Peter was slightly confused. 'Anyhow, no one ever saw him in his own boat. He always went along as navigator to someone else. If he does own a boat, he's kept the fact pretty quiet.'
Geoff considered his next move carefully. There was no real reason to suppose that Tooley was anywhere near Portsmouth, but it would suit Geoff's plans very well if the hunt could be sent in that direction, though he had no wish to explain that for the moment. A slightly devious approach was necessary, even though it might create other problems.
'From his performance last Monday, we can assume that Tooley was going into hiding. His knowledge of the waters round Portsmouth suggests that he may have lived there at some time. It's much easier to disappear in familiar surroundings, providing you can avoid being recognised. I have a hunch that Tooley has hidden himself in that area, probably in a boat.'
This tenuous logic failed to impress Roger, as his dry comment showed.
'It's one of many possibilities. Since we haven't the vestige of a lead in any other direction, I suppose it might be worth trying.'
'I think so.' Geoff spoke briskly, suspecting that Roger was understating his doubts. 'We can have a look at the Portsmouth area or wait around for fresh data. I'd prefer to do something, even if it may prove a waste of time.'
'It might be that, in any case.' Peter was dubious. 'Do you know how many boats there are round there? Thousands of them. I counted over two hundred lying up in the Bosham Channel a couple of years ago, and that's only one relatively small section.' He paused, and then a thought made him look hopeful. 'For a start, we'd need a boat for the job...'
'And I believe you own one.' Geoff's eye twinkled understandingly. 'Would she be suitable for the task?'
'I think so.' Peter began to sound enthusiastic. 'Two-berth cruiser. Ten knots steady, a bit more in short bursts. At the moment, she's in the Inner Harbour at Ramsgate. If we started this evening, we could get her to Portsmouth by tomorrow night at a push, or by Saturday morning for certain.'
'She sounds ideal.' A faint note of satisfaction was evident in Geoff's voice, because he saw that his manoeuvre was going to succeed. 'You'd better arrange to lease her to the department for a while, just to keep the books straight. Now, are you clear about what you have to do?'
'Look for a needle in a haystack.' Roger had noticed Geoff's satisfaction, and understood the general reason for it, so he was careful to speak cheerfully, but even so he was favoured with a suspicious glance.
'Are you suggesting that I'm sending you on a wild goose chase?'
'You would have a perfect right to do so, if you wanted to. I was only following up Peter's point about the number of boats. Checking them all could take some time.'
'It could, indeed.' Geoff remained wary, conscious that Roger was not entirely satisfied with the plan. 'You'll have to make yourselves look like part of the scenery, and the boat should help you to do that. Providing you don't let the man know you're looking for him, you won't need to hurry unduly. I will be in the area to look after the shore end, but we can make arrangements for keeping in touch when we get there.'
Roger felt it wiser to make no further comment. He suspected that Geoff had not told them all he knew, but that was Geoff's prerogative. If the additional information had promised to help them find Tooley, Geoff would no doubt have passed it on.
A more personal consideration was that Roger was a complete landlubber, and he felt that a hundred miles or so of open water might not be the ideal way of finding his sea legs. Since he had no wish to appear nervous, he kept this thought to himself.
The amount of preparation needed for the trip came as a considerable surprise to him. Peter soon dispelled ideas of a leisurely drive down to the Kent coast.
'No good going by car. We might not go back there for a while. Eight o'clock from Charing Cross for us. How long will it take you to pick up your kit?'
'About an hour, with any luck.'
'We can't afford to rely on luck.' Peter spoke with confident authority. 'If we miss the train, we miss the tide, and that's half a day gone. Be on the platform at least a quarter of an hour before the train's due out, because we'll have a fair amount of stuff to cart on board.'
'What do we take? Camping style clobber?' With some reluctance, Roger had decided that he must admit to his ignorance of the ways of life on a small boat, and Peter acknowledged this with a sympathetic grin.
'Imagine you're going to live in a tent in September, when the weather can play tricks on you. Rubber soles only, please. I don't want my decks scuffed by anything harder. A sleeping bag, if you have one. Kitchen and cutlery you can leave to me, though we must get some food. Even the tinned stuff's a bit scanty, if I remember rightly. Can you slip down to the cashier and get some ready? Then we can go out and forage. Meanwhile, I'll ring the Harbourmaster at Ramsgate to tell him we want to go out on the night tide. He won't be pleased, so I may have to set Geoff on to him.'
For Roger, the next twelve hours merged into a running nightmare of recurrent crises, each resolved just in time to make way for the next. They caught the train with considerably less margin than Peter had specified, and spent most of the journey discussing the task which faced them, only to conclude that they needed more information. Roger said nothing of his suspicion that Geoff might have been able to provide this, since it could be unfounded.
Reaching the boat at eleven, they began to stow their kit. Then Peter realised that the harbour fuel supply had shut down for the night, and Roger was sent off in a taxi to look for a petrol station that was still open. By the time he got back, a number of further problems had arisen, but most had been solved.
A major exception was that the boat's engine refused to start. Peter began to utter gloomy predictions that they would miss the tide, and then remembered that he had removed some vital parts to keep them dry. A frantic search through the lockers began, but Roger had the inspiration to look in the larder cupboard, and that was another problem solved.
Even after they had passed out through the lock gates, opened by a shadowy figure who emerged from the darkness and disappeared again without saying a word, Roger was kept busy. Moored in the Outer Harbour, the boat rode the water with an uneasy motion, and he was glad to keep his mind occupied, which might ward off any tendency to sea-sickness.
Just when he thought they might at last get a chance to rest, Peter announced that they had time for a mug of coffee before getting under way, and Roger began to wish that he had snatched a couple of hours sleep on the train. He was yawning as they passed through the harbour entrance at first light, but the raw air soon dispelled his sleepiness and he began to look about him. The grey waters of Sandwich Bay looked far from inviting, and there was little else to see. There were glimpses of low-lying coast to the west, and nothing to the east but water, except when the vague shape of a distant ship lying at anchor showed through the intervening mist.
Peter was alternately watching his compass and looking out for sailing marks, which appeared to be a series of black buoys. When they had passed three of these, Roger ventured a question.
'How do you know which way to steer? It all looks the same to me.'
Looking faintly surprised, Peter laughed. 'I forgot you were a landlubber. This is a bit I know fairly well. All I need to do is to hold course and keep fairly near the line of buoys. No problem in that. If you're interested, you'll find the Pilot's Guide to the English Channel down in the cabin. It might be a good idea to mug up some of the relevant facts, especially for the Portsmouth area. You could brew some coffee at the same time. Make mine black. I need to clear my head a bit.'
Going below meekly, Roger reflected that Peter had become an entirely different person since they had boarded the boat. All his usual scatterbrained impetuosity had gone, and he was very much the senior member of the crew.
When Roger came up for air, some time later, he found that the mist had cleared, to be replaced by warm sunshine. Peter announced cheerfully that they had cleared Dover and Folkestone.
'We're starting the run across to Dungeness. No point in hugging the coast with the sea this calm. We aren't likely to run into trouble, so you may as well get some practice at the wheel. Course to steer is two-two-eight degrees. We should pass Dungeness in about an hour and a half. Give me a yell when you see the lighthouse and power station, and I'll come up and take the next leg.'
Nodding with more confidence than he felt, Roger settled himself at the wheel. To distract Peter's attention from his first essay in helmsmanship, he asked whether they would reach Portsmouth that night. Peter glanced at his watch.
'That depends. We're making about ten knots, and I don't want to go any faster, in case the engine starts to overheat. The tide may carry us along a bit after we reach Dungeness, and from there it's seventy miles to Selsey Bill, give or take a bit. Say nine at Dungeness, not earlier than four at Selsey. We wouldn't make Portsmouth before half past five, and by then we'd have had rather a long day. I'm inclined to put in somewhere tonight and finish the run tomorrow. Then we could ring Geoff and pick up any news.'
'Suits me.' Roger's eyes were on the compass, his mind on the course he had to steer. 'Where do you intend to put in?'
'The answer to that should be obvious to anyone who has just been studying the Pilot's Guide.'
Roger grimaced. 'Thanks for nothing. Not much choice, I suppose. Somewhere beyond Brighton. Don't want to leave too much to do tomorrow. Shoreham doesn't seem to welcome casual visitors. Only piers at Worthing and Bognor. What about Littlehampton?'
'Well done!' Peter beamed approval. 'That's the place. About sixty miles from Dungeness, so we should get there around three this afternoon. Time to do some shopping.'
Left in charge, Roger held the wheel tightly for a while, but then his anxious glances at the compass became less frequent, his grip on the wheel more relaxed, and he began to enjoy himself.
Peter's estimates of time and distance proved sound, and not long after three they were on their way into Littlehampton Harbour. Making the mandatory visit to the Harbourmaster's office, they arranged for an overnight mooring, and by four they had done their shopping and were talking to Geoff Farnfield from a convenient call box. He seemed pleased to hear from them.
'One or two interesting items have come in. We have a reasonable identification of Tooley as a passenger from Haslemere on Monday evening. He booked to Portsmouth Harbour, the station for the Isle of Wight and Gosport ferries. It gives us a starting point.'
'Great!' Roger found this news encouraging. 'Anything else?'
'One item of interest, though it may not be relevant. There's a rule that the numbers of any cars with CD plates in the Portsmouth area should be noted down, because some of the diplomats aren't supposed to go there. One number taken this morning belonged to Squalo.'
'Did it, indeed!' Roger's spirits were rising fast. 'Perhaps we should get on to Portsmouth right away, instead of staying here overnight.'
'I don't think that's necessary.' Geoff sounded relaxed. 'You wouldn't achieve much. Better to get some sleep and make an early start.'
Unfortunately, both Peter and Roger overslept, and they woke to a world shrouded in mist. Now, the sea trip from Littlehampton to Portsmouth is not quite as simple as a glance at a small-scale map might suggest. Apart from a number of natural hazards, the area is peppered with artificial obstructions, wrecks and other inconveniences. At low tide, or in heavy weather, it may be wise to make a wide sweep to the south, but Peter judged that the shorter route through the Looe Channel would be safe on this occasion, and would make up for some of the time they had lost.
Once clear of Littlehampton Harbour, they were in a world of their own, hearing only the subdued pulsing of the engine and the lap of water against the hull, seeing nothing but the white walls of mist. Roger found the novelty of all this enjoyable, until he noticed that Peter was peering ahead into the whiteness rather anxiously. After a while, he asked if anything was wrong, and Peter gave a sigh.
'I'm hoping this clears soon. We'll be off the Looe Channel entrance in less than an hour. I don't want to miss the sailing marks.'
'What happens if it doesn't clear?' Roger was disturbed by a touch of nervousness in Peter's voice, and the reply did nothing to reassure him.
'We'll get through somehow. Mind you, if this had been a pleasure trip, I wouldn't have started. Now we're here, it's safer to go on than to turn back.'
'Why?' Roger's worry made the question come out sharply. 'Isn't it just a case of steering a reciprocal course?'
'Well, no...' Peter spoke reluctantly. 'It's a shocking admission to have to make, but I misread the compass for about a quarter of an hour after leaving Littlehampton, and I had to make a guessed course correction. I'm not entirely sure where we are, so it's better to head for open water and wait for the mist to clear.'
Peter's lapse, oddly enough, revived Roger's confidence.
'Give me the details, and I'll try to plot our position. Where do you want to finish up?'
'A bit east of the East Borough Head buoy, for preference,' Peter was completely subdued, almost humble, so Roger made no further comment. When he returned from the cabin a few minutes later to suggest a turn of a few degrees to port Peter grimaced, but said nothing, and Roger felt that the subject should be dropped for the time being.
'What's that indicator on the bulkhead in front of you? I saw it before, but I couldn't make out what it was trying to tell me.'
Peter accepted the diversion gratefully.
'It's an automatic depth sounder. Cost me a packet, but it comes in handy at a time like this, and the hire money will almost pay for it, so I reckon it was a good buy. There's plenty of depth here, but you could help by keeping an eye on the reading from time to time. Watching that and the compass and keeping a lookout as well is getting a bit complicated.'
The bank of mist was quite shallow now, with occasional thin patches overhead through which they could catch glimpses of blue sky, but visibility in the horizontal plane was still limited. Peter cut back the engine and peered anxiously ahead, but it was Roger who spoke first.
'Red and white buoy to starboard.'
Following the direction indicated by Roger's pointing finger, Peter gave a sign of relief and spun the wheel to make a sharp turn to port.
'That's it, all right. East Borough Head, topmark and all. We could easily have missed it. I'm taking the long way round to keep clear of the shoals, because we're a bit too far east and south. The drill is to go almost due west from north of the buoy until we see the exit marks.'
Checking the Pilot's Guide, Roger said there should be a black conical buoy to the north and a red can with red topmark to the south. Peter acknowledged this information and put on more speed.
'The sooner we get clear of this lot, the better. Besides, if we go faster there will be less effect of drift. What does the sounder say?'
'Falling a bit. Try further north... I mean to starboard.'
'The tide may be carrying us south. How's that?'
'lmproving... That's fine.'
The passage of the Looe was completed safely and in an amicable atmosphere. By the time they passed the exit buoys, the mist had cleared enough to reveal the Wittering water tower some three miles to the north, and there was every prospect of a sunny day, Peter handed over the wheel for a spell, looking considerably relieved.
'Thanks, Roger. That should be a lesson to me. I suspect I was showing off. The sensible thing would have been to go the long way round, but I wanted to prove that I could manage without that. If you hadn't been with me I'd have been in trouble.'
Roger smiled happily. 'A pleasure. I didn't expect to like this sort of thing, but I find I like it very much. There's a challenge in it, a challenge with teeth, but there are other things, too. I'm enjoying myself.'
Returning the smile without comment, Peter went below to brew up.
In spite of everything, they reached Portsmouth Harbour station by half past nine, having taken up the moorings that Peter had booked in advance.
The station itself, built out over the water like a pier, is a busy terminus, with over a hundred trains arriving on a summer Saturday, most of the passengers being bound for the Isle of Wight by the ferry which runs from the landing stage below the station. Roger surveyed the crowds hurrying down the slope towards the ferry with a morose lack of enthusiasm.
'Tooley knew what he was doing, coming to a place like this. It looks like an overturned ant-hill. Who would notice one man among all this lot?'
'We've picked a bad time.' Peter had been studying a timetable poster. 'Two trains came in within the last ten minutes. You can see that almost everybody is heading for the ferry, with only a few coming back this way.'
Roger chuckled. 'One of the few looks rather familiar.'
Strolling along as if he hadn't a care in the world, Geoff Farnfield came up to them as if they were strangers who might be able to help him, and during the subsequent conversation waved his stick in various directions to give this impression verisimilitude. He spoke softly, since his words might have seemed inappropriate.
'A fortunate meeting. I got up early and caught the ten to eight in the hope that you might have arrived, though I was a little doubtful when I saw the mist. Do you know the layout here? This causeway we're standing on connects the road back there with the station. What we have to decide, for a start, is whether Tooley came back this way, or picked up a ferry.'
'If he came here at all.' Peter sounded doubtful, but Geoff shook his head.
'I think we can assume that he did. He left Haslemere by the quarter to ten, which stops at Havant, Fratton and Portsmouth Town. It gets here just before half past ten. It would have been foolish to get off at an intermediate station holding a Portsmouth Harbour ticket, because that would make the ticket collector remember him.'
Peter accepted this with good grace, but had further objections.
'There was a ferry at ten forty on Monday night, to connect with the train. The Gosport ferry was probably still running, too. High tide was around midnight, according to a board back there, so it would have been a good time to take out one of the boats out from the Hard. That's the area just beside the causeway here. I could start asking questions about that, if you like.'
'It will have to be checked.' Geoff looked over the miscellaneous collection of small craft, some afloat and some high and dry, which Peter had indicated. 'Roger and I will check on the ferry routes. Where shall we meet?'
'At the Carella?' Peter had obviously anticipated the question. 'That's my boat. She's in the Camber, a dock down near Portsmouth Point. We've been making do with scratch meals, but if you care to join us we'll have an excuse for something better.'
Geoff and Roger spent the rest of the morning rather unprofitably, making a series of cautious enquiries which produced no information of value, and when they reached the Carella they found Peter already aboard and making good progress with the preparation of a meal. Infuriatingly cheerful, he told them what he had discovered, keeping one eye on his pots and pans.
'A boat called Congo Maiden went out from the Hard on Monday night's tide, with two men aboard. She came back at noon on Tuesday with only one man. I think she took Tooley somewhere.'
'Sheer guesswork.' Roger was not in a good mood after the morning's frustrations, but Peter was unabashed.
'The boat belongs to a man called William Ecclestone. Bill to his friends.'
'Ah! That's more like it.' Geoff saw the point at once. 'Another name from the First Folio list. Tooley again, I suppose.'
'Not this time. Ecclestone is a well-known local character, popular and respected.'
'Scarcely the kind of man you'd expect to find ferrying Tooley around.' Geoff was frowning. 'He was away for twelve hours. Quite a long time. What do you deduce from that?'
'I'm not sure.' Peter was keeping one eye on the galley stove, and would have preferred to give it his full attention until the meal was ready. 'Flat out, she might have covered a couple of hundred miles, but that doesn't make sense. If Tooley wanted to go that far he could have used public transport, under another of his names. They may have had tide trouble, of course.'
'You mean they may have gone aground somewhere?'
'They may have tried to avoid doing that. In spite of her size, Congo Maiden is said to be quite fast. Within an hour, they could have reached almost anywhere in any of the harbours along the coast here. If they were heading for a shallow spot, they might be able to get in, but not out.'
'You're still guessing.' Geoff looked worried. 'We need to talk to the owner of this boat. From your description of him, it may be a good idea to involve the local police. I'll give them a call from that phone box over there.'
'Don't be too long. Lunch is nearly ready.' Peter's tone suggested complete absorption with the preparation of the meal, but after Geoff had gone, a question showed that he was at least vaguely aware of other matters. 'The old man looked as if he'd smelt something nasty. Do you know why?'
Roger looked at him tolerantly. 'You may be the bee's knees with boats, but your inductive powers are a bit rusty. Geoff is wondering whether this Ecclestone is crooked and safe or honest and in danger.'
'Oh!' Peter's brain visibly switched tracks. 'I must admit I didn't think of that.'
'If Ecclestone took Tooley somewhere as a personal favour, without knowing why, he could become an embarrassment, because he could tell people where Tooley went.'
'And Geoff wants to get to him while he can still tell?'
'That sums it up.'
When he returned, Geoff confirmed Roger's interpretation of his concern, and said they ought to eat at once, to be ready for the police.
It was nearly an hour, however, before a car drew up on the quay nearby, and a burly plain-clothes Inspector hailed them. Invited to come aboard, he looked doubtfully at his shoes, but Peter laughed and and spread out a couple of rubber mats to protect his precious deck. Stepping carefully, the policeman descended into the cockpit, and chuckled.
'I'll be happy to take my shoes off, if you have no objections. Plenty of fresh air here, after all.'
Cordial relations thus being established without delay, they adjourned to the cabin for a conference. Despite his considerable size, the Inspector managed to make himself comfortable, and then opened the proceedings with a slightly worrying statement.
'Haven't found your man yet, but that isn't too surprising. A bachelor, with a young couple keeping house for him, he's free to come and go as he likes. Nobody's seen him since Thursday afternoon. We're looking into the matter now. If we get any news, my driver will hear it on the radio and tell us.'
'His boat is round on the Hard.' Geoff's worried expression seemed to puzzle the Inspector.
'Then he may be aboard her. Could be waiting for the tide, or something. Nothing alarming about that.'
'You have only part of the story.' Geoff was apologetic. 'You'll probably hear it all in the end, but I'd be glad if you would let us ask a few questions first.'
'Go ahead. I'll answer them if I can.'
'Has this man Ecclestone lived here long?'
'All his life. As it happens, we went to the same school. He was a bit younger, but I remember him well enough. Nice chap, in his way. More money than sense, but that isn't his fault.'
'Then there's no possible question about his identity?'
'None.' The Inspector let his surprise show. 'What's on your mind?'
'An odd coincidence, if coincidence is the right word. Tell me, do you know anyone called John Underwood, or Joseph Taylor?'
'I can't say I do. Paul Underwood and Charlie Underwood, yes, and several Taylors, but not a Joseph.'
'Does the name Nicholas Tooley mean anything to you?'
'No. What is this?'
'Bear with me a little longer. Has Ecclestone any brothers?'
'No. Look, I suppose you've a perfect right to ask me these questions without giving any reasons. I do it often enough to other people. It's my job. I never knew it could be so frustrating to be at the receiving end. Put me out of my misery.'
Geoff looked unhappy, no doubt wondering what this very down-to-earth policeman would react to his explanation. Then he saw that Roger had taken a book out of one of the lockers, and smiled.
'I gather young Roger has brought along the relevant evidence. Show the Inspector the list.'
Taking the book, the Inspector looked more mystified than ever.
'Shakespeare? What's he got to do with it?'
'Read the second column of the list.'
Running his finger down the page, the Inspector muttered the names to himself, and then looked up.
'I can see where you got the names, but I don't see the point.'
Geoff sighed. 'It seems that on Monday evening your old schoolmate Ecclestone went out in his boat with a passenger who is known to us as Nicholas Tooley, but who uses John Rice as a stage name. All three names are on the list. Would you call that coincidence?'
'I'd call it ruddy queer.' The Inspector stared at the list as if it annoyed him. 'And here's something just as bad. We had a man called John Shancke in for questioning a while back, and he's on the list, too.'
Geoff stood up, forgetting the low cabin roof, and banged his head.
'Ouch! That hurt. Inspector, you interest me strangely. What was this man questioned about?'
'Oh, there'd been a bit of a schemozzle, one of these protest marches, and a couple of our men pulled him in because they saw him fighting. The fight was away from the centre of the thing, and he claimed that some of the demonstrators jumped him without provocation. That could have been true, but he was a nasty whining sort of a chap, and he may have peeved them in some way. He certainly peeved me, but the other people involved weren't picked up, so we had no case.'
'Only a certain amount of suspicion?' Geoff was amused.
'We did wonder a bit. Some of the people we did pull in were a bit disgruntled. They'd been promised there would be no rough stuff, and they felt they'd been let down. Perhaps some had been making their feelings known to the management.'
'It has been known.' Geoff was thoughtful. 'You should have told us about Shancke, you know. We like to have the names of people who crop up near that kind of disturbance. Innocent bystanders don't crop up in more than one place. Those who do aren't innocent, and they interest us.'
'Reproof accepted. I'll remember you in future. I think you're on to something. Precisely what, I haven't a clue. A gang using assumed names picked from the list?'
'Would Ecclestone fit that theory?'
'I wouldn't have thought so. He certainly isn't the type to be a ring-leader. Maybe the idea started because they spotted his name. It could have started as a joke.'
Roger stirred uneasily. 'That suggests a slightly odd sort of mind, coupled with a highbrow sense of humour, doesn't it?'
Geoff considered the point with surprising care.
'That could be the case, but it also sounds like a schoolboy's trick. You don't remember anything of that sort, Inspector?'
'Not off hand. I might not have heard. Two years is a big gap when you're young. I'll ask around.'
'Discreetly, please. It could be important. Now, we need to find Ecclestone as quickly as possible. It seems your men haven't got anywhere yet.'
'Give 'em a chance.' The Inspector sounded hurt. 'He might be anywhere. They had to pick up some details first, like his car registration, and then set about systematic enquiries.'
'I like to be systematic myself, when I have the time.' Geoff was being tactful. 'In this instance, I feel we need to cut a few corners. Suppose we go and have a look at the Congo Maiden. We might at least pick up a hint.'
'Sure. The tide's about right to reach her without fuss.' The Inspector was pulling on his shoes as he spoke, and they were soon in the police car heading for the Hard.
When they arrived, the Inspector spoke to two uniformed men who were waiting there and came back looking annoyed.
'They've found his car parked in a vacant lot just at the back here, but didn't bother to report the fact to me because they thought it meant he was on board his boat.'
'Have they been out to check?' Geoff put the question anxiously.
'No. They haven't.' The Inspector gave a ferocious grin. 'They probably didn't want to get their boots wet. Not that it makes much difference. Something I can see from here gives me a pretty good idea of what we're going to find.'
Without further comment, he led the others towards the Congo Maiden, easily identifiable as the largest boat on the Hard. His usual ready smile had been replaced by a grim expression that boded ill for someone.
To reach their objective, they had to cross a wide area of sloping stones that were still wet and slippery, though the tide had uncovered them hours before. The Inspector walked with delicate care, picking his way like an enormous two-legged cat, and the others followed as best they could.
When they were near the boat, he stopped and looked at it with an odd air of distaste.
'It's against the rules to berth anything that big here. The Hard's supposed to be reserved for small boats, but you can get away with anything if you try. Now, Mr Frost. You're the expert, I gather. Do you notice anything odd?'
'That dinghy tied up at the stern.' Peter was puzzled. 'The painter's so short that the dinghy's hanging on it with its bows clear of the surface. Whoever tied it like that had no intention of staying on board until low water.'
'But stay he did.' The Inspector moved towards the boat, but the others took a few moments to realise what he meant. Then Roger and Peter sprang forward to help him climb into the cockpit.
He disappeared into the cabin, and two interminable minutes later came back and looked down at the others, brushing his hands lightly together.
'He stayed, all right. Dead for around thirty-six hours, I'd say. The doctor will have to tell us formally, but it looks to me like poison.'
Chapters | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 |
| The Fiction of Don Thomasson |
|© Keith Thomasson February 11th 2002|