The Fiction of Don Thomasson
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| The Fiction of Don Thomasson |
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In theory, the social climax of the Monaco Grand Prix weekend is the gala dinner at the Hotel de Paris on the Sunday evening, when the elite can unwind after days of tension. No one is too worried if the festivities go on far into the night. There will be no need to hurry in the morning.
The hoi polloi take a different view. Many of them have to be back at work on the Monday. Others have to get up early to start their homeward journeys. They therefore prefer to celebrate on the Saturday evening, working off some of their anticipatory excitement. With the circuit only five minutes walk away, they can lie in for a while on the Sunday morning, so they can afford to make a night of it.
The most dedicated revellers cover both celebrations, even if this means that they finish the weekend in a state of total collapse. Jimmy suspected, with some justification, that most of the tour party members had this programme in mind. Some were even taking the precaution of arranging to be carried out to the coaches at departure time on the Monday morning, should this prove necessary.
It was past nine on the Saturday evening, however, before they reached the Casino Square to start their revelry in earnest. They had felt no inclination to hurry over the evening meal, content to get their second wind after the long and exciting day in the open air. On the way up the long hill, they had paused at the Chatham Bar for a few words with Rosie and a couple of rounds of her excellent beer. Then they had strolled up the last slope to find the Square packed with cars and people, a true atmosphere of fiesta evident in the warm evening air.
At first, they thought they would never find Geoff in the general confusion, but he appeared at last, deep in conversation with the Lola driver. Before long, the whole party was ensconced in a secluded corner listening to the latest news.
Geoff seemed cautiously pleased. 'It went very well, on the whole. Mori was a tower of strength. Astonishing little chap. I don't think he needs to worry about the future. I can do with men like him. We only missed two people in the end. One was the Colonel himself and the other was the little man who tried to make trouble in the tunnel yesterday afternoon. They were out when we closed in. I don't think it matters too much. The Colonel won't be able to do a lot with all his men but one in gaol, especially with the information that Mori has given us. The police here aren't at all pleased with the Colonel and would very much like to have a word with him.'
Jimmy ventured a cautiously worded question. 'Does that mean that Simon's safe now?'
'I would think so.' Geoff spoke judicially. 'The Colonel might try something himself, as a solo effort, but I doubt it.'
'Forget about me.' Simon was almost impatient. 'I'll be all right. Concentrate on the arrangements for tomorrow. That's what matters.'
Geoff smiled. 'I'm inclined to agree, though it might be unwise to be too optimistic. I don't want to waste more time chasing you round the Alpes Maritimes. However, to get back to the main point, Mori has reported to his masters, by which I mean the Council of Five, telling them that he was lucky enough to escape the raid. They appear to believe him. As he expected, they now plan to meet at sea, going aboard the yacht singly and reaching it by crossing the harbour in small boats. We will meet at the same time, at the Fontvieille quay, just beyond the Rock. I'll let you know the exact time tomorrow.'
Everyone wanted to go on talking about details of the plan, but Geoff pointed out that the secluded corner was becoming less secluded every minute. He suggested that the subject should be dropped for the time being. 'As we used to say long ago, let's shut the hangar doors and relax. I'd like another look at those cars in the square.'
The cars were certainly worth looking at. To those which had been present the night before had been added an array of exotic machines with evocative names. Side by side in front of the Casino steps, a trio of Monteverdis sneered elegantly at a couple of Lamborghinis, which yawned loftily in return, lounging at their ease until their services should be required. Even so, the greatest interest was reserved for the cars which had been involved in the mad chase along the Corniche. Each was surrounded by an admiring mob and the story of the chase was being told and retold, losing nothing and gaining the odd embellishment at each repetition. The bearded Jaguar owner hailed Jimmy, asking him if he was planning any more excitements, while the Porsche driver wanted to know how the police had been persuaded to take no punitive action.
'I thought you'd all be thrown into gaol for sure. If they'd realised that I'd been involved, I'd have been for it. I always am. Any advice on how to placate the police could be worth a lot of money to me... Where's the Lotus? That ought to be here. He kept up with the others pretty damn well.'
This sentiment being echoed by the crowd, Sandy took the hint, slipping away to fetch his now famous car. Simon warned him to park it carefully, as bending a Lamborghini could be expensive, but there were no problems. The Lotus was greeted by a hearty cheer and a parking attendant helped to find room for it in a place of honour, where it was immediately hidden by a mass of admirers. If Sandy had been a Lotus agent he could have made a fortune.
Geoff strolled over to Jimmy's side and offered a quiet comment. 'One way and another, this is turning out to be a memorable weekend. I only hope nothing happens to spoil it.'
'Such as?' Jimmy's eyes were troubled.
'Such as someone getting killed. I'm surprised that it hasn't happened already. Tomorrow's exercise could be a risky business, especially if anyone gets overexcited.'
'Yes.' Jimmy was tempted to say that he had very little idea of what was planned, but that might have sounded like pique. He shrugged his shoulders. 'All the same, we can't chicken out.'
Geoff gave a snorting, explosive laugh. 'Chicken! Last across the road! The most dangerous game of the lot, because it twists the truth. The man who chickens out is a coward, in the eyes of his fellow man, yet he may have more guts than the rest of them put together. They know they're being stupid, but they daren't admit the fact. You aren't scared, are you?'
'Not for myself.' Jimmy spoke evenly. 'I've been in far more dangerous situations in the past. If any of the others came to harm, though, I'd feel responsible because I got them involved. I'd hate that. All the same, it would be a bit presumptuous to tell them they shouldn't take the risk.'
'I agree. Providing, of course, that they realise the risk is there. If they do, the choice must be theirs. It's just the same with motor racing. The drivers know what risks they're taking, but whether they take them is nobody's business but their own. Talk to some of the lads. Make sure they understand. Tell them it's no disgrace to admit that you're scared. That's about as much as we can contribute.'
The thought of something positive to do cheered Jimmy up a good deal. He had been feeling like a rejected suitor at a wedding.
Despite their earlier intentions of making a night of it, the party began to droop not long after midnight. It had been a long day and Tony was warning everyone that it wouldn't do to hang around too long in the morning, as the best track side positions would already be taken. Leaving Sandy to watch over what might well prove to be the car of the evening, they headed for the hotel. The sky had cleared and weather prospects for the race were good. Pausing only to watch mechanics at work on a damaged racing car in a garage window, they made their way to bed.
To bed, but not necessarily to sleep. As Jimmy was dozing off, a racing engine started up not far away and ran irregularly for a time. The same sound wakened him twice more and after that he felt ridiculously wakeful. He hoped the grand prix drivers were spending a more restful night.
By breakfast time, spectators were flowing into the Principality by all available routes. The car parks near the circuit, above and below ground, were already full to overflowing. Buses were beginning to ferry in those who had been forced to leave their cars further away. A big cruise liner, anchored off shore, began to land its passengers while some flamboyant personalities came in from Nice airport by helicopter.
At eleven, the streets forming the circuit were closed and some cars left parked in the area were towed away ignominiously, a very imposing luxury saloon being hauled along with back wheels high in the air and front wheels crabbing sideways at almost full lock. Indignity, perhaps, but better than being hit by one of the racing cars.
The barriers were closed, the sweep of officials through the area took its inexorable course, and excitement rose to fever heat. On their little patch of pavement opposite the pits, the group surrounding Simon and Jimmy were agog for every incident. The majestic gentleman they had seen the day before strolled past, looking worried and depressed. The inevitable family were rooted out from behind the ornamental hedge. Every admission badge was checked at least twice, to ensure that no precious francs were lost.
The weather was ideal for the Grand Prix. Despite a few streamers of cloud blowing seaward from the mountain tops, the sun shone warmly. The heights of the Italian coast could be seen receding in serried ranks towards the horizon, fading gradually into the light mauve mists of the far distance. It was a perfect setting for a great occasion.
There was much speculation over the result of the race, discussion consisting mainly of dogmatic statements expressing conflicting views. Tony, in a flush of bibulous optimism, had laid a long odds bet on Hanley, a comparative outsider, and was beginning to think he had lost his money. No one contradicted him. Susan favoured the good looking Ygrec, but Simon said that Ragoutet was the most likely to win.
'He won here at the second attempt. Then he retired several times, but he's won twice since. The first win could have been a bit of a fluke, but the others weren't. If he can win here three times, he must have a fair chance of making it four.'
Smiling quietly, Jimmy felt Simon was sticking his neck out. The only predictable thing about the Monaco race was that it was unpredictable. Jim Clark, who had won everywhere else, had failed to win at Monaco. Graham Hill had scored five of his fourteen wins in the Principality, mainly by driving with computer like precision of pace. Trintignant had scored both his victories round the houses, much to the indignation of those who thought he would never win.
The commentators, French, Italian and English, introduced themselves, the familiar voice of the Englishman sounding strange so far from home and emphasising the fact that his words all came over with a power and clarity which would be much appreciated at some British circuits. There were the infuriating advertising puffs, relieved only by unintentional flashes of humorous absurdity. There were the personal profiles of the leading drivers. There was the usual lack of information regarding the names of the qualifiers and their positions on the grid.
When the cars began to take their places, right opposite the group on the pavement, the nearest was so close that it was almost possible to lean over the fence and touch it. Excitement mounted to a new peak. Half past two and a stir announced the arrival of the royal party, the Prince setting off at once for a tour of the circuit, a traditional part of the ritual of the occasion. The tension was so electric that tired eyes saw the scene with dream like intensity. The Prince returned from his tour and mounted the dais. Crash helmets were strapped on. Seat belts were fastened. The engines were started and the cars rolled forward to the grid. The starter made his dangerous backward leap and the race was on.
It would be impossible to describe the events of the subsequent two hours in detail, even if the human brain were able to register and retain more than a tiny fraction of the complex events. Speeds, lap times and other vital statistics mean nothing while the race is in progress. They are for later study, a pale reminder of the real thing. The abiding impression is one of continual change.
Monsieur Ygrec led at the end of the first lap, but who could know that, except by looking up his number in the programme as he flashed past, head encased in armour and body protected by layers of fireproof clothing. During the race, he is not a man. Perhaps a name, but more a part of his machine, hurtling by with others in pursuit, some closing on him, some dropping back.
The highest excitement comes early on when the cars are jockeying for position. This is a situation that is easy to understand. The contenders are still close together and positions seem likely to change at any moment. Ragoutet dives inside Husky at the Gasworks, cutting across in front of him, but Husky has the better line and regains his place as they accelerate away. Two others, in the same manoeuvre, touch and slide. Both come into the pits, one to remain with damaged suspension, the other to roar away after a quick check, anxious to make up for lost time. Someone hits the chicane, limping in with a rear wheel leaning over drunkenly. Mechanics hover, sigh, and turn away. They worked all night to make that car ready.
The cars begin to spread out, their number dwindling as retirements mount. Excitement is less intense and there is time to take a different kind of interest, to talk about what seems to be happening. Before, all but the leaders were mere blurs of colour and noise, impersonal, without identity. Now there is time to look at them properly.
'Hanley's not doing so badly, Tony! He might even get up to sixth and score a point!'
'What about Timken? He's getting mighty close to Oscar and he's pretty good at finding a way past on a tight circuit.'
'Someone's missing! Here he comes, crawling along. It's Husky. Tyre blown. Bad luck!'
The cars stretch out to fill the whole circuit and the leader is coming up to lap the slowest man, sweeping past him as they roar by the pits. The picture becomes more complicated and many no longer know who is leading. Does it matter? Ygrec isn't. Breaker passed him two laps back.
Now comes the long middle part of the race, when not much seems to happen, though experienced eyes see the changes, watching time intervals slowly contract and expand. Those who started the race fast are no faster, but others are speeding up as their tanks empty and tyres settle down. The differences are mere fractions on a stop watch, but they add up to significant totals over many laps.
Breaker is in the lead, Ygrec dropping back, his tyres looking rough. Another fancy compound that didn't stand the strain. Ragoutet threatens Ygrec, but he in turn - incredibly - is being pushed by Hanley, who is making a tremendous effort. He got past Timken and Oscar while they were too busy watching each other to notice him coming through. With Husky out of the running he's up to fourth.
'Watch him, Tony! He might win after all!'
'Ragoutet's heading for the pits. Drive shaft gone, by the look of it.'
Watches click. Forget Ygrec. He won't last much longer, let alone fight back. Hanley, third now, is fifteen seconds behind Breaker. No, fourteen. he's catching up fast. Twenty laps to go. He could make it!
Tony, unbelievingly, begins to hope. Hanley, baulked by a back marker, loses the second he gained. Furious, he pushes past on the way into the Gasworks and nearly hits the kerb on the way out. He's really trying now, his lanky form crouched down into the cockpit, hands gripping the wheel with grim intensity. Fifteen seconds seems little enough, but it amounts to a sixth of a lap, with Breaker climbing towards the Casino by the time Hanley leaves the Gasworks. They only know the distance between them from the boards held out by their mechanics.
'Hey, the gap's down to twelve seconds! All of a sudden! Breaker must be in trouble. Get a good look a him when he comes round!'
The leading car appears and eyes and ears strain to detect the reason for the change.
'Hark at that engine! Rough as old boots!'
This is exaggeration, but the exhaust note is not quite as it should be and the gap is down to ten seconds. Twelve laps to go.
Two laps later, the leader is still hanging on, but only just. Surely he can't keep going until the end. Climb the hill, changing up just below Rosie's, then down through the box again for the curve by the Casino. Down the hill to Mirabeau, the Station, Portier. Swing wide, close to the sea wall, and head for the tunnel. Here they come! Breaker's still in the lead, but Hanley's ahead of Ygrec and catching Breaker fast.
'And you said he might take sixth!' Tony is beside himself with delight.
Out of the Gasworks, with breaker's engine no worse and possibly a little better. It's difficult to be sure with Hanley so close. No need for pit signals now, with Breaker clearly in Hanley's sights. Up the hill again. This is really a race.
Here they are, coming out of the tunnel. Still Breaker. Hanley's going for the inside. He's done it! No, Breaker got it back. What's up, Tony, can't you stand the strain? Wonder what he'll try next time round.
Last lap coming up. Breaker's still in front, but only he knows how. The engine's smoking quite badly, but he thrashes it where he must and rests it where he can. It might just keep going until the end. The commentator's yelling his head off! Anyone understand rapid French? Look! Side by side through the Gasworks. Hanley's got him this time! He's through and away. Hold Tony back, there, or he'll fall over onto the track. The chequered flag is waved for Hanley. Everyone cheers, even the partisan Italians, who know they have seen a race in a thousand. Good for Hanley! Time he had a win, and it must be nice to get your first at Monaco. Makes the others think a bit. What odds did you get, Tony? Twenty to one! Not bad at all.
Limp with reaction, voices hoarse with shouting, they mingled with the mass of people thronging the pits area. Mechanics were struggling to get the cars away before any parts could be 'liberated' as souvenirs. The journalists were pushing their way towards the Automobile Club to collect the official handouts before going off to write their reports. The crowds grew denser every moment and people were swarming all over the pit boxes, pulling down wires which had supported name boards. The wires threatened to decapitate the Jaguar owner, who had appeared from nowhere, but he said his main worry was that his precious beard might be damaged. A very famous driver appeared, in danger of losing his overalls, if nothing more, to the clutching hands of those about him. Putting his head down as if making a rugger charge, he vanished into the swirling masses, leaving only eddies to mark his passage.
Jimmy grabbed Simon's arm and pointed. The disturbance had brought a familiar face into view, a face they had last seen disappearing over a parapet in the Pointe Focignana tunnel. For a moment the tableau held, then the swarthy little man pushed his way into the crowd again. A dozen members of the party leapt forward in pursuit, taking their cue from Jimmy's pointing finger and the quarry's hasty departure.
More by luck than anything else, Jimmy and Tony spotted the man running up a comparatively empty side street linking the circuit to the Rue Grimaldi. At that moment, he was thirty five yards ahead and moving fast. Suddenly, he swerved aside to a big Mercedes which stood by the kerb, door open and engine running while its owner argued with an official close by. Jimmy put on a spurt but it was too late. The Mercedes sped away up the hill and out of reach.
A Renault 16 appeared from a side turning and Tony stopped it with frantic signals, sliding into the front passenger seat as he explained the position. Jimmy scrambled into the back, not very hopeful, and the car moved off. It did so with such rapidity that Jimmy glanced sharply at the driver. He immediately changed his mind about the chances of catching the Mercedes. Breaker might not have won the race, but he had driven like a demon and it would be interesting to see what he made of his present vehicle, so different from his earlier mount.
They rocketed up the Rue Grimaldi, catching a glimpse of the Mercedes scattering pedestrians in all directions as it entered the Place d'Armes. With his horn going full blast, Breaker set the Renault at the corner enthusiastically, tyres squealing and engine howling at maximum revs as he unwound the lock to correct for oversteer. In one glorious slide, they came right round in front of the new railway station and headed for the hill beyond, speeding over the bridge at incredible speed. The Mercedes, in less capable hands, was already visibly nearer.
The homeward bound traffic had yet to build up, so there were not many cars to impede the chase. The Renault screamed up the curving hill in third, catching the Mercedes hand over fist. Breaker muttered something about people who shouldn't be allowed to drive a pedal car, before lining up for a sharp left hand bend. The Mercedes had braked hard for this, but the Renault merely seemed to pause, settle into a new attitude and sail into the turn at full throttle. On the pavements, pedestrians pressed back in alarm against the balustrade protecting a sheer drop into the Ste Devote Gorge, but the Renault took the corner perfectly, now only yards behind the Mercedes, which was yawing uncertainly. Then the fugitive seemed to make a decision, swinging into a desperate left hand hairpin turn which led to the Moyenne Corniche. Closing up with a final delicately judged burst of acceleration, Breaker nudged the inside rear corner of the Mercedes as it started to turn. The nudge was gentle, but the Mercedes was already on the limit of adhesion and its tyres immediately lost grip, the car sliding sideways into a very solid stone wall.
Jimmy and Tony leap out before the swarthy man could emerge and he surrendered without argument. Explanations soothed the occupants of a police car which had followed the chase and the whole party returned to the Sūreté, where Geoff and Simon were waiting for news. Thanking their temporary chauffeur, who said he was pleased to have won a race after all, Jimmy and Tony went inside to complete the formalities. Jimmy had thought that the capture would amount to no more than a mopping up operation, but it proved to have wider implications. The captive was quite willing to talk and what he said was interesting, to say the least.
As a start, he revealed that relations between the Colonel and the Council of Five had become seriously strained of late, not least because of arguments over the best way to deal with Simon Carter. The Colonel had wanted to take drastic measures, but the Council had vetoed all his proposals, not realising that he had interests of his own in the matter. He wanted to keep Simon away from Monaco, preferably on a permanent basis. He had suggested the campaign of threats for that purpose, ostensibly to meet the Council's desire to persuade Simon to work for them.
It was a sad tale of thieves falling out, but that was only part of the story, as the little man made painfully clear. 'In any case, it was a waste of time. The Colonel knows Mori is not to be trusted, but the Council say he is too useful to lose.'
'What has Mori got to do with it?' Geoff's question was understandably brusque. It had been hoped that Mori would not be suspected of helping with the destruction of the Colonel's plans.
The swarthy little man smiled unpleasantly. 'No one else knew enough to have caused so much trouble. The Colonel will kill him tonight. He can act freely on the yacht. The crew are his men, though the Council do not know that. If he has trouble with the Five, they will become four, or even fewer. If they all oppose him, there will be no Council and the fish will have a feast.'
The quiet matter of fact tones in which these statements were made did nothing to make them less credible. Jimmy felt a shiver run down his spine. It was clear that they had faced only one real enemy from the start. The Council might be powerful in their own sphere, but they were as children beside the Colonel's ruthlessness.
Geoff drew Jimmy aside and expressed his concern. 'I don't like this at all. We're going out tonight with a bunch of amateurs against a man who has neither conscience nor compassion and who has a whole crew at the beck and call. I wish we could call it off.'
'I doubt if you could.' Jimmy's smile was crooked. 'I have an idea that the ruthlessness isn't all on one side. Some of our lot could be pretty savage if they were roused.'
'That's precisely what worries me.' Geoff rumpled his hair, a highly uncharacteristic gesture. 'I was scared before, but I'm frightened stiff now.'
Chapters | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 |
| The Fiction of Don Thomasson |
|© Keith Thomasson February 11th 2002|