Chapter 3

            In fact, Charlie didn’t. Ring back, I mean. I spent all the next day in regular, ordinary business, all the time expecting Charlie to call, but it didn’t happen. It was the day after, late in the afternoon that the phone rang. Naturally I wanted to know if he had found anything out, but all he would say was, could I come down to his office, there was somebody he’d like me to meet and something I’d like to see. Who could resist that? In five minutes I was downstairs and in the police office, between the waiting room and the bookstall.

            Charlie was behind his desk. The other occupant was what I can only call a roly-poly kind of man. If he’d had a beard he could have got a job anytime as Santa Claus, except that his clothes did not match. He wore a dark blue three-piece suit, complete with, believe it or not, a gold watch chain draped tastefully across his middle. My first impression was that if only he had a uniform cap he could pass as somebody sent by Central Casting to fill the role of a railway guard.

            Charlie did the introductions.

            “Inspector, this is Frank McMullen, Traffic Superintendent of the Central Region. Frank, Inspector Barrett of the Nottingham CID.”

            We shook hands, and Barrett immediately got the show on the road.

            “We’d like to know what you make of that.”

            That was apparently a large brown-paper parcel on Charlie’s desk. I looked it over and delivered my verdict.

            “It’s addressed to C&T Electronics, Rotherham, and the contents are declared to be a cathode ray tube, like you get in a television set. It also seems to be pretty wet, or at least damp. Where did you get it?”

            “Kegworth. An angler found it floating down the Soar, just before it joins the Trent. It got stuck in some reeds and he went in after it- he was wearing waders. He took it to the local police when he saw what it was.”

            “Quite.” I said. “He wasn’t building a television set in his garage at home, so it would be no use to him, so, as an honest citizen, he naturally made a beeline for the police station. A fine demonstration of civic responsibility and integrity. Quite.”

            “Right. And somebody in the local police passed it on to us. They were very smart.”

            There followed a deadly silence. Evidently I was now supposed to show that I too was very smart and realized the importance of this tremendous discovery. Fortunately Charlie Fry was there, and evidently mercy was the Flavor of the Month. He prompted me.

            “Frank, have a look at the other end.”

            I did. There was a large, stick-on label, partly obliterated by a stain. There was no doubting what it was. At the top, in big letters, it said “By Passenger Train.”

            I owned up. “It’s one of ours. No question.”

            I leaned over to have a better look. These labels are used for parcels sent by rail. Nowadays they have been much simplified, but at that time they carried a lot of details, laboriously entered by hand. All I had to do was to repeat to Inspector Roly-Poly what was written on it.

            “This parcel was coming from London to Rotherham. It must have been urgent, because they paid extra for it to go by express train. It was put aboard at Mountroyal and would have been dropped off at Sheffield, for the connection to Rotherham. And…”, I took a deep breath and dived in off the deep end, “…and from the times and date written in, it would have been on the Ulsterman, the night the guard fell out.”

            There! Job done!

            Inspector Barrett gave a miniscule nod, and confirmed it.

            “Yes, that’s what the Kegworth police noticed, and sent it on to the CID. They’d read about the guard in the paper. Smart work!”

            There followed another silence while they both looked at me to see if I could get any further. And indeed I did.

            “How did it get out of the train and into the river?”

            All I got was a shrug, then Barrett again permitted himself a contribution.

            “Where would this parcel have been carried, in the train?”

            “Oh, in the brake, the guard’s van, along with the late George Carey.” Dead silence again. “But how did it get into the Soar?”

            I thought about it.

            “It has to be where the railway and the River Soar come together, and there’s only one place where that happens, at the Soar River Viaduct, between Vinley and Blisbourne Junction. It’s quite a long bridge, and the river’s quite wide. The Ulsterman went over it before arriving at Vinley.”

            I thought a bit further.

            “But how did the parcel get out of the train? Of course, there was a door hanging open. I suppose if the train pitched or rocked, the parcel could have slid out of the door- but, what a minute, that won’t work. It’s double track over the Soar Viaduct, and the train was running on the left-hand side. All British trains do, just like cars on the road. And the open door was on the off side, the right-hand side. So if the parcel fell out there it would just fall on to the other track, like the guard did. To get over the side into the water it would have to bounce across something like ten feet and then climb the parapet of the bridge. So it must have come out the other side, the left-hand side, where the train would be close up against the left-hand parapet, and it would in any case be coming off the floor of the van, which is about four feet above the ground. That way it could easily fall down into the river.”

            The silence continued, with two pairs of eyes fixing me unblinkingly. I was beginning to think I was being led along a predetermined itinerary, but whether it was up the garden path or along the yellow brick road I had no idea. And I didn’t much take to the approach of an interviewer who concentrated on telling me nothing, just to see if I was smart enough to follow in his footsteps on my own and work out the conclusions he had already come to.

            “But if that parcel got out of the van on the left-hand side, how did it do it? It would have to go through either the window or the door- no, not the window, the parcel’s too big for that, so the door. But then who opened the door and closed it again? It wasn’t the guard, because he was already lying as a mangled mess a good mile back, near Blisbourne Junction. And the Vinley station staff were quite clear that when it arrived at Vinley the van was empty, nobody else inside it. And it can’t be anybody from the rest of the train, because of the cello. And the Ulsterman runs non-stop from Leicester to Vinley, so there’s nowhere else anybody could have got off.”

            Maybe the local police had already worked all this out, but if so they were very smart indeed. But one thing was becoming clear.

            “In spite of everything, there must have been a second person in that van. That’s how it looks, anyhow.”

            Roly-Poly picked me up.

            “You said there was nobody there when the train arrived at Vinley, and there was nowhere else to get off. So how did this person disappear?”

            Ah, for once I could hit him on my own ground.

            “I may have second thoughts about that. The Ulsterman is a long train, a fifteen-coach set. Coming onto Vinley, the driver would have slowed down to take the points leading from the down through line to the platform loop. There’s a 15 mph speed limit over them. And all along the platform he would be braking yet further, to come to a stop neatly at the far end of it, getting slower and slower. The van is on the back end of the train, so it too will be moving slower and slower, before it reaches the platform. In fact, before it gets there it could be down to walking pace. And there’s a door open on the off side. Our Mr. X could hop out just before the train came to a full stop, leaving the van empty for the platform staff to see. They were on the other side, after all, and it was dark!”

            Roly-Poly (yes, I really was starting to think of him that way)- he nodded.

            “That’s just what we thought.”

            I was getting tired of this! I counterattacked.

            “Well then, why was this person throwing parcels into the River Soar? Have you worked that out too?”

            Mercifully Charlie Fry again came to the rescue.

            “Inspector, tell us about the stain.”

            The Inspector took a deep breath,

            “That brown stain that nearly obliterates the railway label. I took the parcel to the forensic people. They haven’t run tests yet, but they are pretty sure it is blood. Luckily the parcel was floating that side up, out of the water, so it didn’t wash off.”

            Good God! This was getting worse and worse! First we had an unknown second person in the van, and now we had evidence that there had been some kind of bloody affray inside it. I drew the unwelcome but obvious conclusion.

            “I see. So that’s why the stained parcel was thrown into the river, to get rid of the evidence that there had been some kind of struggle in the guard’s van. And nobody would have thought it was going to float and be found. Thank heavens for that cathode ray tube! If it wasn’t for that we would have accepted that the guard had just suffered an accident, even if we couldn’t quite work out how. But, as it is, – he didn’t fall, he was pushed.”

            Did I see a small gleam of approval in the slits which served Roly-Poly for eyes?”

            “Exactly!”

            Charlie again chipped in.

            “And there’s more!”

            Oh no, surely not! My brain was already feeling as if it had been put through a wringer.

            “Frank, have you noticed these?”

            I hadn’t. Charlie was pointing to three small wet parcels on the floor behind his desk. I hadn’t seen them.

            In tones of the oracle speaking, Barrett explained.

            “We thought that if evidence was being thrown off the Soar River Viaduct, maybe there might be other pieces that didn’t float, but sank. That was no doubt the whole idea. So this morning we sent two frogmen down to look, and they found these. Evidently there was a whole host of parcels being flung out of the van as it went over the bridge. Any blood that there was on them has been washed off, but the labels seem to indicate that they were on the same train. You can look and check. And our men also found this. It wasn’t in the river, it was on the grass bank. He must have missed his aim with that one.”

            He held up a sort of flat iron bar, about a foot and half long, with four big holes bored in it.

            “Can you identify this?”

            This one was easy.

            “Of course. It’s a fishplate.”

            “A what?”

            Ha! How nice for the boot to be on the other foot.

            “It’s a fishplate, which is a strip of iron used to connect two rails together at a rail-joint. The holes are to take the bolts fastening the assembly together.”

            I’m not quite sure he followed all that, but he returned to the attack.

            “I see. And where would it have come from?”

            “Anywhere. On any railway in Britain there are thousands of these things, holding the track together. The standard rail length is 60 feet, and each rail has two of them at the joint. Just add up the total mileage of the railways, double it to allow for there being two rails, and divide by 60 feet, and you can see how many of them there are. And you’ll always find odd ones lying around, where some job was finished and nobody bothered to pick up the leftovers. I’m sure if you looked you’d find a few lying on the ground right here in this station, just like the one you are holding.”

            The Inspector turned it over in his hand.

            “Not quite like this one. Do you see what’s sticking to it on the back?”

            “I can see something sticking there. What is it?”

            “Human hair, bits of skull, and various tissues.”

            I almost felt sick.

            “Then somebody used that to hit the guard over the head and threw it out at the bridge to get rid of it?”

            “That’s the general idea.”

            Just as in talking with the platform inspector at Vinley we had shied away from using the S-word, suicide, so we had now been avoiding the M-word. But not any longer. I used it.

            “So this is a case of murder?”

            They both nodded. Charlie confirmed it. “It seems quite clear that it is.”

            I thought for a moment.

            “But why? What was the motive? And who did it? We have nothing on that- no, wait a minute, the murderer must have got on to the train at Leicester, if not before, and he got into the guard’s van. And evidently George Carey allowed him in. If it had been an ordinary passenger he would have directed him to the passenger coaches. So it must have been either somebody he knew or somebody who had a right to be there. That seems to point to it being another railwayman. But I still can’t guess the motive.”

            Roly-Poly swelled up a little.

            “But I can. We’ve been making enquiries round the town, and apparently this man Cay had been living it up in the pubs, saying he was on to a good thing. And he had a bank account. The manager was very helpful. Last week five hundred pounds was paid into his account, we don’t know where from.”

            Charlie offered the obvious hint.

            “Blackmail! The guard was blackmailing somebody, and the somebody got rid of him. Probably came aboard at Leicester with the excuse that he was making the next payment. The guard would let him in, suspecting nothing. Then, when the train got going,- bash! with the fishplate. He’d have brought it with him. Out the door with the body, and, since some of the parcels had got blood on them, into the river with them, and hop off as the train was slowing down for the Vinley stop, leaving the door open to make it look like an accident.”

            Slowly I nodded.

            “And I needn’t even ask about fingerprints. In the meantime that van has been running up and down between Mountroyal and Whitehaven, oh, I don’t know how many times. But for the rest, it all seems to hang together. Except, what was the blackmail about? What was the dreadful secret involved? And who was the other party?”

            Roly-Poly (I still found it hard to think of him as Inspector Barrett, of the CID) reflected on it.

            “If we get the secret, we’ve got the other party. This is coming to look like it’s all between railwaymen, or at least tied up with your railway operation. Can you think of anything going on here that might have been blackmail worthy? Even remotely?”

            I almost hesitated to mention it.

            “I doubt if that’s it, but a week or so ago somebody burgled my office, upstairs here. The place was ransacked, but I don’t think anything was taken. In fact, I can’t think of anything in my office that a burglar would even want to take. A strange business, but I can’t see it as a subject for blackmail, especially one leading to murder.”

            Roly-Poly levered himself up out of his chair.

            “That’s it, then. I can’t see any connection either, but you never know. Actually, it looks as if our murderer had the whole thing planned out beforehand. Brought the fishplate with him, knocked out the guard before they got to the bridge where he could dump incriminating evidence, left the door open to suggest an accident, and slipped away at the last moment before the train stopped. Looks like good planning to me. Still, with a bit of luck we’ll get him.”

            I said “Or…?”

            They both looked at me.

            “Or what?”

            I was really being rather juvenile, but I had not at all appreciated being interrogated as if I were sitting for an oral exam, and I relished a chance to get back at Roly-Poly on his own ground.

            “You said ‘We’ll get him!’. You left out the ‘Or’. “We’ll get him- or her.” You’re assuming it’s a man.”

            This time they looked at each other.

            “Well, Frank, it almost certainly is.”

            Which gave me my opening.

            “But isn’t a key point in detective work always to keep an open mind?”

            There was no answer. Roly-Poly left without looking at me. Charlie nerved himself to nod at me, and then quietly gestured with his hand for me to stay. So I stayed.

            “Frank,” he said, “there’s something I meant to ask you. Shouldn’t a government inspector, or somebody like that, investigate this thing? I thought it was automatic.”

            “Yes, you’re right, all railway accidents are inspected by the government, always have been. They use officers of the Royal Engineers, and very efficient they are about it too. But there is one exception. The exception was the old London and Northern. Apparently some time away back in the 1880’s the chairman was a great friend of Disraeli, then the Prime Minister, and got out of him some special decree that the London and Northern could always investigate their own accidents without any official inspector, as long as there was no member of the public hurt or involved. In fact, they then named one of their best and biggest express engines ‘Disraeli’ as a sort of ‘Thank You’ gesture. That’s where the tradition started, that all our big 2AP’s are named after Prime Ministers. As for the exemption from government inspection, of course that should have lapsed, now that we are all BR together, but I don’t think it has got straightened out yet. I suppose just nobody noticed.

            As for Guard Carey, no passenger is involved, so we’re on our own.

            The loneliness of command, that’s what we’ve got stuck with, Charlie!”

            Charlie looked a bit doubtful over the whole business, so I left him to it. As for my correction of Roly-Poly – no, let’s call it a sneer, which is what it really was – , about it possibly being a woman, of course that was no more than a debating trick. The murderer, probably, really was a man, unless we got some new and very convincing evidence pointing at a woman. But nevertheless I had rather enjoyed myself saying it, so I didn’t go straight home. Instead I went into the refreshment room and had a Bass to celebrate. And I bet it would be some time before Charlie Fry invited me in to meet another visitor, though in that, as so often, I was wrong.

            When I did get home I told Joan all about it, including my parting shot. She wasn’t at all impressed, even when I tried to tell her that it was a blow against stereotyping. She thought it was a little childish, in a very serious business. Just the same, I still felt that revenge was sweet.

 

Comment by the Murderer

            I don’t like this at all. They got the parcels, and, worst of all, the iron fishplate, and the one I coshed George Carey with. So I missed my throw on that one and it landed on the bank instead of in the water. I should have thrown it first, and made sure it went into the river. Bad planning, or bad luck, but whichever it was it wasn’t good. Then, maybe I should have thought of the parcels floating, or at least one of them. And of course they were right about Carey blackmailing me, that’s why he had to be got rid of, though they are still a long way off figuring out what the blackmail was about. That’s one thing they will never sort out, and anyway there’s no evidence at all, let alone proof, pointing at me for anything. I’ve had some bad luck but still I’m pretty well all right. I wish Frank wasn’t getting mixed up in this, though. He keeps on saying he’s wrong, but in the end he often gets there just the same.

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