Chapter 5

            I still found the Russian spy story hard to swallow. All right for films and thrillers, but not for it to happen to yourself. And why leave such a mess in the office, as an advertisement that positively screamed Dirty Work at the Crossroads? Unless, I suppose, he was interrupted before he was finished, and had to cut and run for it. And I couldn’t see a trained agent panicking like this – no, wait, Major Brown had cleared that one up, it wouldn’t be the agent proper who’d be doing it, it would be some amateur accomplice who might indeed panic, and run for it. One thing I’d better do to-morrow is look for my list of route availability for the rocket trains, and see if it is still there. Even better, get Dozie to do it. Unless, of course – oh, no!, it’s bad enough imagining the Civil Engineer as being a lackey of the Kremlin, but Dozie! No, let us at least try to stay sane, and also, if possible, sensible.

            The more I thought about it the more ridiculous the whole thing appeared. Indeed, Major Brown had clearly said it was all guesswork, and a long shot at that. Maybe the burglary was just vandalism, pure and simple, although as an explanation that did not seem more likely than any of the others. What would Hercule Poirot have done? I shrugged and turned my eyes up to heaven. Or rather, that’s what I intended to do but they never got past my rearview mirror. And the green Vauxhall was still behind me.

            Was that the same one that had been parked and waiting at Central Station? I eased up on the accelerator to fall back a little and get a good look. Of course the license number would mean absolutely nothing to me, even if I could read the number plate backwards in the mirror, but Vauxhalls, while they weren’t rare, weren’t all that common a car either, not like Austins, Morrises, or Hillmans. And it actually was green. Naturally I couldn’t see much of the driver, but, – why! he was wearing a white coat. That I could see clearly enough, it was very plain. A white raincoat, maybe? Now, where had I recently seen a white raincoat? Of course, a man in a white raincoat had been just behind me on the footbridge at the station, when I turned round to talk to Charlie Fry. I had nearly bumped into him.

            It is not easy to describe or even recall what my feelings were. I was like somebody faced with the utterly incomprehensible. Spies in an Ian Fleming paperback were one thing. Spies, real spies, ones you heard about from Major Brown, were a different story. But men in white raincoats actually following you in green Vauxhalls down the A 60, that was different yet again, and I had no idea whatever what to do or even think.

            My first coherent thought was, enough of this nonsense. You’re imagining the whole thing. So, just to prove that it was nonsense, I took a side road that I knew. So did the Vauxhall. Taking another turn I looped around and got back on to the A 60. So did he.

            There couldn’t be any doubt about it, not now. I accelerated to see if I could get away from him. But a Morris Minor can’t outrun a Vauxhall, a much bigger car. I started rushing my corners, tyres squealing as if in a Hollywood movie. He was still there, and pushing behind me. A blare of horns as I cut wildly round a curve on the wrong side of the road; how I missed the oncoming bus I will never know, but it cooled me off a bit. Whatever White Raincoat was up to along that stretch of road it wouldn’t help if I killed myself. So what were his intentions?

            Was he just shadowing me to see where I went, or was he planning some rough stuff, between here and Blaxthorpe? Surely nobody, Russian spy or anybody else, would think I would be carrying round the route availability of the rocket trains tucked into my breast pocket? Even worse, could it be “Come back to your office and hand it over- or else!” There was something even worse than that. If he followed me right to my house, that’s where Joan was, potentially a very useful victim or hostage. Of course, I didn’t have to go home. I could go somewhere else and string him along, to keep him at least away from Joan. But then, leaving Joan alone in the house and suspecting nothing, that wasn’t an attractive option either. Any spy worth the name would know where I lived. Well, wouldn’t he? I’m in the phone book.

            A large billboard in a roadside field, advertising Guinness, caught my eye and awoke me to reality, or at least partial reality. Not that it was important in itself, but I must have been driving automatically for the last ten minutes. I had no recollection at all of where I was or what I had been doing, my mind was in too much of a turmoil. The big sign, designed to be eye-catching, caught my eye, and with a click I now at least realized where I was. Not too far from home, and the Vauxhall was still there. I’d soon be in Blaxthorpe.

            Blaxthorpe!

            I glanced at my watch. No, I was too early. Slow down.

            So did the Vauxhall.

            After a bit I glanced again. 5.58. Still too early. It was only a wild chance anyway but I couldn’t think of anything else to do. This was all open country and I wanted to keep going. Spin it out as long as I could. At least he didn’t seem to be trying to catch up, he was still a hundred yards or so behind.

            Good.

            Round the long bend, and – now?

            It was 6.01.

            Yes, now!

I snicked down into third gear and stamped hard on the accelerator.

            The Morris leapt ahead.

            I streaked over the Blaxthorpe level crossing just as the gates started to move.

            Behind me they bangled closed across the road, barring the way for the Vauxhall, still on the far side of them.

            And with a blast on the whistle, the 6.02 all stations to Nottingham began to move out of the Blaxthorpe platform and over the crossing – dead on the dot of time!

            Thank God for punctuality!

            There it was in my mirror, a small-boilered 17JMT 0-6-0, steaming slowly across the road, hauling a set of four coaches, each 32 tons and 60 feet long, and all that blocking the road for my pursuer.

            Thank God for knowing the timetable! And Thank God for British Railways!

            I kept going round the corner, quick into our laneway, and parked the car round the side of the house, out of sight. I got out and, from behind one of our trees, peered down the laneway. I could hear the beat of the exhaust of the 6.02 dying away; he was running downhill, so wouldn’t be working the engine hard.

            The Blaxthorpe signalman would be just about opening his gates now.

            A green Vauxhall, driven fast, shot past the end of our laneway, continuing on along the A 60.

            So he didn’t know where I lived. I suppose even the KGB can make mistakes. Boy, tovarich, would I ever like to see the report you’ll be sending back to the Kremlin!

            You’ll be thinking, why didn’t I call the police? Or even drive straight to a police station? Well, by the time all this was coming clear I was on a long stretch of the A 60 with no police stations in sight, and to get to the nearest one I’d have had to go through Blaxthorpe anyway. And, you will understand, my thinking was perhaps not of the clearest, given the circumstances. But as for calling the police, I did that right away. Or at least I called Charlie Fry, at home, and him the whole story.

            Charlie was both horrified and reassuring. He was shocked at what I had been through, though I got the impression that what really shocked him was intensity of my reaction rather than the events that caused it. After all, a car had followed me. That was all. No proof of anything, and he may have been trying to hide a suspicion that I was exaggerating, or even imagining things. A reasonable enough attitude, I suppose. He hadn’t been there.

            As for reassuring, he pointed out that, by my own account, my adversary had not been making any attempt to hide. From the start he had been out there and obvious. The proof was that I had ever seen him. If I, wholly untrained in this kind of thing and never expecting anything of the sort, had yet noticed that I was being tailed, then it would indicate either extreme professional incompetence on the part of the agent, or that he didn’t mind being seen. If it had been a really professional job I would never have caught on.

            This appeared sensible to me. Charlie carried on with the reassurance. If, to take the most extreme case, my pursuer had really wanted to do me any harm, he surely could have done it. Part of the time I had been traveling on side roads, away from anywhere, and I could easily have been bumped into the ditch. And if any harm had been intended towards Joan or myself, surely, as I myself had pointed out, he would know my address. And he evidently didn’t know since he drove on past the house and hadn’t been seen since. He hadn’t, had he? No, he hadn’t.

            So maybe the whole thing was just pure chance. Maybe he was after somebody else for a completely different reason, such as a divorce case, and made a mistake, got the wrong man. Would I know him again if I saw him? Of course I wouldn’t. I never got a good look at his face, and I had other things on my mind, like escaping. Anyhow, said Charlie, he would ring Major Brown, bring him up to date, and see what he had to say.

            When I hung up, Joan was at my elbow, politely and restrainedly agog. She had heard only part of the conversation, but I was clearly on the spot, so I told her the whole thing, as I had Charlie. I might not have, otherwise, but as it was there wasn’t much else I could do. To her credit, she was as reassuring and comforting as she could be and still be sensible. She more or less echoed Charlie’s judgment, and, to be honest, I was beginning to simmer down myself and wonder if maybe I had panicked unreasonably.

            Her first reaction was, naturally, to call the police, the real police, not just Charlie. I wasn’t enthusiastic about that. I doubted if the local police were experts on Russian spies and their techniques, nor would they know much about the rocket trains. Major Brown was the man for that, and Charlie had already promised to call him. Nor did I fancy the idea of talking to Inspector Barrett, not after the way I had mockingly, even sneeringly, dismissed him in that interview. I had really been very foolish, and how I now regretted it! I could just hear the line he would take: “So, then, Mr. McMullen, you saw a green car on the A 60 last night? Highly suspicious indeed! We’ll look into it.” He’d be grinning as he hung up; and I’d deserve it.

            Joan’s second suggestion was better, that after dinner we should make a clean break with it all, and go out in town to the cinema.

            “What’s on?” I asked.

            “I don’t know. I think there’s a Deborah Kerr one. She’s usually good.”

            “Joan, dear, you always come up with the right idea. Get your hat and coat.”

            I admit that on the drive there I was looking in the mirror for suspicious headlights following me, but couldn’t see any. Maybe I had over-reacted after all. I parked the car at the cinema, and as we went in, Joan nudged me, pointing to the “Now Showing” posters outside.

            “Do you know the film?” I asked.

            “No, but it sounds like a romance. Just what I need.”

            “So it does.”

            The film was Deborah Kerr in “I See A Dark Stranger.”

            It was all about spies.

            For almost two hours we sat and watched Deborah Kerr and Trevor Howard being chased across England, the Isle of Man, and Ireland, by Nazi spies intent on stealing the British plans for the D-Day invasion of Normandy. In the circumstances, I won’t even say what I thought of it or what my reactions were.

            When we got home, Joan was apologetic, and I tried to be nice about it.

            “Well, it was really quite a good film.”

            There was one thing about it that struck me as strange. In the film a foreign agent secretly followed the couple across the country. He always appeared wearing a loud check jacket, the kind of thing bookies wear at racecourses to attract attention and hence customers. I mentioned this to Joan.

            “I always thought that a good spy was supposed to look completely unobtrusive, nondescript, the sort of person you would pass in the street and never notice. So why on earth was he rigged out like that?”

            Joan, as so often, gave a sensible answer.

            “I suppose it was to make sure you did notice him. The characters in the film never spotted him, but it had to be made clear to the audience what was going on or they wouldn’t follow the plot. Hence the check jacket, and the camera did tend to zoom in on him so that you wouldn’t miss the point. It’s only a film, not the real thing.”

            “That’s right,” I replied slowly, and then took the next step.

            “I just wonder if that explains my follower home form work. I thought he might be just incompetent, or not caring if I spotted him, but maybe it went one step further. I wonder if maybe I was meant to see him, and that was what it was all about. Hence that very visible white raincoat and his driving hard, hard on my heels all the way. He might as well have been carrying a big sign “I’m Following You!”. And his bosses, whoever they are, would have realized that unless it was deliberately made very obvious, I never would notice that I was being followed. I’m not in their line of business, and it would be a completely different situation if they were dealing with a trained agent, or even anybody with connections in security at all. For example, when you were going through the Lace Market in Nottingham the other day, was anybody following you?”

            Joan shook her head.

            “I’ve no idea, Frank, I never looked. Why should I?”

            “Exactly. I’d be the same, so if they wanted me to know somebody had their eye on me they’d have to make it very ostentatious.”

            “But then what would be the purpose of that?”

            “Maybe to get me worried? Scare tactics?”

            “But that doesn’t get us much further. Why would anybody want to scare you?”

            “Why indeed? I can only imagine it must have something to do with those rocket trains. If whoever it was didn’t get the information he was after by means of the burglary, then perhaps this is the fallback plan? Maybe I’ll be getting anonymous phone calls telling me to drop off the route availability details behind the third telephone pole from the Blaxthorpe Post Office, if I know what’s good for me. Certainly I can’t think of anything else that I have ever done or been connected with that would make anybody want to put pressure on me. All this spy stuff, it’s just not in my league.”

            “Yes, Frank, I can see that, but all the same, there is one good thing about it. It means we are not immediately under the gun. You don’t try to scare somebody if at the same time you are to – well, to put it bluntly, trying to shoot them. Sorry to be so alarmist about it, but from this angle, let’s say, it could be worse.

            Didn’t I tell you that Joan was always sensible?

            Next morning, before I left home, I got a call from Charlie Fry. He had already spoken to Major Brown, and the word was that I shouldn’t worry, well, not too much. That seemed a bit vague, but I don’t suppose I could expect much more, and anything was better than nothing. Maybe Major Brown was doing something undercover about it. And in the bright light of a sunny morning I asked myself if I could be sure I wasn’t going overboard about the whole affair.

            Just the same. I walked over to Blaxthorpe station to go in to work on the train. I wasn’t going to drive over that bit of road again, at least not yet.

            And as the train came in, I had a good look at all my fellow-passengers assembled on the platform.

            Fine! Not a white raincoat among the lot of them. At least this was not the sort of thing Hercule Poirot never had to cope with. Nobody ever chased him.

 

 

Comment by the Murderer

            No comment at all! It wasn’t me that was chasing him. Is it possible that Frank has got tangled up in something I don’t even know about? And he doesn’t know about it either? What a thought! But don’t blame me for this. It’s not my doing, and, to tell the truth, I’m as curious about it as you are. It would be nice to get it sorted out. And I don’t even own a white raincoat, or a Vauxhall either, if it comes to that.

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