Chapter 10

            I was sitting in the refreshment room having my lunch, surrounded by the suitcases and bags of all the passengers who were fuelling up to face the two-hour trip to London. We do have a staff canteen, but on the whole I prefer the refreshment room. They had heated up a steak and kidney pie for me and I was just trying to spear an errant piece of kidney with my fork when I happened to glance out through the window. There, walking along the platform, were Roly-Poly (what, again?) and, alongside him silver hair matched the silver piping on the uniform – Charlie Fry, in full dress turnout. They evidently happened to look in and saw me too. One nudged the other and they came in and hurried over to my table. I cheerfully greeted them.

            “Hello, Inspector, Charlie. You needn’t try to grill me again, I don’t know any more than last time. I don’t even know where the General Manager, Larry Fineman, is, he still hasn’t turned up.”

            Not a smile. They both looked very serious.

            Roly-Poly spoke.

            “Mr. Fineman has turned up. He’s at Sheffield.”

            “Sheffield? What’s he doing there? He’s supposed to be in France.”

            Inspector Barrett came out with it in a controlled, neutral voice.

            “He’s not doing anything. He’s dead.”

            For a while the world around me simply stood still.

            Then he added, “Murdered, I’m afraid. Hit over the head, just like Guard Carey was.”

            I was too shocked to say anything. Guard Carey was a bad business, but Larry Fineman, a colleague in the next office to mine, a man who had often pulled me up sharp for one thing or another, but also a man with whom I had often shared a Bass or a coffee – this was on an altogether different plane. Maybe it shouldn’t have been, but for me it was, and that’s that.

            Almost in a whisper I asked, “What happened?”

            The Inspector – and, believe me, I no longer thought of him as Roly-Poly. Not when we were dealing with something like this. And I now bitterly repented of my mental mockery of him – , the Inspector replied, still very controlled.

            “His body was found crammed into the tool box of a goods brake van, and he’d been dead for a long time. The van was being shunted into Sheffield Works for repairs, and – well, frankly, they were alerted by the smell. They opened up the toolbox, and there he was. He still had his wallet on him. That’s how we identified him. And his head was split open. A blunt instrument, as usual.”

            I was beginning to get enough of a grip on myself to ask questions.

            “But what – no, how, how did he get to Sheffield? And why? I don’t understand any of this.”

            “Apparently he got there in the brake van. It came from here, Nottingham, sent to Sheffield for repairs.”

            I felt a cold feeling stealing over me. I knew that brake van.

            “That van – it was sitting here on the siding just outside our offices. Every day I was parking my car right alongside it. It must have been there for at least a week.”

            I couldn’t help remembering how I had cursed the van as I had squeezed my car past it into my parking spot. Day after day. And all the time, one day after another, I was walking by, within a few feet of where Larry Fineman was lying dead, slowly decomposing, and right alongside me. While all the time I was making wisecracks about how long he was away from work.

            “Then perhaps he didn’t go to France after all.”

            “No, Frank,” said Charlie. “They found his passport in his pocket and it hadn’t been stamped. He never got to France. He was here all the time.”

            He felt in his pocket and produced a paper slip. Even across the table I could see the heading SNCF printed on it – French State Railways. He passed it over to me. “He had that in his pocket as well.”

            I examined it.

            “A return ticket from Calais Maritime to Paris, Gare du Nord. And it hasn’t been used. Of course, in Britain he’d have no ticket, he’d be traveling on his Gold Pass, as a Regional Manager of the Line. So he really was going to France. He just never got there. He was…interrupted on the way.”

            A further point occurred to me.

            “And if the body was put into the brake van, that was standing on the siding here, so the odds are he was…”, I could hardly say the word, “…killed right here, close to his own office. The killer wouldn’t have wanted to carry the body any further than necessary. He’d hide it somewhere very close, unless he had a car or something to carry it away in.”

            “But he didn’t,” interjected the Inspector. “It went into that brake van, so he was probably killed close by. Maybe even in his own office. That’s not far away, is it?”

            “No, just up the stairs and at the end of the corridor, next to mine. Wait a minute, let me see that ticket again.”

            I looked at the date.

            “I remember he said he was going up to London the night before, he’d stay at the Mountroyal Station Hotel, and the next morning go over to Victoria to catch the boat train. Probably the Golden Arrow, leaving at 11.00.”

            Inspector Barrett nodded. Somehow now he didn’t look at all ridiculous, not any more. He didn’t seem to be grilling me either, not like before. He volunteered more information.

            “And we have just now learned something else. I rang his office and got his secretary. She says there was some mix-up over his French ticket, he’d left it in his office, and said he’d pick it up before catching the London train that evening. And we know he did pick it up, because here it is. Then we know that he did come in to his office that evening, after normal business hours. Now, what train would he be catching?”

            I took a guess, but at least it was an informed one.

            “I’d guess the 8.05. That’s non-stop to London- the men call it The Flyer -, and would get him there in respectable time for his hotel. So, let me see, he’d come to the station say half an hour before that, to pick up his ticket. That brings him into our office wing about 7.35, and I suppose that between then and 8.05 he was killed, because when the 8.05 went out he certainly wasn’t on it. He was dead, in the brake van.”

            Barrett nodded again.

            “Then we have pretty well determined the time of death, in spite of the decayed condition of the body.”

            Charlie offered an addition.

            “And maybe the date and time are significant?”

            I slowly shook my head. “Not to me they’re not.”

            Inspector Barrett again offered me the French ticket.

            “Look at the date and subtract one, for the evening before, when he was leaving here and was killed in or around his office. Wasn’t that day the night your office was burgled?”

            I just about smote my forehead. I hadn’t noticed it. I had had it pushed under my nose, and it hadn’t registered. My estimation of Inspector Barrett again underwent agonizing reappraisal. Either I had much underestimated him or I had overestimated myself, and I took a decision no longer to play at being Hercule Poirot. This whole business was no longer a subject for after-dinner amusement, and I would be very well advised to let the professionals get on with their job.

            “Yes, Inspector, on thinking it over, I agree. It was that evening, or night, that I was burgled. I found out about it when I came in the next morning. So maybe there’s a link between the burglary and the killing? It seems an obvious line to follow, though I don’t think we’ve got a great motive to explain either event.”

            I wasn’t prepared yet to mention Major Brown and his rocket trains, not to mention my adventures with men in white coats and green Vauxhalls. Charlie too stayed quiet. The Inspector grunted agreement with my remarks, or at least partial agreement.

            “Oh, I don’t know. If your General Manager came in after hours unexpectedly, to pick up his ticket, and interrupted a burglary that was going on, that very likely could explain why he was hit over the head. Maybe they didn’t intend actually to kill him, just get him out of the way. And didn’t you say your office was next to his?”

            “That’s right, so he’d be there, right on the spot.”

            “And we’re pretty sure he was killed there, or somewhere near it, and then taken downstairs and pushed into the brake van. Could that have been done in the daytime, without being seen?”

            “No, Inspector, certainly not. There would be a lot of people around, including myself. But after hours, in the dark, the place is usually deserted. Plenty of people on the platform, in the station, yes, but not in the administrative wing. That’s quite a different story. And I suppose the killing, in any case, would be unpremeditated. It would have to be, if we’re right about the interruption theory. He got killed because he just happened to barge in to the middle of something that was going on.”

            I didn’t add that the theory of it being an inside job was thereby reinforced. Faced with a sudden need to hide a corpse, surely only a railway employee would think of the brake van conveniently parked outside our front door, and would know that it would have a large tool box, under the guard’s seat, big enough to take the body. He might even have realized that the van was a cripple, awaiting repairs, not in regular service, so for some time nobody much would be looking at it. God in heaven, this was getting closer and closer to home all the time.

            Charlie spoke up, bringing it all a bit closer still.

            “Now, could there be any tie-in with the murder of George Carey? We’d been wondering what he could have been blackmailing anybody about, and we were doubtful about the burglary being sufficient motive. But if the burglary itself involved another murder, then that changes everything. The blackmail would be about a murder, not just a burglary, and that would explain the guard’s death. One murder to cover up another. But how would the guard know? Was he somehow in on the burglary himself?”

            Inspector Barrett asked the obvious question.

            “We seem to have the time and place of the murder and burglary pretty well established. So where was the guard at that time? He was working on the Ulsterman, wasn’t he?”

            I corrected him.

            “He was on the Ulsterman when he was himself killed, but the burglary was a week before that. The job roster usually changes every week, so he’d have been on a different train on burglary-night. Let’s ring up and find out what it was.”

            We left the refreshment room and went along to Charlie’s office, where I could use the telephone. I had the information in five minutes.

            “On that date, George Carey was the guard of the 5.55 express from Mountroyal. The train goes through to Newcastle, but they change enginemen and guard here at Nottingham, so he’d have come off duty here. The 5.55 is booked to arrive here at 8.02, and apparently that night it arrived right on time. So at 8.02 George Carey got off the train here at Platform 4. That’s probably about the time the body was being stowed in the van. And Guard Carey would have been heading for home.”

            The Inspector was taking notes.

            “And the way out from that platform is through the booking hall, I believe?”

            “For passengers, yes, but the guard would be alighting from his van at the back of the train, a long way from the ordinary way out. He would have probably come through that passage under the administrative offices, from the platform to the forecourt outside. That’s where the staff cycle shed is and I expect he’d be biking it home. But that would mean he was passing that parked brake van just about the time the murderer was bundling the body into it, so he could very well have seen the whole thing. There must have been enough light for him to have seen who it was, or he couldn’t have blackmailed him. No problem there. The forecourt is pretty well lighted, though not so much at that end of it. So he could have seen what was going on, then got in touch, demanded money, received 500 pounds, and thought he was on to a good thing. While in fact the murderer was laying plans to get rid of him, and a week later, near Blisbourne Junction, did exactly that.”

            “That’s about it,” reflected the Inspector. There are a lot of ‘if’s and ‘probably’s in the reconstruction, but so far it’s the best we have. It doesn’t tell us, though, who the guilty party is. Could be anybody. And it doesn’t explain why the burglar was burgling, or what he – or she! – was after.”

            With thoughts of rocket trains and Russian spies floating in my head, I raised an interrogative eyebrow in the general direction of Charlie Fry. Leaning back so the Inspector could not see him, he slightly shook his head, put his finger to his lips, and silently mouthed ‘Ssh!’. Evidently the rocket trains were not common knowledge.

            So I ssh’d, and shook hands again with the Inspector as he headed off towards the way out from the station. Charlie strolled back with me in the direction of my office.

            “Frank, anything more about men in white coats?”

            “No, I’ve been keeping my eyes open, but I can’t say I’ve seen anything. You never know, though. If they knew their job, I’d never see them anyway, would I?”

            Charlie shrugged.

            “I don’t think you have anything to worry about. By the way, about the rocket trains. I didn’t think we should bring it up before Inspector Barrett, at least not yet. But have you had a look around your office yet, is the material on those rocket trains still there, or is it gone, missing?”

            I hadn’t thought of that. No time like the present, so with Charlie in tow I went straight back to my office. Dozie was already there, having presumably had her lunch in the canteen – she hadn’t been in the refreshment room. So the next thing was to sort through the files and find the rocket train material. There was an easy way of doing that.

            “Dozie, could you please get out for me whatever we have on the rocket trains, particularly on route availability. I want to show it to Inspector Fry here.”

            Dozie pulled open a couple of drawers on the filing cabinet, and, it seemed in no time, turned back to me with a handful of papers.

            “Is this what you want?”

            Yes, it was. I carried the sheets over to the window to get a good look at them in the daylight, but in fact so that I could speak quietly to Charlie, at my elbow.

            “This is it, Charlie. Route availability, composition of the trains, how many wagons, order in which they are to be marshaled, military contacts and phone numbers at Catterick Camp, it’s all here. The whole thing. Intact.”

            “But couldn’t somebody have photographed it?”

            “With a miniature camera, the thing real spies are supposed to use. Yes, Charlie, I suppose so, but remember that this burglary was supposed to be by an amateur, some dupe or fellow traveler, who wouldn’t have had a camera or known how to use one, not for close-ups of documents under artificial light. What he would have known was how to find the material, the way Dozie did just now, which just about rules out a professional agent.”

            Reluctantly Charlie had to agree. He came back on another tack, running his eye quickly around the office.

            “Frank, we’ve been talking about the mess you found in your office after the burglary, which, by the way, does make it look like they were interrupted. But was there any sign of an actual struggle, a fight? We should think of that now, since we are now assuming your General Manager got beaten up, somewhere on the premises, here or in the next office, next door.”

            “A long time ago, Charlie, and the offices and the corridor have been cleaned every day since. Naturally, we weren’t looking for anything in particular, not as a clue. We were just tidying up.”

            I have a large and ornately carved mahogany desk, handed down to me when I moved in, as part of the ancestral heritage of Nottingham Central Station. Charlie squinted hard at a corner of it.

            “There’s a bit broken off here, and it looks fairly recent. Was it like that before?”

            “I don’t know. I’d never noticed that. It does look like a new break, as if something had hit it.”

            “Or someone,” amended Charlie. “Hit it in falling, perhaps. And what about your blunt instrument here?”

            He pointed to a heavy brass ashtray, emblazoned with the coat of arms of the London and Northern Railway. I got it from my father, who was a London and Northern man. I picked up the ashtray. It looked clean and shiny. Wiped clean? Charlie shrugged, and made for the door.

            “So long, Frank. If anything more comes up I’ll let you know to-morrow!”

            “Sorry, but I won’t be here. I’m going up to London for the day, a meeting about those Britannias. I hope we can get our hands on some of them.”

            I’m not sure Charlie really knew what the Britannias were. No reason he should, rally, though I think I had mentioned it to him. Policemen are not professionally involved with locomotives and timetabling the way I was. And if I could get some Britannias off the production line at Crewe for the Central Region it would at least partly compensate for the shock, the appalling shock, of the murder of our General Manager. And it was my job to serve the railway, not to try to solve murders. Moreover, Joan would be going with me, which ought to lighten things up. And it would be a day away from the oppressively accumulating pressures of life and death at Nottingham Central, a day off, a holiday, for there wouldn’t be any new developments on a trip to London: Charlie Fry couldn’t get at me there, if, in his own words, “anything more comes up.”

 

Comment by the Murderer

            Well, there you have it, or at least a lot of it. I don’t really like to think of myself as a murderer. George Carey at least deserved all that he got, and he did bring it on himself. If he hadn’t been walking along that passageway to the cycle shed, if he hadn’t tried to put the screw on me, if, if, if. He was asking for it. Larry Fineman was a different story. His coming into the offices after hours was pure accident, and maybe I panicked in hitting him. Still, what could I have said to him when he found me ransacking Frank’s office? This is all a heap of maybes, but the truth of it is that when I went into that office I had no intention of doing anything to hurt anybody. And anyway I did have to go there, I had no choice. They made sure of that, the bastards. And even then, it’s not as if they were planning to do anything all that awful. Just as well, let’s call it a demonstration right? That’s all. It would have soon been all over and forgotten, with no harm done. But then, of course, everything went wrong. And as for putting him in that brake van, maybe I should have thought of something else, but it was an off-the-cuff decision and the best I could think of at the time. At least it delayed discovery for quite a while. And his supposed trip to France was a real godsend, it stopped anybody looking for him or wondering where he was. And in spite of everything, there is still no evidence against me. So before you start feeling too righteous about it, let me ask you, have you ever suddenly killed somebody and been stuck with a dead body to get rid of super quick? No? Neither had I, and that was the best I could do. All things considered, I think I didn’t do too badly, in the circumstances.

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