Chapter 13

Narrative continued by Frank McMullen

            Trust Joan to deliver a bombshell like that! I was going to go along with it to Charlie Fry next morning, but on sleeping on it decided to put that off a bit. After all, as evidence it was pretty flimsy. All it amounted to was that a man had said a train ran non-stop when it didn’t. Just fancy bringing somebody into court on the strength of that. It could be that Mike was simply mistaken, or even if he wasn’t maybe there was something else he wanted to hide, something not at all connected with two murders and a burglary. It was also quite a mental leap to think of a respected colleague as a murderer, much less even a Communist spy, and all that on the basis of what he said in a sort of after-dinner parlour game well lubricated with brandy. Moreover, if he really was on the parcels train at the vital time he ought to have four good witnesses to prove it, the two drivers and two  firemen, since he was riding on the footplate and the train was double-headed. Perhaps…

            At which point the voice of reason and common sense cut in, telling me not to get any further tangled up in this affair. It’s a double murder, for heaven’s sake. Don’t try investigating that, leave it to Inspector Barrett and Charlie Fry, leave it to the professionals. This is no job for amateurs to go round playing Hercule Poirot. It’s a job for police work, not crime novelists. So don’t stick your neck out. Particularly as I had other things to attend to. London was complaining about the loco coal we were sending them. It was hard to make the engines steam properly on it and the men were complaining. Could we get a better quality coal from somewhere else? And there was the business of the troop trains. We had a whole series of them, from Liverpool to Catterick, and they had been running so late the army was complaining. I was looking to see if we could find an alternative routing that might be longer in distance but would give them a clearer run. And of course there was also the business of Mike Sullivan and the Oxford parcels – damn! I’d told myself I wasn’t going to get involved, and here it was, in my thoughts again. I suppose I’d better tell Charlie about it. Then it’s off my plate and I don’t have to worry about it any more. So I got up and went to Charlie Fry’s office, this time without invitation, on my own initiative.

            Charlie was in, seated behind his desk, and, I thought, eyeing with distinct hostility an impressive pile in his in-tray. He seemed glad of the interruption. I got in first.

            “Charlie, I just might have something for you. Anyway I thought I should tell you, and from then on it’s all yours.”

            “Hah! Coincidence strikes again! I have something for you too, Frank, and I was just about to give you a call. You go first.”

            So I told him briefly about Joan’s adventures in the Vinley South signal box and how Mike Sullivan’s alibi had been cracked. As I had expected, Charlie was only moderately impressed.

            “From what you’re telling me it could just be a mistake. Maybe Mr. Sullivan got his dates wrong, or maybe his signalman did.”

            “No, Charlie, the signalman didn’t. It was duly entered in the train register, and I have seen it with my own eyes.”

            “Well, then, Mr. Sullivan. Couldn’t he have got it wrong?”

            “He swears not. He is very emphatic that on that night the train did not stop when in fact it did. And he was there, riding on the engine.”

            “Well, has he any written evidence then? Was he, say, taking notes?”

            “Yes, he was, and I suppose he still has them somewhere, but that would be a purely private affair, and I’ve no idea what details he was noting down. I do know that he was interested chiefly in the technical performance of the engines and their handling by the drivers, rather than timetabling. I suppose delays could come into that, under timekeeping, but I can’t be more specific than that.”

            I didn’t add that all of this arose out of after-dinner conversation, nothing more formal than that. Even less was I inclined to add the hypothesis that the parcels was stopped by somebody deliberately dropping a lump of coal into the points so as to jam them, though at the back of my head there was yet a small voice insisting that if somebody wanted to stop the train, with no danger to anyone, so as to sneak back on board and re-establish an alibi without anybody suspecting, why, then, that lump of coal would be an ideal way of doing it.

            Charlie was skeptical.

            “Well, I suppose it’s a lead of sorts, especially since we haven’t got any other leads at all, but it’s nothing we could go into court with.”

            I had to nod in agreement.

            “Quite. And anyway the whole idea of him being a Communist spy looking for secret information on those damn rocket trains, it’s just ridiculous, pure nonsense.”

            Charlie looked up at me and grinned.

            “Actually you’re quite right on that one. That’s what I was going to see you about. We’re off the hook on the rocket trains. I’ve just heard from London, and as far as we are concerned it’s all a red herring.”

            “Oh? Major Brown says so?”

            “In fact it was someone else, a Major White, but he seemed to know all about it.”

            Brown? White? Don’t tell me that my supposition that they rotated their aliases through the spectrum of colors was actually right!

            “What about Brown, then? Did they say why it wasn’t him calling you?”

            “Yes, they did. He’s off the case.”

            That sounded interesting.

            “Did they say why?”

            I’m not sure whether Charlie looked apologetic or cheerful. Anyway, his expression was something to see.

            “Yes, Major Brown is off sick. He’s down with shingles.”

            Shingles! My own personal acquaintance with secret agents and private eyes comes only from reading thrillers, but there at least spies never get sick and have to drop the pursuit of assorted villains and malefactors because of illness. And shingles, of all things! Can you imagine James Bond, or even George Smiley, having shingles? I once had a cousin who came down with it so I know it is really quite a nasty and painful condition, but the name alone makes it hard to take it seriously. But that was why Major Brown was now out of the picture and Major White was now in it.

            “So what was Major White saying about the rocket trains?”

            “He says they have evidently caught whoever it was who was going to slip the information to the ‘foreign power’. Nobody here was trying to do it. So, as I said, we, particularly you, Frank, are now in the clear and off the hook. It’s official.”

            “Charlie, it’s nice to know, but to tell you the truth I never did have much confidence in that Russian spy theory. I just can’t see how any of our people could ever have got tangled up in such a thing. How could they?”

            Charlie fiddled with his paper knife.

            “Frank, I’m no expert in this line of business, but from what I hear there are usually three possible techniques of recruitment. First there is ideology. You get someone who is genuinely a believer. Second there is money, pure and simple. Third, there are threats, equally pure and simple, directed, say, at the wife or family of the person targeted. You know, ‘Unless you give us the plans of the fort, your son may have an unfortunate accident. Wouldn’t that be terrible?”

            “Bastards!” I breathed, under my breath.

            “Bastards!” echoed Charlie, aloud.

            For a minute or two we just looked at each other in silence.

            I took the next step.

            “Charlie, all that’s nice to know, but I’m not sure it clears up everything. What about those Russians in their white raincoat who were following me. What were they after, if they were actually going to get their information somewhere else?”

            Charlie coughed and looked rather shamefaced – as well he might.

            “You know, Frank, it wasn’t actually the Russians who were following you. It was the British.”

            I simply stared at him.

            “Yes, that man in the white raincoat was one of Major Brown’s men. That’s why I told you not to worry about it. But I couldn’t tell you more than that. Professional secrecy, all in confidence, you know. I’m very sorry but there it is. I hope you will understand.”

            I gaped at him.

            “No, I don’t understand. What on earth was he up to?”

            “Frank, remember, as I told you, you were his chief suspect.”

            “Yes, but, well, that man in the white raincoat driving the green Vauxhall – what was he supposed to be doing?”

            “You were meant to see him following you. That’s why he was so clumsy about it, to make sure you did notice him.”

            “What was the point of that, then?”

            “Major Brown told me they sometimes do it with suspects when they have no firm evidence against them. They do it so that the suspect – I hope you don’t mind me using that word; Major Brown did – so as to bring pressure on the suspect in the hope that it will push him into doing something silly, something that will give them a handle on him. Of course you didn’t, since in any case you weren’t guilty of anything. When their man reported back, by the way, they much admired your trick with the level crossing gates at Blaxthorpe. Apparently nobody had ever tried that one before, as a way of shaking off pursuit. And then, of course, you didn’t do anything suspicious. You just went out with your wife to see that Deborah Kerr movie. Nothing wrong with that!”

            “Of course, I remember now. I told you about that.”           

            “Yes, the London civil servants knew about it too.”

            “You told them, then?”

            “No, Major Brown told me. He had some people shadowing you, surveillance you know. People who didn’t wear white raincoats to make sure you noticed them.”

            “Shadowing me? When we went to the cinema I couldn’t see anybody following me, and I looked particularly, after the white raincoat business.”

            “These ones you weren’t supposed to see. They were professionals, doing the job as they were trained to. They kept you under observation for a day or two without finding anything suspicious. And then the whole bottom fell out of the operation when they found someone else who was the real source of information on the rocket trains, and at the same time Major Brown came down with the shingles. Major White took over and has just told me about it all. I was almost on my way upstairs to tell you the whole thing when instead you walked in and saved me the trouble. So that’s it.”

            I thought about it.

            “Charlie, all that’s nice to know, that M15 don’t think we are telling the Russians about the rocket trains, but it’s really out of the frying pan and into the fire, isn’t it? If it’s not the details about the rocket trains that the burglar was after, what was it? We’re back to square one, aren’t we?”

            “Well, Frank, I suppose we are. It all hangs on that, doesn’t it? The motives for the two murders spring from the burglary, but we still have no notion what the motive for that was. If only we did, that might explain the whole business. You’re sure nothing was taken?”

            “I can’t say nothing was taken, I can only say I haven’t noticed anything missing. And it’s my office, after all. Charlie, what’s Inspector Barrett up to? Has he got any ideas on the subject, any leads he is following?”

            “I wish I could say yes, but I’m afraid it’s no. Barrett isn’t even very active on the case any longer.”

            I blinked.

            “Two murders and he’s not active? What on earth is he doing, then? Stamping out crime in Nottingham?”           

            “Actually, yes, he is.”

            I blinked again.

            “Nottingham? I’d never have thought of Nottingham as a nest of felons, maturing their felonious little plans.”

            I’m not sure if Charlie got the reference to W.S. Gilbert, but he answered just the same.

            “No, in general there’s not much crime in Nottingham, but this time it’s not local. It’s the E.R.A.”

            “The E.R,A,? What’s that?”

            “The Erin’s Republican Army. It’s an Irish extremist group, a splinter of the I.R.A. Apparently they are quite active and very violent. They’re evidently planning some sort of outrage here in Nottingham, and Barrett’s trying to stop them. He has an undercover man who has penetrated them and is reporting back, but the information is pretty scrappy. He has heard, or overheard, one or two remarks dropped by their leader – who, apparently, used to be a shunter here in the goods yard, but evidently got tired of shunting and instead went on to Set Ireland Free. What we do know is what they are attacking. It’s that pub over by the university. They are planning to blow it up or wreck it. What we don’t know is how, when, or why?”

            “The pub facing the university? The Grove of Academe? I was there a while ago, after giving a talk at the University. It seemed a harmless enough place to me.”

            Charlie nodded.

            “Yes, it is. But apparently some VIP will be visiting it and it’s him they are after.”

            I ventured a correction.

            “Or perhaps not him, but her. Are we sure of the gender?”

            “No, it is definitely a man. Our undercover man heard them say ‘He’ll never know what him.’ So the target is definitely a man, but we don’t know who it is. That does put the police under some strain, and they haven’t really go the manpower that’s needed. There’s an awful lot of surveillance work involved, at least until Barrett gets some idea of what they are up to.”

            Reluctantly I agreed.

            “True. I suppose a bomb outrage does take priority over our own problems, particularly if we can’t solve them. But why Nottingham? What, or who, could they be after here?”

            Charlie just shrugged, so I offered my widow’s mite.

            “Is there anybody important coming on a visit to Nottingham? The Prime Minister, or maybe the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland? Anybody like that?”

            “No, there isn’t, not that we know of. The people at the pub don’t know either. They’re not expecting any VIP.”

            Hesitantly I tried a very long shot.

            “I don’t suppose it could possibly be in any way connected with the death of our guard, could it? After all, the train was the Ulsterman, and it has a direct connection through to Belfast, by the steamer from Whitehaven.”

            Charlie fiddled with a paper knife on the desk before him.

            “So…?”

            I bowed to the inevitable.

            “So nothing, at least nothing I can see. The Ulsterman runs the whole length of England, so why Nottingham? It’s not like there was any great Irish community here that might provide the basis of a terrorist cell. And there’s nobody particularly eminent booked to travel on the Ulsterman that I know of. Maybe I should have a word with Harry Robinson. He’s our PR man so he’d be more likely to know, a discreet word, of course.”

            Charlie nodded.

            “Right, Charlie. I’ll do that. But as to the target, it might be somebody we wouldn’t specifically know about. Say, the head of the Belfast police, whoever that is, something like that. He would just buy a ticket and step into the train. We’d never know about it.”

            “Yes, Frank, but the E.R.A. might. They’d learn of his plans through their people in Belfast. Or maybe someone not from Belfast but from Dublin – the Irish Prime Minister, perhaps?”

            I objected.

            “If the Irish Prime Minister was going anywhere it would most likely be to London, and for that he wouldn’t go through Nottingham. He’d come either via Liverpool or Holyhead, then Crewe, then on up to Euston. He wouldn’t come here.”

            There didn’t seem to be much more to be said after that, so we let the matter drop. And so we were back where we started, with two murders and a burglary apparently all linked together, with one very faint suspect in the hitherto very respectable (but impetuous!) person of Mike Sullivan, and no idea at all what the whole thing was about.

            Mentally I renewed my decision not to get any further mixed up in it at all and to leave it in the lap of the police. That was very plainly the right way to go, and it’s not as if I didn’t have plenty of other work waiting for me.

            So there.

            End of story.

 

Comment by the Murderer

            It’s nice to know that I am still only a very faint suspect, but the bit about the rocket trains, now, that’s a pity, at least from my point of view. And it’s a pity they got on to the lump of coal. No reason why they ever should have, on a steam railway there are always lumps of coal all over the place. Again, just bad luck.

            As for me being called impetuous, I know I have been called that before. I wouldn’t entirely deny it. I often do react quickly, like that time at Stratford when I tried to push Frank in front of the engine. That was purely on the spur of the moment, maybe even as an over-reaction. Of course, you may think I am just confused. Maybe I am, but all I can say is, just you wait till you suddenly find yourself being a double murderer, right out of the blue, and all the time working every day at your regular job. Maybe you might find yourself a little confused too, right?

            And as for Frank’s saying this is the end of the story and he’s getting out of it, on that I wouldn’t trust him, not an inch!

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