Chapter 14

            So much for End of Story.

            It wasn’t the next day. It was the day after. I came in the morning as usual, and as soon as I had settled behind my desk Dozie put before me a sheet of paper. I couldn’t quite make sense of it, but Dozie explained.

            “It’s the current work turns of Driver Singer and Driver Bryce. I thought perhaps you might want to talk to them.”

            I tried for a moment to make sense of this, then capitulated.

            “Dozie, why would I want to do that? Who are they anyway?”

            “They’re the drivers of the Oxford parcels the night of the guard’s fall. You remember that train is double-headed, two engines, so I thought you might want to talk to the two drivers.”

            This took some digesting, but this time Dozie did not put me to the indignity of actually asking why, and supplied the answer herself.

            “You know, about Mr. Sullivan’s trip with them, in view of…”  – she was trying hard to find the appropriate word. In the end of course she did. “The…ambiguity of his presence.”

            I don’t know how she had got on to our doubts about the parcel’s unscheduled stop and its effect on Mike’s alibi. Maybe she got it from Charlie Fry’s secretary. I don’t know, but, honestly I can’t say I was surprised. You will of course know the old platitude, if you really want to know something, instead of going directly to the man concerned, go to his secretary. Usually the secretary knows more about what’s going on than the boss. For Dozie you can repeat that platitude at ten times the strength.

            So I just said “Thank you, Dozie,” and put the sheet in my pocket. When I got time to glance at it over my lunch at first I could not see the point in it at all. It simply listed the trains that, this week, would be worked by Driver Singer and Driver Bryce. The rota of work changes round every week, so these two were no longer to be found together working the Oxford parcels. They were at the moment working goods trains, and the times and schedule of each were clearly set out. Both were Sheffield men and were currently to be found operating through, or out of, Eccleshall, the big freight marshalling yard just outside Sheffield. In the margin Dozie had carefully printed, with her red pen, arrows pointing at things she thought significant.

            I soon followed her thinking. Driver Singer was at present working a goods train which was from Bradford and scheduled to arrive every evening at 7.18 and terminate at Eccleshall, where he then came off duty and was available at that time. And Driver Bryce was working a Hartlepool – Cardiff fast freight that passed Eccleshall at 7.31 and stopped there to change engine crews. The Hartlepool men came off and Bryce and his fireman climbed aboard to take the train on the next segment of its long trip. So in theory if I was in the Eccleshall yard around 7.15 to 7.35 I ought to be able to talk to both men.

            Next question, of course, was whether I had some sort of legitimate business that would take me to Eccleshall. I could not think of any, so that got me off the hook. I didn’t have to go there, so I was not tempted to talk to the two drivers. I returned to my office, and with an enthusiasm all too rare in my work, turned to my piled in-tray. And, no, you’re wrong. It wasn’t in the very first thing I picked up. The first and second were routine business I didn’t have to do anything about. It was the third one. A memo from the yardmaster at Eccleshall. He was writing about the volume of traffic they were being expected to handle, etc., etc,, and could I come down there some afternoon and see for myself?.

            There are times when one feels that there really is some supernatural power that keeps an eye on us and occasionally gives us a nudge to keep us pointing in the right direction, whenever we show signs of going astray. To make things worse, we had a regular service of electric suburban trains between Nottingham and Sheffield. It had been started as a test for electric traction and now meant that with a train every half hour I had no excuse for not going. All I had to do was stroll along to Platform 2 and in fifty minutes I would be with the Eccleshall Yardmaster. And that had absolutely no connection with the two drivers being there and available between seven and eight. So naturally I did it.

            And there must indeed be some kind of strange fate, or destiny, or whatever you like to call it, for as the doors slid closed and we got under say, who did I see sitting across the aisle but a familiar figure. Inspector Barrett, no less. Truth to tell, I wasn’t too sure what to say to him, but I crossed over and said hello. And I didn’t have to worry any more, for he opened the conversation, commenting on the discovery of the parcel train’s stop, and how this cracked Mike Sullivan’s alibi.

            “Yes, Inspector Fry told me all about it. It sounds as if you had really got on to something.”

            I offered credit where credit was due.

            “It wasn’t me, really, it was Joan, my wife. I’d never have thought of checking up on the actual running of the train in the signal box register, not after the statement of a senior officer who was actually on it.”

            “No doubt that thought occurred to Mr. Sullivan too. Anyway, for us it’s probably a step forward.”

            I thought this gave me the moral status to ask a tricky question.

            “Tell me, then, – so far as you can, of course, nothing confidential, – how is your investigation going?”

            “There’s nothing too confidential about it, nothing I can’t tell you. You, after all, have just helped us, and we know you are in the clear. That’s been proved.”

            “It has? That’s nice to know, but how?”

            “It’s a matter of alibis. Since we have no idea of the original motive of this affair and no evidence, no clues, at the scene of the crime, alibis is what we have to fall back upon. You see, there are three crimes involved – the burglary, the General Manager, and the guard – but the first two happened together, assuming our reconstruction is correct, and the guard a good deal later. We’re also assuming, and I think we are right, that the same person committed all three. That means it is somebody who has no alibi for both dates. Anybody who has a real alibi for just one date is automatically cleared. And you, Mr. McMullen, were well cleared for the guard’s fall. You were talking to a group of students at the university. A first-rate alibi. And we’ve checked.”

            “You have? I didn’t know.”

            “Oh yes, we’ve been checking alibis right and left, all very quietly. Most people haven’t any at all or at least they were at home with their wife, which, well, let’s just say it’s not quite as impressive as a group of fifteen students. As for Mr. Sullivan, of course, he is separated from his wife and living alone, so he hasn’t got even that as an alibi. Then again, if you eliminate outsiders, you are left with a small group of people, all senior and respected officials, and alibis are really all we have to go on.”

            I objected.

            “Couldn’t it have been some outsider who just broke into my office, to look for money or something?”

            “And then not only killed the General Manager, but also a blackmailing guard? Does that sound like a petty thief to you?”

            I had to admit it didn’t.

            “I still find it hard to believe, though. I mean, about it being one of my immediate colleagues. Nor am I sure what the whole thing’s about, anyway.”

            Inspector Barrett stared a while at the industrial landscape flying past the widow. Then he offered something of an analysis.

            “You’ve got two separate events here, the burglary and the murder of the General Manager, and the second event, the attack on the guard. As I see it, the difference is not just in time, but also in method and approach. The first one was unpremeditated. The General Manager interrupted the burglary, was attacked and killed there and then. Quite possibly the murderer didn’t mean actually to kill him, he just panicked and hit too hard. Then, still in a panic, he bundled the body into that brake van, and ran for it. That all holds together. If he hadn’t panicked, or if he had been a real professional, he would have tidied up your office before he left, and the odds are you might never have realized there had been a burglary at all. Right?”

            “Right!”

            “Now the second murder, the guard, was a very different one. It was planned beforehand and, so far as we can see, the planning was very elaborate. No panic here! Just cold-blooded ingenuity. And paradoxically, that’s what will lead to his downfall. Just think. For the General Manager’s murder we have absolutely nothing to go on. No fingerprints, the only witness eliminated, no outside motive. But with the elaborate planning of the second one, the plan itself gives us many more angles of attack. The more elaborate the plan, the more things to go wrong. Like the cello blocking the corridor and sealing off the guard’s van from the rest of the train; if it hadn’t been for that the whole trainload of passengers would have been suspects. Then, the door opening the wrong way, the parcels thrown into the river out of a van that was supposed to be empty, the bloodied fishplate, the lump of coal that conveniently stopped the parcels train, and, finally, Mr. Sullivan’s insistence on an alibi that has now been shown to be, well, I won’t say false, but I will say at best dubious.

            In themselves none of this would have aroused suspicion, or at least enough suspicion, but as soon as you notice one thing that’s odd, which you did with the open door, then you look more closely at the rest, and the more things you have to look at, the more handles you’ve got towards solving the crime. This fellow was just too clever by half. If he had just coshed the guard over the head somewhere and run, odds are he’d have a much better chance of getting away with it. It’s not always true that the more complicated a crime is the easier it is to solve, but I’m beginning to feel that’s the case with this one.”

            “Still,” I demurred, “you haven’t really got a case against anyone – oh, come on, it’s Mike Sullivan we’re talking about, isn’t it? You haven’t really got any evidence against him, have you? Just that he could have done it because he was close to the right place at the right time, and maybe, just maybe, tried to cover that up. And you’ve still got no motive.”

            “Yes, all that’s true. But he’s still the best suspect that we have, in fact he’s the only one. Come to that, can we be sure he was ever on the parcels train at all?”

            “Inspector, he was traveling on it every night that week, and the enginemen knew him. Your argument, I suppose, is that the lump of coal and the unscheduled stop were to give him a chance of sneaking back on board and pretending he’d been there all along. He could have crossed over to the Ulsterman during the Leicester stop, when the two trains were standing side by side, but surely the enginemen on the parcels would have noticed he was no longer there when they pulled out. They would have been looking for him.”

            Inspector Barrett was silent for a bit. Then he returned to the fray.

            “That parcels train, the one he was supposed to be on, had two engines, didn’t it?”

            “That’s right. It does every night.”

            “And Mr. Sullivan was riding on it every night?”

            “Yes, he was.”

            “And during the run, I gather, he was regularly changing from one engine to the other at the station stops, am I right?”

            “Yes, you are.”

            Inspector Barrett seemed to settle back into his seat, ready to pontificate.

            “So suppose – just let’s suppose – suppose he arranged it so that for the vital period concerned each driver thought he was on the other engine? With him regularly changing from one to the other I expect that after a while they would be a little confused in their memory of where he was at any given time, but they would still think that he was always on the train, on one engine or the other, when in fact he could be on neither? What about that, then? What do you think?”

            “I think it’s pretty flimsy. All it would take is one or two straight questions to the two drivers and the alibi would fall apart.”

            “You’re right, but then so much in this whole story is pretty flimsy, once you know where to probe. Like him insisting that the parcels train ran non-stop when you only had to look at the signal box logbook- ”

            “Train register.”

            “- register, then, to see that it didn’t.”

            “I suppose he never thought anybody would. Moreover, the guard of every train keeps a journal of every run, so the parcels’ guard’s journal would have recorded the stop, just like the signalman’s register. But it’s the same story. Nobody would have, in the ordinary way. The whole business of the guard was supposed to pass as an accident, so why would anyone start poking around? Even so, I didn’t. It was Joan that did.”

            “That’s right, Mr. McMullen, but it still leads to two points. A complicated alibi like hat does give us more handles to get hold of. And even if we break it, it still doesn’t prove he committed the crime. By the way, all this time, of course, it’s really Mr. Sullivan we’ve been talking about. He’s a colleague of yours, you’ve known him for years, so tell me, what do you think of him? Could he be a murderer?”

            That was a hard one to answer, but this was a serious business so I did my best.

            “I wouldn’t really say I knew him well. Professionally, of course, he is a very good engineer. That’s his job. Personally, well, I’d say he is impetuous and maybe even not averse to the rough stuff. You should see him playing rugby. So perhaps he could hit Larry Fineman, through panic in the heat of the moment, but, as you say, the guard’s murder seems to imply a well-thought-out and cold blooded approach. Still, maybe he might be capable of that too, if the heat was on. He’s an engineer, so he must be used to practical planning. So I don’t know for sure, really I don’t. On the strictly human side I know his wife left him a few years ago, don’t know why, and he has a son, 17 or 18, and he seems to dote on the boy. That’s about it. I don’t know if it helps.”

            The Inspector didn’t look all that excited at my answer, but then you could hardly expect him to.

            “So what’s the next step?” I asked.

            “If we could really make sure that Mr. Sullivan was, or was not, on the parcels train for the time he claims, I suppose that would help, though perhaps not much. So maybe we should talk to those two engine-drivers -”

            “And firemen!”

            ” – and firemen. Don’t quite know when we’ll be able to do it, though. We’re pretty well stretched at the moment with other things.”

            “Like the E.R.A. and that pub by the university?”

            He raised an eyebrow in surprise at me.

            “That’s confidential, not public knowledge. How did you hear of it?”

            “Inspector Fry told me. I think he meant well by it.” I didn’t say that I thought Charlie felt he had to offer some explanation for Barrett’s current inaction on our own problems, but that’s what it came to. It seemed to pass muster.

            “I see. Well, I suppose we do owe you one for all the help you’ve given us. I must say I’m very grateful for it. This whole thing is so railway-centered I don’t know what we’d do without an inside contact like yourself. Inspector Fry is on the Transport Police, true, but he hasn’t got the same insight or experience on the side of railway operation that you have. So, – glad to have you aboard. But on the E.R.A. thing, keep quiet about it, right?”

            “Yes, I will. So…?”

            “You’re quite right. It’s that business about the E.R.A. and the pub that’s stretching us. You were actually at it, I think?”

            “The ‘Grove of Academe’? Yes, I was. You’re sure that’s where the threat is directed? You seem to have a very efficient undercover source.”

            “Yes, we do, but unfortunately he can’t ask questions. Too dangerous. He can only repeat what he hears. But at least he has identified most of the others in the gang, or cell, or whatever you like to call it. We’re tailing them all, in the hope of catching them at something, or at least getting a few clues, a few pointers. And we do know who the leader is. Believe it or not, he’s actually called Paddy. Used to be a shunter in a railway yard, but now for a few years he’s been driving lorries and vans for a Sheffield moving firm, house removals, furniture, that sort of thing. In fact, that’s why I’m going to Sheffield now, to do a bit of liaising with our Sheffield people.”

            In view of all this I had to yet again remember my scornful mental dismissal of the man when we first met. When I thought of my misjudgment of him I still cringed. So, for now at least, I tried to be constructive.

            “About blowing up that pub. Could he be going to use one of his lorries or vans on the job? Say for transporting explosives, or something like that?”

            “Believe me, we’ve thought of that. We’ve thought of just about everything, but it’s all still guessing. We can’t even figure out who is the target. It has to be some definite person, quite apart from our man having heard that that’s what it’s all aimed at. It would make no sense just to blow up the pub, by itself. It’s got no Irish connection at all that we can see. It’s not even a hang-out of British soldiers on leave, or anything like that. And the owners seem to be just ordinary, honest local people, so we just have to keep tabs on Paddy and all his Merry Men, and hope for the best.”

            “They wouldn’t be after the Sheriff of Nottingham, would they? I suppose there still is one. Robbing the rich and giving to the poor, and all dressed in green – green, Ireland’s national color?”

            It wasn’t really very funny, but it was just what came to the top of my mind, and in any case I was already rising out of my seat, as the train was slowing to a stop at Eccleshall, the stop before Sheffield, and the local station for the big marshalling yard where I was going. I stepped out, and as the train re-started I waved a cheerful good-bye to Inspector Barrett. He did wave back, but as he went on towards Sheffield he looked decidedly glum.

            I can’t say I blamed him.

            So I left him to it and, leaving the platform, made my way along the path that led round heaps of ballast, gravel, clinker, puddles and rusting bits of old iron, to Eccleshall Yard and my meeting with the Yardmaster.

 

Comment by the Murderer

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