Chapter 20

Narrative Resumed by Frank McMullen

            We were having dinner in one of the best restaurants in town. The very best. Naturally. The host was Inspector Barrett, and it had better be the best, after the near shambles with the Grove, averted only by Joan’s quick thinking and resolute action. Charlie Fry was there too, which was reasonable enough, considering he had been so closely involved all along, more or less as liaison between myself and the regular police. Barrett’s gratitude became fully evident when we got to the dessert. He ordered champagne. That was an unspoken apology that it would be hard to misinterpret or overlook. The point was hammered home by cognac with the coffee. Up to that point it was only conventional small talk, but with the cognac we all lay back in our chairs and started in on the real business.

            What had happened, I asked, to the miscreants with the hi-jacked lorry? Barrett’s answer was succinct.

            “There were two of them, and we got them both. I radioed over on my walkie-talkie as soon as Mrs. McMullen told me it was the train that was endangered, not the pub. I must say”, he added, turning to Joan, “you were very convincing, and I’m glad you were, since you were completely right. I can only say…thank you!”

            Joan smiled demurely, and said nothing. I remarked to her afterwards that he had every reason to be thankful, since he had proudly asserted that he had it all sewed up, when in fact he had sewed up the wrong thing. If the Grove really had been wrecked after he had even been warned of it in advance, he could have looked forward to a productive and satisfying future career as constable in a small village somewhere in the Shetlands. As it was, I got back to him, asking an obvious question.

            “So what were they going to do with the lorry? Ram it through the crossing gates into the train? Was it a suicide operation, a kamikaze?”

            “Oh no, they planned to steer the lorry straight at the gates and then jump out. It’s downhill to the crossing so they just had to put it in neutral and take the brakes off. It wouldn’t be going all that fast, and they reckoned the train wouldn’t either, so they could actually aim it at the saloon itself. And there was indeed a bomb tucked away amid the propane tanks with a remote radio control on it, so they could blow it up just as it hit. One of them had the control in his pocket. And they had got a motorbike parked by the roadside, for the getaway. As it was, our men grabbed them.”

            I could confirm one point.

            “Yes, the train would indeed have been going slow. It’s a 20mph limit round the Avoiding Lines. But I’m a bit surprised at the remote radio control. I only read about these people in the newspapers, but that seems to me something more sophisticated than I would have expected.”

            “Yes, it is. That’s something we’ll have to look into. Where did they get it?” Shrug. “On the other hand, they did know when and where the train was coming, and that’s also what you might call classified information. Unfortunately their boss, Paddy, is still at large, but the two we’ve got are proving very co-operative. I always thought these Irish extremists shut up like clams when they were captured, but these two are squealing all the way, singing like canary birds.”

            I forbade myself to wonder just what Barrett had done to them in the cells to make them sing. That’s a question I would not ask. Instead, Joan finally broke the silence.

            “What I find a little odd, Inspector, is that you have been well aware of this coming bomb attack, and we have all been talking about it, and yet we never realized what the target was. Anybody, just anybody, who was on the railways would know very well what the Grove was. It’s not particularly secret, though it’s not public knowledge. Why didn’t we get on to it? Why was I the first one to see what was going on?”

            Charlie Fry broke what was threatening to become an embarrassing silence.

            “Well, the Inspector is not a railwayman, and when he heard the term it was natural he should associate it with the Grove of Academe. I believe that in the city it’s often called just “the Grove”. Certainly that’s what the students at the University call it. I’ve been there. And once the Inspector had mentally linked the two, I think he very likely often referred to it, in conversation, simply as “the pub” without giving the name. And once the pattern was set we all just started speaking of ‘the pub.’ It’s just lucky that Mrs. McMullen was there to hear the real name. What was it again, Inspector, that your informant actually said?”

            Barrett took a health-giving sip of cognac. I wondered if he felt he might need it.

            “‘We’re going to wreck the Grove. He’ll never know what hit him.'”

            “There, you see,” said Charlie. “No talk of academe or anything like that. Maybe if we had heard the actual quotation more often, we might have understood it aright. As it is, all the talk was of pubs.”

            “True, I suppose,” conceded Barrett. “But, by the way, there’s another problem here. We were convinced that some particular man was targeted, who would never know what hit him. That lad us astray too. How were we to know that the target was a woman, when they spoke of ‘he’?”

            Now this again was my home ground.

            “It’s quite easy, Inspector, once you know. If you have been around in railway circles you will have noticed that railwaymen often speak of trains as ‘he’ or ‘him’. They say things like ‘He’s running late’, or ‘Here he comes’, where ordinary passengers would say ‘Here she comes.’ I’ve often wondered about it, and my guess is that where the ordinary public look at a train and all they see is an engine puffing smoke and pulling coaches, a railwayman looks at it and thinks more of the man who is driving it. If a train is doing anything, it’s the engine driver who is making it do it. So – I don’t know if I’m explaining this well, but it’s as if, say, the whole train becomes identified with the driver, who is, after all, ‘one of us, one of our mates’, so to speak. I’m not sure that explanation is right, but there’s no doubt about the fact. ‘He’ is often used to refer to trains.”

            Inspector Barrett got the point right away.

            “So ‘He’ll never know what hit him’ means, in effect, ‘The train will never know what hit it’, or at least ‘its driver won’t. Maybe I should have been listening more carefully on the various occasions when I have been visiting you at the station.”

            I nodded. “Yes, I’m sure I often spoke that way in your hearing, trains being ‘he’. It just comes naturally to me.”

            I moved on to my next problem.

            “But how did they know about the Grove coming through?”

            Barrett again gave a shrug.

            “It’s been in all the papers for weeks that she was going to Aintree, to see the Grand National. You can just look at a map and try to trace the most obvious railway route between…Sandringham, isn’t it?”

            “The local station for Sandringham is called Wolferton. It’s on the Hunstanton branch, Eastern Region.”

            “Very well, then, trace a route between Wolferton and Aintree – near Liverpool, that is, of course. And won’t it naturally go through here?”

            I gave qualified assent.

            “Yes, Inspector, it very well could. But there are quite a few other possible routings you could take. From Wolferton you have to go to King’s Lynn, no way round that, but from then on, especially once you get into the Midlands, you have several different choices. You could go via Derby, for example, on the London Midland. But our own network, with our direct line from Vinley to Peterborough, would certainly be a possible choice.”

            Charlie Fry cut in.

            “But even if it were that route, why concentrate on Nottingham? Why here instead of somewhere else along the line?”

            For once Inspector Barrett seemed to swell a bit, I didn’t think he was capable of it. He was obviously very proud of his answer.

            “Because for weeks they had the timetable of the Grove, and knew exactly when it would be passing Nottingham. Date, hour, and minutes.”

There was a silence. Who was going to have the nerve to ask him ‘how?’. In the end, I did it.

“How?

            “They were told. They had a source here that could tell them, and did.”

            Barrett was plainly enjoying this.

            “A source? Have you arrested him?”

            “No, I can’t.”

            “Why not?”

            “Because he fell over the live rail at the North end of your station and got 600 volts through him.”

            I suppose I ought to have seen this coming, but I didn’t.

            “So it was…?”

            “Yes. Your Mr. Sullivan. He told the E.R.A. all about the Grove, everything they needed to know to blow it up.”

            This was preposterous, and I said so.

            “You can’t expect us to believe that. An experienced and senior executive…this is ridiculous. Why, Mike was even in the wrong department. He was Assistant to the Chief Mechanical Engineer. They don’t handle day-to-day timetabling, that’s all in my own department, Traffic. Mike wouldn’t know about the Grove’s timings.”

            Barrett seemed to swell even more as he delivered his knockout punch.

            “Yes. That’s why he burgled your office, to get the information.”   

            This left me frankly speechless. Barrett continued.

            “That’s it. We’ve had it all from the two we caught with the lorry. We’ve cleaned up some more of the cell too, though, as I said, their leader, this Paddy, has dodged us so far. But we’re clear now. It was Mr. Sullivan that did the burglary, and hence set the whole train of events in motion. He came in after hours to look for the timetable, and was interrupted by Mr. Fineman. What happened between them we’ll never know, but he must have panicked and hit him too hard. He was under great mental strain anyhow, dealing with the E.R.A., and he must have been near the edge. Mr. Fineman’s interruption pushed him over it. He grabbed up the poker, and, well, you know the rest of it. You say he was by nature impetuous. And he didn’t even tidy up the mess he had all over the floor of your office, which was what gave the game away.”

            We all slowly digested this, for plainly there were a lot of questions that still needed answers. Barrettt answered the first one before I could even ask it.

            “So that answers one of the questions that has always been worrying you, Mr. McMullen. You couldn’t think what it was in your office that anybody would want to steal. And that’s what it was. The timetable of that train.”

            I objected feebly.

            “But that’s not exactly like a military top secret. All the signalmen are told it, for example, and the stationmasters all along the line. They have to be, for the train to run.”

            “Perhaps, but how far in advance are they told?”

            “Oh, a week or so. Every week we circulate any additions or changes to the regular timetable.”

            “That’s it, then. The E.R.A. had to know long before that, so as to get their attack properly planned. That’s why they needed the information well in advance, and it was your office, Mr. McMullen, that had it.”

            I was still groping blindly in the dark.

            “But for Mike Sullivan, a man like that, to be in the E.R.A., no, I’m sorry, I just don’t believe it. It’s not true.”

            “You’re quite right, he wasn’t in their organisation, and he was just a cats paw, an outsider if you like, that they used for this one purpose.”

            This cleared up nothing, but I did remember what Charlie Fry had once told me, that in cases like this what happens is that they ever bribe or threaten somebody to do their dirty work for them. I put the question to Barrett, and again he had the answer pat.

            “Oh yes, Mr. McMullen, Mr. Sullivan was a very unwilling tool in their hands. He only did it because they pushed him very hard.”

            “They had some sort of hold over him, then?”

            “It was a threat, rather. His weak spot was his son, Ian. They just, in a very friendly manner, told him he had a wonderful son, and what a tragedy it would be if his boy were to meet with some terrible accident. And he was just devoted to his son.”

            That bit I could well believe. Barrett continued remorselessly.

            “Remember where his son is. He’s in Dublin, in Ireland. The E.R.A. must have a few cells there that it could use. Easier than at Nottingham. I’m sure all this was carefully explained to him. And, by the way, he himself may have some family connections that could be exploited. His name, Sullivan, is Irish, after all.”

            I was still prepared to brush all this aside in defense of Mike.

            “Inspector, this is a man who apparently committed two murders, and who, also apparently, tried to attack me. But wrecking the Grove is in a different league altogether. And to think that a senior officer of British Railways, Central Region, would deliberately try to help people to blow up one of his own trains, and this train in particular, why, – no, sorry, but it’s just not on. Whatever happened, it wasn’t that.”

            To my surprise, Barrett immediately agreed.

            “You’re quite right. Sullivan never intended to help them blow up the train. That’s a bit that he didn’t know about. What they told him was that they wanted to stop the train purely for a demonstration. I suppose it was to be affair with placards, slogans, and the like, and the line blocked so the train had to stop. All very nonviolent and newsworthy. Sullivan was never told the real scenario. They knew he wouldn’t do it, not something like that, threats or no threats. We got all that from the confessions of the gang we arrested, the now-singing canary-birds.”

            That did put another face on the matter. It sounded altogether more reasonable.

            “And I suppose, Inspector, once he got into it things simply developed out of control. Two murders and an attempt at a third. And evidently he did get the timetable information and passed it on to the E.R.A. I thought the whole business was finished when Mike was out of the picture, but he had already left this behind him, like a sort of ticking time bomb.”

            “Right,” said Barrett. “And one thing more you’d better know. The sad death of Mr. Sullivan, falling on to a live rail, was of course a pure accident. That’s the public version. And Guard Carey, that was an accident too. As for Mr. Fineman, I think that will go down as unsolved. The last thing we want to come out is the planned ambush for the Grove, and its narrow escape. I don’t suppose you want it to become a public issue either.”

            “What?”, I exclaimed. “Have everybody know that our special train was nearly blown up with the connivance of a senior British Railways official? Not on your Nellie!”

            Charlie Fry broke into the conversation.

            “All that I can support. Sometimes I feel that the main function of carpets is to give you somewhere for things to be swept under. So that’s the way we’ll do it. But it’s a pity we can’t do something for the real hero – “, he quickly corrected himself – “heroine of the occasion. But for her we’d all be in deep…well, deep you-know-what.”

            Joan was all smiles, and becomingly, and carefully, modest.

            “Oh, I don’t know. I have already got my reward.”

            An interrogative look from all round.

            “Yes. When I dashed up the steps into the Nottingham South signal box. The signalman addressed me as ‘Miss.’ Me, a respectable married woman! It took twenty years off my age. A great feeling! Honestly, nothing could beat that, no medals, no letters to put after my name. Twenty off! That’s what I got out of this case!”

            One or two good-humored remarks greeted this sally. I called for a toast to Joan, and the cognac was drained again.

            “You know,” offered Charlie, “this has been a funny case. Quite apart from the fact that investigations into serious crime hardly ever turn up in my work, as an Inspector in the Transport Police – and this has been an eye-opener, I can tell you! – anyway, it has been a strange case, hasn’t it, all back to front. We had two murders, but we found out about the second one first, and the first thing of all to happen was the office burglary. Yet we only heard about that long after it happened, and though we never paid much attention to it, it was the key, the motive for the whole sequence of events. And even after we had cleared up the murders, there was left, as you put it, a ticking time bomb that nearly exploded. And it was only Mrs. McMullen that saved us all.”

            This called for another toast, so we passed the cognac around. There wasn’t much left in the bottle.

            The party now began to break up, and we started toward the door. With a backward glance at the empty bottle, Charlie asked, “Frank, are you going to drive?”

            “No, we’re going to walk over to the station and catch the 10.35. He stops at Blaxthorpe.”

            Joan nudged Barrett.

            “Did you see, Inspector, Frank had just done it again!”

            Barrett, and indeed, all of us others, looked mystified.

            “Did what?”, asked Barrett.

            “He spoke of the train as a ‘he’. ‘He stops at Blaxthorpe'”.

            Barrett got it right away.

            “So he did. So much for our informant saying ‘He’ll never know what hit him,’ and us thinking it was a man. Mrs. McMullen, if you are ever thinking of joining the CID, just give me a call.”

            I smiled, helped Joan on with her coat, and began to shepherd them all to the door. Outside was parked an enormous black limousine, polished and gleaming. I looked round at the distinctive radiator. Sure enough, Rolls Royce. The driver, a young man in the full uniform of a chauffeur, sprang out, touched his cap to me, and pulled open the door. I stared wildly round at Inspector Barrett, who was grinning with joy at this sensational end to the feast.

            “Surprise!” he cried. “To Blaxthorpe, right? Don’t worry, it’s all on the house!”

            I was still open-mouthed when Joan unceremoniously bundled me inside, slammed the door, and off we went.

            “Don’t worry, Frank,” she said, laughing. “I did a deal with Inspector Barrett. I suggested that this would be a nice way for him to say ‘Thank You’ for the help we have both given him, and he was very receptive. He’s such a nice man, really.”

            There was nothing I could say as we rolled on towards home, in Rolls Royce luxury and splendour.

            My wife is a very wise, very sharp, very smart woman.

            But just the same I had one shot left in my locker. I turned to her.

            “All right, but just you wait till we get home, then it’s upstairs for you, sweetheart, to the bedroom!”

            She almost choked.

            “But, Frank, dear, we haven’t…I mean, not for how long…oh, I don’t know…I’m not sure- ”

            I looked her straight in the eye.

            “Upstairs, woman!”

            There are times when I feel I should show I can run other things besides British Railways.

 

THE END

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