This is the penultimate instalment of Case Files, a series by creative writing students at York St John University. The students’ inspiration came from real-life crime stories, objects in our collection or their own imaginations.
The Deadly Railway
By Jessica Osborne
The Journalist sat down in the empty compartment, happy for some peace and quiet after the bustling station. He was a thin man of about 30 years, with tidy hair and a messy, worn-through suit, who took particular pride in making sure his pen and notebook were usually visible less anyone mistook him for a common man and not a writer.
Nevertheless, as he sat he did not pull out his notebook or even the swathes of papers and magazines he had with him. He did nothing, just stared out at the station entirely at peace. He was on his way to stay with some friends in Scotland, after having a tough few months he decided London was too harsh a place for permanence, he had no stomach for it anymore. He wanted quiet and hills and the occasional highland cow chewing cud. There was no cud in London.
The Old Woman came across the near-empty compartment and thought of all the fuss in the papers about women being attacked in train compartments alone with men. However, after deciding her husband was a man who was on trains rather a lot and very rarely posed a threat, she let herself in.
“Hallo, dear,” she chirped to The Journalist. “Are you on your way to Scotland too?”
The Pickpocket had not picked a train at random. Usually they did, but not today. There was too much suspicion in London these days. Pickings were easier in the trusting stations of the North, with those large tweed pockets flapping around in the northern winds. The first compartment on the not-random train was half empty; an old bat and a boring looking man. Easy targets, probably.
Sliding the doors open and adjusting the brim of their hat the Pickpocket asked, “Anyone sitting here?”
The Married Man and his Mistress were the last to enter the compartment. They had perfected their story; a married couple on their way to visit a family in the highlands. The Married Man was short and portly, with a moustache that clearly took more care than it could ever be worth, whereas The Mistress was a good-looking young woman in the same stead as actresses and fine ladies.
They waltzed into the compartment, both looking a little too at ease with each other to really be a married couple and The Married Man said: “Ah, lucky us! Free seats at last!”
And with that the whistles blew, the train roared as well as a man-made monster can, and their journey started in awkward silence.
The Beginning of a Journey
A man in a dark blue uniform came into the compartment, smiling. “Morning everyone, tickets please!” Everyone handed their tickets over without looking up. The Pickpocket kept their hat low, The Married Man and his mistress were staring into each other’s eyes, and The Journalist had finally gotten out his papers to examine. Their tickets were stamped and handed back to them, with the uniformed man still smiling happily past their rudeness.
Only the Old Woman acknowledged him. “Thank you dear, what an astonishing moustache you have!” The doddering Old Woman simply wanted to make friends, and after the uniformed man locked the compartment door, she continued to try. “What a lovely notebook, do you happen to be a writer, dear?”
“A journalist actually.” The Journalist sniffed, not wanting to be confused with the weepy young men overly concerned with daffodils he remembered from his school days.
“And which paper do you write for?”
“I’m freelancing at the minute actually.” He ruffled his papers and looked at the Married Man as though for approval. “I write occasionally for some music magazines, but I’m on my way to stay with friends for the moment.”
“Harrumph,” coughed the Married Man. “Journalism is a stain on this community.”
“An ink stain?” The Old Woman chuckled. “I must admit I don’t read the papers much, but when I do they have the loveliest things to read, real life is much more exciting than novels, don’t you find, dear?” she appealed to the Mistress.
“Well, yeah!” The Mistress said. “The papers are swell, all that business about being killed on trains! Half the time they are scarier than novels! Don’t you think?”
“Well you can be killed on a train in a novel, sweetie,” said the Married Man, cutting his eyes at her. “And you needn’t speak so loud.” He turned to the Old Woman, “We’re on our way to visit family.”
“Oh well you can’t have been married long,” The Old Woman smiled. “Such a beautiful young lady! Are you going to show her off to distant relatives?”
“Yes! They’re anxious to meet her,” said The Married Man, just as The Mistress said, “Actually we’re going for a funeral.”
The compartment fell silent.
“That is…” The Mistress giggled.
“They’re anxious to meet her before we say goodbye to my, uhm, Aunt. Old Aunt Betty was so eager for me to be married it only seemed right to bring my new bride to celebrate her life.”
The Journalist shoved his papers in his bag, “Most people bring flowers.”
The compartment lapsed into silence again. For hours there was silence between the rustling of the Old Woman’s paper bag full of sweets, and the delicate snoring of the Pickpocket.
A thick layer of snow already covered the ground rushing by the train before The Pickpocket stood up, pulling a compartment key from their pocket.
“What on earth is that monstrosity?!” The Married Man huffed, pointing at the beaten hunk of metal. “Surely that won’t work in the door! They have security for a reason, foolish boy.”
The Pickpocket responded by putting the key in the lock and opening the door. For a moment the compartment fell into complete panic. There was an assault of cold air and raucous noise that everyone tried to yell above. And suddenly, when it was over, the Pickpocket was no longer in the compartment.
“Oh he never did jump did he?!” cried The Old Woman, clutching her cardigan in anguish, “How awful! We’ve seen the poor lad die for nothing?!”
“Oh don’t be silly!” The Married Man sniffed, “There are wooden planks running along the side of the train to let them lock those blasted doors. I have a good mind to have the little fool arrested, I’ve heard of these thrill-seeking ninnies jumping on and off trains at will, it’s preposterous.”
“I’m going to see if I can follow him!” cried The Mistress, grabbing her bag and launching herself out of the other side of the compartment and into the small cosy corridor.
“Preposterous.” The Married Man repeated, straightening his tie. “You done with this?” He snatched a paper from the Journalist’s hands and started flicking through, grumbling to himself.
The Old Woman looked at the door, wringing her hands nervously, “Will the door open again? Did he lock it? Oh I’ve heard all kinds of stories! Young women falling to their deaths, bodies lost on the tracks, cut in half by trains until you can’t tell who they are!”
“Oh quiet, woman, just don’t lean on the bloody door and I’m sure you’ll be fine.”
“There’s no need for that!” The Journalist snatched his paper back from The Married Man, looking furious. “You’ll just scare the old girl. I’ll check the door.” He leant forward in his chair and pushed the door with the tips of his fingers. It didn’t budge. He stood and pushed it properly and it still didn’t budge.
The Married Man watched, suddenly interested. “There’s no way he could have locked it again, not hanging onto the side of the train! It’s impossible!”
The Journalist shook his head, “Maybe the lock’s just got jammed, faulty, I hear they cut corners all the time, that’s where all your stories of ladies falling come from, old dear.” He sat back down taking up his papers.
“Now look here!” The Married Man boomed, “I happen to own this railway and I can assure you there are no corners cut, it is all quite above board, foolproof the lot of it.”
The Journalist looked at Tthe Married Man, face flushing with the indignation rising in him, “Well if it’s fool proof how did that lad just manage to jump out of the train?!”
And just at that moment the train screeched to a stop. The Married Man flew out of his seat onto the floor bursting into a flurry of cursing. The Old Woman fell forward, but was caught deftly by The Journalist who set her right again as soon as he found his footing.
“What fresh hell is this?!” cried the Married Man struggling to pull himself to his feet.
Just as The Journalist had finished helping The Married Man back to his seat The Mistress burst in, her eyes glistening. She was startled, clearly, her hair had come free of several pins, and her tights were laddered and peppered with holes. She even held her shoes in her hands as though she had needed to run a great distance very fast.
“They’ve had to stop the train!” she cried.
“Oh have they really?!” The Married Man huffed, trying to pull her down into the seat next to him.
She batted him away, throwing her shoes down, “The tracks are covered in snow, and apparently the engine has suffered some from the cold. It all sounded rather technical to me, but the driver was simply livid! Says he’s been given a shoddy train to drive!”
“Oh hush, dear. And are you not worried we’ll miss your dear auntie’s funeral?!” The Married Man promptly shut his mouth and sank back into his chair. The Mistress stood a little taller, “That’s what I thought! Anyway, that’s not even half the news. Apparently there’s been a murder! Can you believe it? Just like the novels!”
There was a bang against the window from the outside of the train, followed by a small tinkling metal noise. The Journalist winced as the badly forged compartment key hit his foot.
“Don’t let the bugger in!” cried the Married Man just as the Old Woman wailed, “Oh do let him in!”
The Journalist let him in.
The Pickpocket looked just as shaken up as The Mistress had upon her arrival. Shaking like a leaf, and, with a mud-stained jacket and all, The Pickpocket simply sat down, pulled their hat low and curled up on the chair, trying to disguise the rattling of coins that had not followed them before.
The other passengers gaped in wonder as The Pickpocket promptly fell asleep.
They had been informed to all stay put in their compartments, and the passengers were all too happy to comply. The Old Woman munched on her sweets and spoke in high pitched, schoolgirl wails with the Mistress about their favourite novels. The Married Man sat in silence in a huff, making a show of cleaning the tobacco out of his pipe and polishing it to perfection. The Pickpocket woke after a little while and pointed enquiringly to the pile of papers. The Journalist allowed the rest of the compartment free range of his reading. He had quite lost his taste for those papers, until he began to listen in on The Mistress and The Old Woman.
“Oh well I heard that one was based on the author’s real life!”
“No, really? It can’t be! No such thing could happen!”
“It did though, I swear it!”
“Well they do say fact is much stranger than fiction, how strange though, for it to be so famous and for the author not to advertise that it’s all true!”
“Well I expect it’s all a little personal, best to leave it fictional I suppose.”
The Journalist found himself nodding along with the two women, quite in awe of their conversation. Fact truly was stranger than fiction, and think of all the newspapers sold by fact. But think of how much better they would sell if the journalist in question had been at the centre of it all. If it could sell a trashy novel, it could certainly sell papers quicker.
“We should try to solve it!” he cried suddenly. The Married Man dropped his pipe, The Pickpocket gave The Journalist a queer look, and the women fell into excited shrill squeals after a short pause.
“Really? And how will you solve the murder, boy detective?” The Married Man grumbled going back to his obsessive polishing.
The Journalist looked appropriately abashed. “Well of course the police will solve it when they do make it here through all the snow, but it should be fun to speculate. Any theories anyone?” He turned to a fresh page in his notebook, possible headlines running through his head.
The Married Man sat up suddenly upon seeing the notebook, “See here, are you trying to get a story out of us, boy? That’s terribly bad form if you ask me, a man has just died!” The Pickpocket nodded furiously, pulling the paper up higher as though to shield their view of the compartment.
“I think you’re missing the point of journalists, darling,” The Mistress laughed, “They’re meant to report on these kinds of things!”
The Old Woman nodded furiously. “And all the better if they’re right in the middle of it! Oh yes, I have loads of theories, but would it not be better if you wrote it as a novel dear, you might make more money from it?”
The Journalist shared a pitying look with The Married Man. “I’m very sorry about this girls, but novels don’t quite offer the same artistic integrity. And I’m not sure they sell as well as you may think.”
“Oh dear, never mind then,” The Old Woman said, leaning back. “My theories may all be a bit salacious, much more suited to a novel.”
“Oh you should write one!” The Mistress said, “I’d read it immediately!”
“Why read it when you’re living it, silly mare!” The Married Man huffed, “It’s clearly a train robbery, it always is. He had something valuable, someone tried to steal it, he tried to stop them, they killed him, open and shut case.”
The Mistress turned her nose up, “Please don’t turn to police work, dear, I couldn’t stand it!”
“Oh it’s always a bloody robbery, it’s hardly police work, they might as well not turn up!”
“Nonsense,” said the Mistress, “It’s a crime of passion of course, he was on his way to see his lover and his wife found out and had him killed.”
“Or she was just annoyed with him and killed him herself,” The Old Woman said, and the two of them fell back into their raucous giggling. The Married Man looked a little pale.
“There’s no way to tell without all the evidence anyway,” The Married Man said, “We don’t know enough.”
“What do we know?” The Journalist asked, turning to another clean page, not because he’d written anything, but because he liked the professional sound of turning papers.
“We know the train stopped because of the cold, then a body was found a few moments after,” The Mistress offered.
“Yes,” The Journalist said, actually starting to write, “Do you think they could be connected? Maybe there really isn’t anything wrong with the train, the murderer could have stopped it?”
“But then it would have to be an inside job, dear,” The Old Woman said, “There’s no way he could have gotten to the engine room, or whatever they call it, they couldn’t have gone to talk to the driver, they couldn’t have got him to stop the train or sabotage it in any way.”
“They could have sabotaged the train before we set off,” The Married Man said, suddenly thoughtful, “Although they could have spoken to the driver, couldn’t they?” He looked pointedly at the Mistress, “You managed to talk to him after all.”
The Mistress giggled, “A girl has her ways.”
“I suppose she does,” The Journalist muttered scribbling everything they said down. “Could it have been a woman? She could have easily sabotaged the train, no one would suspect her, and she could report the crime quite flustered, not unlike all your novels.”
“Well, you’re starting to sound like a suspect, dear!” The Old Woman said cheerily to the Mistress.
The compartment fell silent for a moment. Then The Journalist seemed to fold over his notebook, scribbling with intensity.
“Hold on now, the murderer could have easily broken out of the compartment and gone along the side of the train, just like this lad here did!” The Married Man snapped, knocking the paper out of the Pickpocket’s hands.
“But that would mean there is something wrong with your trains, sweetie.” Said the Mistress, picking up the papers and handing them back to the Pickpocket who smiled weakly in response.
“I’m not the one on trial here!” The Married Man cried a little too loud.
“No one is on trial, dearie, we’re only guessing,” The Old Woman said, holding out the paper bag full of sweets to him.
“You’re guessing wrong!” The Married Man snapped.
“Actually, they’re not all wrong.” The Mistress said, “There is something very wrong with your trains.”
“They’re accusing you of murder and suddenly you’re an expert on trains. You don’t know a single thing about trains!”
“I know enough. Your partner hired me.”
The Married Man suddenly turned pale, “Hired you? What are you some kind of whore?!”
The Mistress shook her head, “Actually I’m undercover, I work for a private investigator in London, and your murder theory is quite viable by the way, people rarely suspect a woman, especially if she looks dumb enough.”
The Old Woman leant forward, “I’m sorry dear, but if you’re a PI as you claim, why tell him now that he’s being investigated, surely that’s not the point of being under cover?”
The Mistress nodded, “Quite right, but the police are on their way. When I left the compartment I went to talk to the driver, got what I needed and when the train stopped I sent word to the police and his partner. I’m afraid you’re in quite the pickle, dear, your wife won’t be best pleased.”
The Married Man stared at The Mistress, his mouth opening and closing. Try as he might to form the words for a defence he could only manage the high pitched whine of a wounded animal.
“Wait, was there even a murder? Did you stop the train to call the police?” The Journalist asked, looking up from his pages of notes.
“Oh no, there was a murder, quite a coincidence really,” The Mistress said, “The police should be here very soon.”
At this The Pickpocket ran for the compartment door, shocking The Married Man into action. He shot to his feet and grabbed The Pickpocket by the arm pulling them violently enough that two interesting things happened. The first surprise (to the passengers at least) was the treasure trove of watches, wallets, and wedding rings that fell from the coat of The Pickpocket. The second surprise was The Pickpocket’s hat slipping to the floor, revealing long golden hair and explaining their sharp feminine features rather well.
“Oh thank goodness,” The Married Man said, dropping The Pickpocket’s arm, “I thought you were one of those lads you read about in the papers, like that Wilde bloke!”
The Mistress rolled her eyes.
The Whole Truth
“Well this is just as good as a murder if you ask me!” The Journalist said, rifling through his notes and looking rather pleased with himself.
“Please don’t publish this,” The Married Man moaned.
“Please do,” The Mistress said.
“Please don’t,” The Pickpocket said. She was on her hands and knees, taking handfuls of the stolen goods and shoving them back in her pockets. “It would really be a big help if you didn’t publish it, actually.”
“Write it into a novel!” The Old Woman cried, “that would solve the problem.”
“There is no problem,” The Married Man said, “turn her in, she stole all that crap!”
The Pickpocket looked up at him, eyes watering, “I wouldn’t have to steal if you hadn’t fired my father! He was one of the men building this railway, but you decided it was too expensive to do it right! Without daddy working we fell into ruin!”
The Married Man stared at her in shock, “I’m… I’m so sorry, I don’t remember, I didn’t mean-,”
“Oh it’s not true, you old oaf,” The Mistress snapped, “she’s pulling your leg!”
“She does have a point,” The Old Woman said, “you’re a criminal too now, no need to be so rude to your kin!”
“Oh shut up you old-,”
A knock at the door silenced him. Through the window the passengers could see two policemen and a man in a blue uniform. They came into the compartment. It would have been a lot more cramped had The Pickpocket not flattened herself against the back of her chair in a desperate effort to evade notice.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, we’ve come to enquire about the murder on the train a few hours ago, did you see anything suspicious.”
The passengers all glanced at each other for a moment.
“We didn’t see anything, officer,” The Old Woman said.
“Oh yes, that’s exactly what this gentleman said. Said you were quite a polite compartment when he came to check your tickets. I’m sure you can be trusted.”
The Married Man turned a shade paler, almost edging into green. The Journalist tried to lean over his notes to hide them, smiling. The Mistress stood to talk to the police officers.
“That’s not the man who checked our tickets!” The Old Woman cried, “The man who checked our tickets had a moustache.”
“Oh my god!” Said The Mistress.
“He’s the murderer!” The Journalist leapt up, his papers flying everywhere. The man in the blue uniform took off down the corridor, with the police in pursuit.
“Oh how nice,” The Old Woman said, “We really did solve it!”
And Nothing but the Truth
The passengers parted ways in Scotland, some happier than others. On the platform The Pickpocket, The Mistress and The Old Woman all stood together chatting like old friends, whilst The Journalist talked to The Married Man.
“Have you told your wife you’re to be arrested?”
“Are you going to confess?”
“Stop trying to get the inside scoop, you vulture.”
“If you give me an exclusive I’ll paint you however you want.”
The Married Man thought for a moment. “Oh fair enough. Get in touch, I’m sure the harlot will keep in touch with you.”
“I certainly will, I want a whole piece about how great my work was,” The Mistress said, interrupting. “Come on now, the police are waiting.”
The Journalist waved them goodbye and walked over to the Old Woman. “Where’s our artful Dodger?”
“Oh she snuck off a while ago, dear, has better place to be I imagine.” The Old Woman laughed.
“I won’t write about her.”
“Good. Keep in touch.”
Feeling quite happy with himself, The Journalist left the train station with a smile on his face and a story bubbling in his mind.
The Old Woman watched them bring the body off the train in a large black box. She popped another boiled sweet into her mouth and put them back in the same pocket as the money. The money she’d meant to pay to the man in the blue uniform. It was silly of him really, she thought, to dress up like that. The train had stopped and he could have gotten away. Still, she had what she wanted now: a dead husband, and a lot more money than she’d been hoping for.