Skip to content

By Jen Moulton on

Case Files: Murder and Folly

An odd character and a carriage key lead to criminal developments on a night train in the latest instalment in our short fiction series by York creative writing students.

This is the fourth 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.

To immerse yourself in the world of mystery and detective fiction and take part in crime writing activities, don’t forget to check out the National Railway Museum’s Summer Sleuthing programme, running from 22 July until 2 September.

Murder and Folly

By Jen Moulton

The afternoon sky was tinged with a milky pink sunset when the steam train pulled into Fellbeth station and James Kenny swung impressively out of the door to greet his passengers, just as he did every day. There were extremely few tonight but nonetheless Kenny directed them grandly to their assigned rooms as they filed neatly past him onto his train. A man in a greying three-piece suit seemed oddly stressed as he boarded and kept shooting furtive glances out of the train window as Kenny showed him to his room.

“There is always one who‘s still afraid,” Kenny thought bemusedly as he offered the gentleman his compartment for the night with a wave of his hand. But there was nothing to fear on his train; the only incident that had ever occurred was a gentleman using his universal carriage key to open the wrong door and accidentally walking in on a man who was darning his socks. The whole affair was mildly diverting and the two men left as friends, using their carriage keys to re-enact the farce for the other passengers who all tittered merrily. Kenny was reminiscing fondly when a towering stack of boxes and bags bumped dizzily into the wall opposite him and the man beneath them emitted an expletive, as the top five or so cases wobbled precariously.

Kenny reprimanded Simmons loudly for his repugnant language and bid him hurry with the luggage before the train set off for Chipply. “It’s Simmen, sir,” his colleague corrected breathlessly from beneath the luggage. But Kenny pretended not to hear and observed Simmons’ struggle as he proceeded down the corridor. Precisely four minutes later the train pulled smoothly away from the station and, as always, Kenny made it his priority to visit his guests. He knocked politely on each door before letting himself in with his key to wish the passengers a pleasant trip and inform them that dinner would be served in half an hour. One young man named Amstel said it was only his second time riding on a train in his life and they both bandied gleefully about their shared interest in locomotives. Lastly, Kenny visited the staff, whom he saw every day. They mumbled greetings to him as they cleaned or prepared meals and he beamed encouragingly at them before marching back to his office proudly.
He was just settling into a comfortable chair when Simmons popped his head into the compartment to enquire if he was thirsty. Kenny had spent the first few weeks of Simmons’ training ordering him to fetch him cups of tea from the kitchens all the way up to his room every three hours or so, until it was just about the only part of his job that Simmons completed with unconscious efficiency and certainly the only part that Kenny thought worthy of him.

Simmons scuttled away down the train and Kenny sat contemplatively, turning his carriage key in his fingers, when a figure appeared briefly in the corridor and continued past his office. He called out, for the passenger was headed toward the engine room. The man retreated back into his view, apologetic and wringing his hands. Kenny took his name, Egbert Callaghan, and scrawled it on the back of an envelope on his desk, eager to instil a further sense of wrongdoing upon the man, whom he realised was the nervous passenger from earlier. Kenny then fixed him with a stern look that belied his enjoyment and insisted on escorting the passenger back to the Dining Car. Kenny liked the other passengers to see him walking people about. It taught them an unspoken lesson about trespassing and meddling with his authority.

As they entered the Dining Car, Kenny counted only three other passengers for the evening. A young woman crossed her legs as he passed with Callaghan and Kenny looked her up and down appreciatively. She widened her eyes in a vulnerable stare and shied away from him. Kenny continued further down the car to Callaghan’s seat and he sat down carefully, staring resolutely ahead. Kenny, who had been about to give him one final lecture about wandering in restricted areas, was struck by the heated glare of the man at the table opposite, who seemed livid at Callaghan’s presence.

Kenny wondered perhaps if this was who Callaghan had been trying to get away from. Captivated as Kenny was by on-board disputes, Callaghan now seemed serene, tucking his napkin into the collar of his shirt. His angry neighbour was looking away and gazing at the deeply purpling sky. Kenny frowned, then shrugged and proceeded back up the Dining Car assured that he had imagined the tension and allowing himself the comforting thought that nothing untoward ever happened on his train. He began to wait out the meal with a good book, before he could begin the nightly checks. Simmons returned to him not much later bearing a laden tea tray. Kenny rolled his eyes at his underling as he made to exit.

“What is this Simmons?” Simmons pushed his lips together in a thin line and took a deep calming breath before answering,
“Simmen, sir. What is what, sir?”
“When do I ever use the blue tea cups, Simmons? When have I ever used them?”
Simmons stared at him incredulously, “Sir, I just used what…”
“I don’t want to hear it. Take the tray back and start again”. There was a pause and then Simmons nimbly swept up the tray and exited swiftly. Kenny smiled with satisfaction and sat down lower in his chair to await his next duties.

An hour or so later, he and Simmons were back in the corridor, making sure the passengers were all tucked away in their rooms so that they could inspect the storeroom and check on the cargo. He noticed Callaghan and the gentleman from earlier had rooms beside each other, as he locked both their doors and bid them good night. The girl from the dining car smiled timidly at him as Kenny snapped her door shut tight and locked it with his carriage key. While he viewed the Transport Police handbook as nothing more than a series of suggestive guidelines for men less competent than him, he knew that fraternising with passengers could result in his dismissal, a prospect he could not bear the thought of.

Kenny patrolled around the train for precisely three hours, before waking Simmons and switching places, falling asleep almost instantly to the gentle rocking of the train. Suddenly, a gunshot broke through the dark and Kenny sat bolt upright and fumbled for his uniform in the blackness, feeling his way into his jacket but taking several attempts to do the buttons up correctly. He then lunged feverishly for his baton which he kept under his pillow and sprang into the corridor.

He ran past the storeroom and came to the first room he knew to be occupied and found it open and deserted. He hurried on and found the next just as empty and ajar. He opened another door into the next carriage and found three passengers crowded around the door to Callaghan’s room; second to last in the sleeping car. Kenny pushed past the angry man from dinner, now stricken and clothed in a night shirt, the young shy woman with her soft blonde hair spilling from pins and Amstel, who was wearing his dressing robe inside out and looked green. Kenny reached the half-opened door to Callaghan’s room and, with mounting trepidation, pushed it wide.

Callaghan was dead, sprawled on his bed with a still lapping gunshot wound to the chest. Kenny gaped in the doorway, horrified. He heard running feet and turned dazedly to see Simmons, Mr Farling the cleaner and Mrs Meadows the maid, appear out of breath from the other end of the train where the staff quarters were housed. Wordlessly, Simmons squeezed to the middle of the group beside Kenny who silently gestured to the body, words failing him as he watched the blood pooling on the sheets. Briskly, Simmons pushed Kenny over the threshold, then further into the room and slid the door shut on the cluster of white faces in the corridor. Simmons eyed the body on the bed keenly before walking over to the window and checking that it was shut. His fingers brushed some dirt on the sill and he frowned at the soil curiously.

He turned back to Kenny attentively: “Sir, the staff and I were all at the other end of the train when we heard the blast, I can vouch for their innocence. That leaves the other three passengers: the lady and the two gentlemen.” He paused and turned back to the exit. “The door was open when we arrived, can we assume that they all had the means to… Sir?”

Kenny opened and shut his mouth like a fish that had washed ashore and Simmons tried valiantly to rouse him several more times before sighing and hitting him very hard across the face. “Good Lord, Simmons!” Kenny roared belligerently as if out of a trance and there came an urgent knocking on the door.

“Mr Kenny! Mr Simmen! Are you all right in there?” came a female voice from the corridor.
“Coming, Mrs Meadows!” Simmons answered and took Kenny, whose cheek was reddening rapidly, by the arm and led him back out into the corridor where the assembled guests and staff waited anxiously.
“Mr Callaghan has been shot,” Simmons began after a protracted look at Kenny when he did not address the group himself. “As the door was found open I must ask if any of you are in possession of one of the carriage keys that can operate all the locked doors on the trains throughout the country. Even if you have not used yours on this journey I would nevertheless appreciate it if you handed it in.”

There was stillness and then, almost in unison, the assembled passengers and staff drew out the small bronze coloured keys from their pockets and gowns, still clutched in their hands after they had each leapt from their beds at the sound of the shot. Simmons collected them and then bid the group adjourn to the Dining Car and await further instruction. The five shuffled away in a stunned silence and as the carriage door shut behind them Kenny gasped and slid hard down the wall of the train as if his legs would no longer support his weight.
Simmons took a moment to suppress the intrinsic irritation he held for his superior and gently nudged Kenny with his shoe to get his attention. “There wasn’t a gun in there, sir, nowhere obvious that would indicate suicide. That means this is a murder.”
Kenny rubbed a hand over his face in disbelief. “On my train, my train,” he whispered at last and Simmons looked at him with a mixture of disdain and pity.
“Listen, we’ll be at Chipply in three hours. If the murderer is still on the train they could get away when we pull into the station. There’s no way we could summon the police in time to make an arrest. Certainly, not at this late hour.”
Sudden rationality began to stir in Kenny’s eyes as Simmons’ words permeated his panic. He pushed himself back to his feet and swayed slightly.
“Simmons, are you saying we have to catch the murderer?”
Simmons nodded gravely. “Before we arrive at Chipply. Otherwise they could be lost forever,” he added.
Kenny’s earlier terror melted like snow, as he pictured himself clapping irons on a faceless assailant to rapturous applause and cheering. Crowds of people would want to meet him, would want to ride on his train where he had made the daring capture and conquered a murderer just in time.
Kenny snapped back to reality. Simmons was staring at him concernedly and Kenny forced the corners of his mouth back down as he straightened his uniform and cleared his throat.
“I’m going to catch this murderer, Simmons,” he said, excitedly staring toward the Dining Car. “Just watch me.”
They entered the Dining Car, where its five occupants were dotted around, none of them making eye contact. Simmons crossed surreptitiously to the other end of the carriage and locked the door while Kenny began to look at each person forcefully, hoping to provoke the truth out of one of them. The two women simply looked pale and scared. The younger girl he had noticed earlier was trembling lightly. Farling, the cleaner, looked positively grey while the cross gentleman from dinner avoided looking at him and stared resolutely at the floor.
Amstel, meanwhile, was taking huge gulps of air and seemed to be both sweating and shaking at the same time. He stood suddenly and leapt for the door. Kenny mistook his hurry as an attempt to flee but the young man barely came close to the exit before he vomited his dinner over the floor. The collective groaned in distaste as Amstel continued to retch upon the floor. The maid came up off her chair to calm him down. Simmons proposed that they ought to adjourn to Kenny’s quarters away from the mess and the smell. Mrs Meadows offered to stay and clean but Kenny denied her bluntly, sure that they ought to stay together.
Kenny’s lodgings seemed impossibly small with the seven of them crammed in and he had Simmons fetch a pitcher of water for Amstel, who was still mightily green and sickly. Kenny stood once he had returned, determined to out the perpetrator and capture him before they could arrive at the station.
“Right,” Kenny began, whirling his baton in his hand menacingly and dropping it. Simmons looking away distractedly, his shining eyes betraying mirth as Kenny retrieved his baton.
“When we arrive at Chipply in a few hours, we will remain on the train. I will send my subordinate to fetch the police and then they will question you here so that the murderer, who is in our very midst, does not escape.” Kenny smiled hoping his plan would instil fear in the heart of the killer and he almost leered at the assembled group, waiting for one of them to bolt.
Suddenly the cleaner stood and Kenny readied his baton.
“I am Clement Farling,” the old man declared. “I have worked here for three years, but five years ago I was imprisoned serving a sentence for a robbery which I did not commit. When the police come to question us, it is likely they will arrest me because of my previous convictions.” He took a great shuddering breath as though he were already incarcerated once more. “I only ask that those of you who work with me might give them an honest report of my character in the hope that I am not faced with the murder charge.”
Confused, Kenny inquired if he had murdered Callaghan.
“No, sir I did not. But no doubt the police will question us all when they board the train for the murderer and expose my torrid past. From then it would only require the subtlest of speculations to assume I had returned to my devious ways,” Farling explained slowly, chancing an exasperated glance at Simmons who looked away again, his eyes twinkling.
“But you have not, in fact, returned to such ways?” Kenny pressed, still unsure as to what he was hearing and he felt suddenly at a loss as to the situation he found himself in. He had not envisaged the confessions of an old man when he pictured his Great Arrest.
“The police will pin it on him, then,” the cross gentleman spoke up. “Might we all then return to our own lodgings?”
“No, you may not,” Simmons stated, turning back to the group and angered at the gentleman’s’ callousness toward Farling. “Who might you be, sir?”
“John Parker, a geography teacher,” he answered blandly.
The young girl Kenny had noticed earlier began to cry, Meadows attempted to comfort her but was feverishly pushed away.
“Please, please don’t. I am wretched, as wretched as this old prisoner!” she cried. Kenny and Mrs Meadows rallied around her, even Farling, trying to comfort her hysteria.
“Oh, but I have done wrong,” she lamented. “I am fleeing from my husband. Please, you must not tell the police who I am or he shall find me! He has many connections and he will take me back and I will never escape.” She burst into another lather of tears until Simmons interjected.
“Why are you running from you husband, Madam?”
The woman recovered slightly and sat with her hands in her lap.
“He treats me very poorly, he keeps me hidden under the stairs and beats me. I could not go on anymore.” The passengers on the carriage sat tight-lipped and nervous at this statement, though Kenny could feel himself trusting the young woman in her pitiful state.
“Why should we believe you? You might be a troublesome wife for all we know and he has cast you out,” Parker asked emotionlessly. Kenny glared at him.
“Please, sirs I have… I have taken all of my possessions so that I might start a new life somewhere far away. I can fetch my luggage and show you. I truly intend to leave him for my own safety, not as the whimsy of some flighty woman,” she declared and at this strong sentiment, she burst into a fresh veil of tears.
Simmons motioned that they visit her apartment so they could ascertain authenticity of her story in her luggage. This was agreed upon and soon the young woman was heaving a trunk from under her bed with them gathered around. She flipped the lid and they all gasped; the case was positively stuffed with banknotes, a few fluttering onto the floor having burst out of the tight space.
“I haven’t many possessions. I’m not allowed many. I took what I needed to get away and more still to buy my ticket.” She turned back to the group. “Surely, you cannot begrudge me this?”
Parker gave a short bark of laughter. “Did you leave your husband any money?”
The girl flushed pink and dissolved into sobs once more. Amstel turned on Parker fiercely.
“Must you be so cruel?”
“Who are you to defend this mad woman, boy?” Parker sneered.
“Amstel, that’s who. I am a police officer and I can defend this woman and her deeds when we arrive at Chipply and with any luck she’ll be away again, with no interference, on her escape.” The young woman smiled gratefully at this but Simmons took Kenny’s arm and led him to one side.
“Sir, I really don’t think we can trust her. Think about it; she has shown us her trunk, come clean about her intentions to prove she has nothing to hide… but that amount of money? It just doesn’t make sense. Unless she’s playing us for fools.” The look on his face made it plain he did not think this would take any great effort on her part.
Kenny patted Simmons’ arm. “I understand your suspicions are running amok today, Simmons, but this is simply a scared young lady. Much like the old man, she is innocent and just proving herself thus. Besides, it isn’t gentlemanly to question such a fragile and miserable girl.” Simmons nodded but his eyes darkened with the effort of not frowning.
Kenny’s whisper harshened. “Look, I have just under two hours to catch the killer. I am not about to meddle in what is clearly a separate matter for your benefit.”
Kenny’s attention became absent as he laid a comforting hand on the young girl’s elbow, turning her admiring gaze away from Amstel and onto himself.
“Go and clean the Dining Car, Simmons, so that the guests may have something to eat before we arrive in Chipply and invite the police aboard.”
Simmons rolled his eyes but followed his orders, returning only when he had mopped up all of Amstel’s vomit. The party then went single-file up the narrow passageway, most still clad in their sleeping garments and peeking plaintively at the dark night glittering outside.
Abruptly, Amstel tripped over the hem of Parker’s night shirt, Parker fell hard and his wallet skittered out from an inside pocket. Amstel clattered forward apologetically to help him up but Parker fought off his attempts brusquely while Simmons retrieved the wallet.
A flash of intrigue blazed behind Simmons’ eyes as he said, casually, “Is this your wallet Mr. Parker?” He held up a brown leather wallet bulging with papers. “Only it has the name E.N. Callaghan embossed on the side.”
Parker remained unmoved by his tone. “What a folly, I must have picked up the wrong one at dinner.”
Simmons looked round to see what his colleague made of such a contemptuous lie, but Kenny had eyes only for the young girl, whose arm was still linked in his. Amstel leaned a little closer to examine the stuffed wallet and pulled out a folded grained photograph from the back.
“Look at this!” Amstel cried, holding the photograph flat so they could all see, it depicted a group of jubilant soldiers in front of a sign that read ‘Duniplath’ with their guns resting proudly on their shoulders.
“Must be The Battle of Duniplath”, Amstel muttered, but the group remained quizzical.
“An officer I trained with, his father in law was arrested for terrible crimes attached to the battle. He said the men there were atrocious, slaughtering whomever they found to be in their way.” Amstel swallowed, beginning to look green again. “It’s terrible men like that that made me want to be an officer.”
Mrs Meadows put her hand on his shoulder kindly and Farling took the photograph from his hand for a closer look.
“That’s Callaghan,” he said with surety. “It’s a glimpse of him in his army days.”
They all looked closer at the blurred features of the man he was pointing to. It was undoubtedly a much younger and vitalised Callaghan.
“Yes, and that chap looks rather like Parker,” Amstel said blithely.
They looked up at where Parker had been at the front of the troupe and Kenny went cold as he saw Parker’s heels whip out the door into the next carriage.
Kenny and Simmons set off automatically at a sprint and Kenny could hear Amstel panting behind him. Parker was heading for the dining car but there were no real exits, and the train was still in motion, flashing stubbornly through the dark. They came upon the dining car just as Parker reached its centre and he charged on, deaf to their shouts.
Suddenly, Parker’s leg flew from under him and he slipped onto his back in a heap on the newly mopped floor where Amstel had vomited. Kenny threw himself on top of Parker and handcuffed him tightly.
They arrived at the police station in Chipply an hour or so later, by which time Parker was repentant and miserable and Kenny had uncorked several bottles of champagne in celebration of his success.
Kenny sat proudly with Simmons behind a desk in Chipply Police Station after Parker’s official arrest. Kenny basked in the officer’s questioning like a cat in the sun.
“You see, officer, Parker shot Callaghan then used his carriage key to climb out of the window, toss the gun, walk the step down the side of the train to the storeroom window and enter back into the carriage via that door. A very simple plan, really, and one that I solved, leading me to capture the ruthless murderer using…“
“But how do you know of his manner of murder? Did he confess?” The perplexed officer interjected.
“No, Sir. When I came upon the group after I heard the gunshot…” Simmons broke in after a moment of Kenny’s silence. He had explained the whole thing to his superior a dozen times in the waiting room but Kenny could still not seem to grasp the ins and outs, “…Parker was the furthest from the murder, meaning he’d been the last to arrive at the scene, but his room was right next to the victim’s, therefore he must have come from further up the corridor than anyone else and the only rooms up there are Mr Kenny’s, my own, the storeroom and the engine.”
“They were in the same patrol,” Kenny piped up sagaciously. “Callaghan and Parker. They both had a hand in the war crimes at Duniplath but Callaghan must have been about to confess. That’s why he had the photograph.”
“And why Callaghan tried to hide from him at dinner,” Simmons continued. “Parker must have gotten on the train to stop him and Callaghan knew he was in danger.”

Kenny began to muse superfluously for the benefit of the officer: “Callaghan might have been safe had Parker not had a carriage key. They’re meant for uneasy passengers; like poor Amstel who gets terribly queasy at the sight of blood and old Farling who was probably scared someone might recognise him.”
“And that young girl with her trunk of money,” Simmons added.
“I’m sorry what girl?” the officer asked sharply. “We found only the six of you: Parker, Meadows, Farling, Amstel, Kenny and Simmen.”
Kenny was confused, “The young girl, very sweet, was on the run from her brutish husband”.
The officer got up hurriedly. “This isn’t her, is it?” he said, returning to the desk with a wanted poster adorned with a large impression of the young girl. It read “Wanted: Liz Hellbourne, for six counts of first degree murder, thievery, falsehoods and treachery”.
Simmons leant back in his chair lavishly to study Kenny’s horror with a raised eyebrow and a barely concealed smile. Surely, he could take over as senior now that his half-wit superior had willingly let a serial killer go without so much as a backwards glance. He might even be fired. Simmen crossed his fingers at the thought.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *