Authors: Edward Marston
THIRTEEN TALES FROM THE RAILWAY DETECTIVE
To train-lovers everywhere
Detective Inspector Robert Colbeck first came into existence in 2003. An American publisher, Crippen and Landru, invited me to put eighteen of my stories together in an anthology,
Murder Ancient and Modern
. A nineteenth story was to be published separately and given to everyone who bought the anthology. At that point in time,
The Railway Detective,
the first book in the series, had been commissioned. A short story seemed like an ideal opportunity to give Colbeck a trial run on the page. It was called ‘The End of the Line’ and is the last story in the present anthology. Readers of the series will see how much Colbeck has matured in every way since his first outing.
I grew up with steam locomotives. My father and my uncle were engine drivers and other members of the wider family worked on the railway in some capacity. Since I was born and brought up on the corner of Railway Street, I heard – day and night – trains of every description
steaming to and from Cardiff General station. Whenever we went to coastal resorts like Penarth, Barry Island or Porthcawl, we travelled by rail from the much smaller Queen Street station. Steam trains were dirty, smelly, noisy, cramped, uncomfortable and frequently late but we loved them.
It was no surprise, therefore, that the first radio play I sold to the BBC was set largely on a train. When I later adapted it for television, British Rail supplied a carriage with the side cut away. We put it on rollers so that it could be rocked and used back projection to give the impression of speed and movement. The railway also featured heavily in
, a children’s TV comedy series I created and helped to write. In fact, one thirteen-part series was set in a disused railway station. The climax in the last episode was a high-speed chase of one steam engine by another. What the viewers didn’t realise was that we only had the use of one engine so – thanks to a bit of televisual trickery – it was actually chasing itself.
I’d always wanted to celebrate the early years of steam and The Railway Detective series has given me the chance to do so. Railways were the defining phenomenon of the Victorian age, transforming lives in a way that was unimaginable beforehand. They had a profound effect on the nature of crime, enabling the villains to flee the scene very quickly and, by the same token, giving the police increased mobility. Crimes on the railway itself grew steadily in number. There is thus no shortage of work for the Detective Department at Scotland Yard. Robert Colbeck, Victor Leeming and Edward Tallis will always have their hands full.
My sincere thanks go to my literary agent, Jane Conway-Gordon, for her enthusiastic support of the series and to Susie Dunlop of Allison & Busby for introducing Colbeck to an ever-widening audience. My wife, Judith, deserves a special mention because she made me read each of these stories aloud to her so that I could hear the infelicities in a first draft. For any errors that sneaked through, I hang my head.
Dawn was breaking when the locomotive backed slowly but noisily towards the coal stage. Tall, brick-built and topped by a massive water tank, it was a ghostly shape looming above them. As they came to an abrupt halt beneath the chutes, Ezekiel Ryde, the fireman, urinated over the dwindling stock of coal in the tender.
‘Always keep it wet,’ he said, cheerfully. ‘It burns better that way.’
‘Then make sure you use the hose when you’re up there,’ said the driver.
‘I will, Perce.’
Percy Denton waited patiently until Ryde had finished relieving himself and adjusted his trousers. The driver looked into the tender.
‘We need two tub loads.’
‘Are you sure, Perce?’
‘There’s less than half a hundredweight so we can manage a full ton.’
Ryde was a stocky man in his late twenties who thrived on the physical demands of his job. Jumping down from the footplate, he crossed to the ladder that rose vertically against the wall of the coal stage. It took him seconds to climb up the metal rungs and step into the cavern above. Ryde had expected to shovel coal from the bunker into the two small wheeled tubs but, to his surprise, both had already been filled. He switched on the tap and used a hose to give both piles of coal a thorough soaking. Bending down, he then gave the first tub a firm shove and sent it rolling along the ramp towards the chute where it was tipped up so that its load cascaded down into the tender. The thunderous noise was accompanied by clouds of coal dust, rising up at him out of the gloom.
When he pulled the empty tub back to its original position, he addressed the full one and was puzzled by its weight. Although it seemed to have the requisite half-ton of coal, it felt lighter than its predecessor. Ryde heaved it forward and tipped it down the chute, causing another small avalanche. But this one was very different. As the second load hit the tender, Percy Denton let out a cry of alarm.
‘What’s wrong?’ asked Ryde, mystified.
is,’ replied the driver, pointing at the tender.
‘Who are you talking about?’
Ezekiel Ryde narrowed his eyelids and peered down. In the poor light he could just make out the shape of a human body sprawled lifelessly across the pile of coal.
‘This will annoy my father-in-law,’ said Colbeck with amusement.
, sir,’ complained Leeming.
‘Because he works for a rival company, he hates it when we travel on the Great Western Railway. He loathes Brunel.’
who builds railways.’
‘But they’ve been such a boon to us, Victor,’ argued Colbeck. ‘Even you must admit that. Look at this latest case. News of the murder was sent to us by telegraph as soon as the body was discovered. The station is over fifty miles from London. Think how long it would take us by stagecoach. The train will get us there in a fraction of the time.’
‘That doesn’t mean I have to
the journey, sir.’
Leeming folded his arms and looked disconsolately out of the window. He had a rooted objection to rail travel. When they arrived at their destination, however, he would forget the discomfort and throw himself into the investigation with alacrity. For that reason, Colbeck did not try to reconcile him to a railway system that had revolutionised the lives of the whole nation. Instead, he speculated on the nature of the crime they’d been engaged to solve. The telegraph’s scant details had been enough to rouse his interest and set his mind racing. Didcot was a tiny Berkshire village that had grown steadily since the station was opened there. As a junction, it saw rail traffic going in different directions. Any killer wishing to flee the scene of the crime would have a choice of exits.
Colbeck wondered which one he might have taken.
Percy Denton and Ezekiel Ryde were at once reassured and intimidated by the arrival of two detectives from Scotland
Yard. Though both were strong men, they’d been badly shaken by the discovery at the coal stage. Denton had almost fainted and Ryde had promptly emptied the contents of his stomach. As Colbeck and Leeming interviewed them in the stationmaster’s office, the murder took on more definition. The victim, it transpired, was Jake Harnett, a porter in his early twenties. What he was doing in the coal stage, nobody knew. A single man who lived locally, Harnett hailed from Bristol. Colbeck made a mental note to arrange for his family to be informed of his death. Passing on the bad news to Harnett’s landlady was a task he reserved for himself.
Inevitably, the versions given by the two men were jumbled, repetitive and even contradictory at times. Colbeck sought to make them relax.
‘I see that your locomotive is one of the Iron Duke class,’ he said.
‘Yes,’ said Denton in amazement. ‘You recognised it?’
‘Well, it is very distinctive. Was it built in Swindon?’
‘Then it’s one of the later batch,’ said Colbeck. ‘Built by Rothwell and Co.’
As he talked knowledgeably about the locomotive’s salient features, he could see that he had a calming effect on both men. He was speaking their language. As a result, the rest of the interview was more productive.
Having dispatched Leeming to ask the station staff about their dead colleague, Colbeck made his way up the rising mound to the rear of the coal stage. Open to the elements at the front and the back, it was a cold, unwelcoming place with a coal bunker, two tubs, a large shovel and a hose
attached to a tap in one wall. There was no sign of blood or any other evidence of a violent assault. What interested him was the size of the tubs. They were quite compact. To cram the body of a grown man into one of them would not have been easy. Jake Harnett would have been bent double before being covered with coal. It explained why one truck was lighter than the other.
Colbeck walked over to the storage hut to which the body had been moved. The railway policeman on guard stood respectfully to attention when Detective Inspector Robert Colbeck introduced himself. Harnett lay on his back, covered by a rough piece of sacking. When he drew it back, Colbeck solved two mysteries. The victim was short and slight enough to be concealed in a tub and the cause of death was apparent. Harnett was wearing a suit and Colbeck, the dandy of the Metropolitan Police, winced when he saw how badly it had been torn, scuffed and blackened. However, the coal dust could not hide the blood that had seeped through the man’s waistcoat. He’d been stabbed in the chest.
When Leeming had finished talking to the staff, he met Colbeck on the station platform to compare notes. A clear portrait of Jake Harnett had emerged. He was conscientious and popular with his colleagues and with passengers alike. Facial injuries sustained when he fell into the tender had made it impossible for Colbeck to notice how allegedly handsome he’d been.
‘He had an eye for the ladies, sir,’ said Leeming, disapprovingly.
‘That shouldn’t necessarily make him a target for murder.’
‘Jealousy is a powerful motive.’
‘Indeed, it is, Victor,’ agreed Colbeck. ‘What was the general feeling?’
‘They didn’t so much admit it as hint at it,’ said Leeming, ‘but they suspected that Harnett might have … taken liberties with the wrong person.’
‘In other words, she was a married woman.’
‘Were any names suggested?’
‘Not at first but I could see that they all had suspicions. So I reminded the stationmaster that a murder would bring bad publicity to the GWR. If he knew anything, he
to tell us. I was blunt with him, sir.’
‘Did your bluntness produce a result?’
Leeming nodded. ‘Her name is Rose Brennan,’ he explained. ‘She’s the wife of a local dairy farmer. Whenever she came with milk churns, Harnett was quick to help her and pay compliments. He was a charmer, by all accounts.’
‘I fancy that Mrs Brennan’s husband was immune to his charms.’
‘Oh, he was, Inspector. According to the stationmaster, Edgar Brennan was enraged when he saw the attention his wife was getting. He took Harnett aside and threatened him. I think Brennan could be our man.’
‘There’s a huge difference between “could be” and “definitely is” so we mustn’t rush to judgement. How far away is the Brennan farm?’
‘It’s less than a mile.’
‘Good,’ said Colbeck, ‘we can discuss the possibilities on the walk there.’
Edgar Brennan was a big, brawny man in his early forties with a weather-beaten face. He looked startled when the detectives arrived to speak to him. He showed his visitors into the low-ceilinged parlour with a bare floor and sparse furniture. When Colbeck explained the reason for their visit, Brennan was impassive.
‘Don’t you have a comment to make, sir?’ enquired Colbeck.
‘No,’ replied the other, gruffly.
‘Yet you knew Mr Harnett.’
‘I disliked the man.’
‘You did more than that,’ said Leeming. ‘You were heard threatening him.’
Brennan stiffened. ‘I’d every right to do so, Sergeant.’
‘When did you last see him?’
‘It was not after dark at the station, if that’s what you mean. I haven’t seen him for days so you can stop accusing me.’
‘We’re not accusing you, Mr Brennan,’ said Colbeck. ‘You happen to be an interested party, that’s all. We came to break the sad news.’
‘It’s not sad news to me, Inspector.’
‘I’m sorry you take that attitude.’ He exchanged a glance with Leeming. ‘Could we speak to your wife, please, Mr Brennan?’
‘There’s no need to talk to Rose.’
‘I’m afraid that we must insist, sir.’
The farmer was aggressive. ‘You can’t come barging in here, telling me what I can and can’t do.’
‘You’re obstructing the police in the exercise of their duties,’ said Colbeck, meaningfully. ‘That renders you liable
to arrest. Why are you afraid to let us talk to Mrs Brennan?’
‘That’s none of your business.’
Leeming confronted him. ‘We are making it our business, sir.’
There was a tense moment as the farmer squared up to him, fists bunched. In the event, the argument went no further because the door opened and Rose Brennan stepped into the room. She was taken aback at the sight of the two well-dressed visitors. For his part, Colbeck was momentarily stunned. Several years younger than her husband, the wife had the kind of arresting natural beauty that was unimpaired by her tousled hair and rough working clothes. She reminded Colbeck so much of his own wife, Madeleine, that he stared in wonder at her. It was left to Leeming to introduce them and to explain why they were there.
Rose gasped. ‘Jake Harnett has been
‘We believe that you knew him, Mrs Brennan.’
‘The man was a nuisance to my wife,’ said the farmer, curtly. ‘But Rose never really knew him.’
‘Let Mrs Brennan speak for herself,’ suggested Colbeck.
Rose glanced nervously up at her husband before shaking her head.
‘What Edgar tells you is right,’ she said, uneasily. ‘I met Jake … Mr Harnett, that is, at the station a few times but I never really got to know him.’
‘There you are, Inspector,’ said Brennan, dismissively. ‘We can’t help you. If you’re looking for people who warned Harnett, I’m not the only one, by any means. There’s Tom Gilkes, for instance.’
Colbeck’s eyebrow lifted. ‘Who is he?’
‘Tom is part of the family. His wife, Lizzie, is my sister-in-law. She had the same trouble with Harnett as Rose.’
‘Where might we find Mr Gilkes?’
‘He lives at Greenacres Farm. You came past it on your way here.’
‘Then we’ll bid you good day,’ said Colbeck, looking from one to the other.
Brennan had a smirk of satisfaction on his face but Rose was patently upset and kept biting her lip. Colbeck opened the door to leave then turned round.
‘We may be back,’ he said, quietly.
On the walk to the other farm, Leeming’s earlier prediction had hardened into fact.
‘Brennan did it,’ he said.
‘I dispute that.’
‘He’s full of anger, sir. And he’s more than strong enough to kill a man.’
‘Granted,’ said Colbeck, ‘but you have to remember
Harnett was killed. He was stabbed through the heart. That would be far too quick a death to appease Brennan. He’d have preferred to batter him to death with his fists. Then,’ he added, ‘there’s his wife to consider.’
‘She was young enough to be his daughter.’
‘What happened when she heard about the murder?’
‘She was very shocked.’
‘And what would you do if your wife had a terrible shock?’
‘I’d put my arms around Estelle to comfort her.’ Leeming realised what he was being told. ‘Brennan did nothing. He
just stood there. Doesn’t he care for his wife?’
‘He cares enough to guard her jealously,’ said Colbeck, ‘and she’s obviously afraid of him. But he’s not our man. If he’d gone off somewhere last night, it would have shown in her face. Rose Brennan is not clever enough to hide her emotions. That look in her eye gave the game away.’
Leeming was confused. ‘What game is that, sir?’
‘Harnett wasn’t a nuisance to her at all. She
Aided by a yapping dog, Lizzie Gilkes was rounding up the cows and driving them towards the milking parlour. She carried a stick and used it viciously on the rumps of any animals who tried to stray. Lizzie was an older version of her sister. Though she lacked Rose’s beauty, she had the same shapely figure. When she saw the two men approaching her, she crossed over to them.
‘Can I help you?’ she asked, warily.
‘I believe that you can,’ said Colbeck. ‘Are you Mrs Gilkes?’
‘That’s me – Lizzie Gilkes.’
Colbeck performed the introductions then told her why they were there. News of the murder made her step back in disbelief.
‘Jake Harnett is
?’ she gulped. ‘He can’t be.’
‘When did you last see him?’
‘It was yesterday morning when I put our churns on the milk train.’ She heaved a sigh. ‘I can’t believe it. Who would want to …?’ She broke off as a thought struck her. ‘Someone’s been gossiping, haven’t they? That’s why you’re here. Someone told you about Tom.’