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Authors: Edward Marston

Blood on the Line

BOOK: Blood on the Line
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BLOOD ON THE LINE

E
DWARD
M
ARSTON

This one is for Judith. Choo-choo!

1857

‘Are you
serious
?’ asked Dirk Sowerby, eyebrows aloft in disbelief.

‘Never more so,’ replied Caleb Andrews. ‘I’m starting to feel my age, Dirk. It’s time to think of retirement.’

‘But you’ve got more energy than the rest of us put together.’

Andrews laughed. ‘That’s not saying much.’

‘What does your daughter think of the idea?’

‘To be honest, it was Maddy’s suggestion. Now that she’s about to get married, she doesn’t need her old father to support her anymore. She feels that I’ve earned a rest.’

The two men were on the footplate of the locomotive they’d just brought into Wolverhampton station. The engine was still hissing and wheezing but at least they were now able to have a conversation without having to shout at each other. Andrews was not just one of the
senior drivers on the London and North Western Railway, he was an institution, a grizzled veteran who’d dedicated himself to rail transport and achieved an almost iconic status among his work colleagues. He was a short, wiry man in his fifties with a wispy beard flecked with coal dust. Sowerby, by contrast, was tall, big-boned,
potato-faced
and well over twenty years younger. He idolised Andrews and – even though he sometimes felt the sharp edge of his friend’s tongue – was always glad to act as his fireman.

The LNWR train was on its way back to London but it did not have a monopoly on the route. As the two men chatted, a goods train belonging to the Great Western Railway steamed through the recently opened Low Level station nearby and left clouds of smoke in its wake. Andrews curled his lip in disgust.

‘We were here first,’ he declared. ‘Why does Wolverhampton have two stations? We can see to all of the town’s needs.’

‘Tell that to Mr Brunel.’

‘I wish I could, Dirk. There’s a lot of other things I could say to him as well. The man’s an idiot.’

‘That’s unfair,’ said Sowerby, defensively. ‘Brunel is a genius.’

‘A genius at getting things wrong,’ snapped Andrews, ‘such as the ridiculous broad gauge on the GWR. If he’s so clever, why did he get involved in that stupid atmospheric railway in Devon? He lost a pretty penny on that. Yes,’ he added, warming to his theme, ‘and don’t forget the battle of Mickleton when Brunel tried to use force to remove the
contractors building the Campden Tunnel, even though the Riot Act had already been read.’

‘Everyone makes some mistakes, Caleb.’

‘He’s made far too many for my liking.’

‘Well, I think he’s a brilliant engineer.’

‘He might be if he stuck to one thing and learnt to do it properly. But that’s not good enough for Brunel, is it? He wants to design
everything
– railways, bridges, tunnels, stations, docks and harbour improvements. Now he’s building iron ships. You wouldn’t get me sailing on one of those, I can tell you.’

‘Then we have to disagree,’ said Sowerby with a wistful smile. ‘I’d love to go on a steamship to some faraway country. It’s something I dream about.’

‘You should be dreaming about taking over my job when I give it up. That should be your ambition, Dirk. The quickest and safest way to travel is by rail. It’s also the most enjoyable way.’ Andrews glanced down the platform. ‘Unless you happen to be
that
poor devil, of course.’

Sowerby craned his neck. ‘Who do you mean, Caleb?’

Andrews indicated three people walking towards the train.

‘Look at that prisoner being marched between two policemen. See the look on his face?’ He gave a grim chuckle. ‘Somehow I don’t think
he’s
going to enjoy travelling by rail.’

 

The arrival of the newcomers caused some commotion on the platform. Most of the passengers had boarded the train
by now but there were several relatives and friends who’d come to see them off. They were diverted by the sight of a prisoner being hustled towards a carriage by two uniformed policemen. The older and brawnier of the policemen was handcuffed to the prisoner. What caused people to stare was the fact that the person under police escort was not the kind of ugly and uncouth villain they might expect but a handsome, well-dressed man in his thirties. Indeed, it was his taller companions who looked more likely to commit terrible crimes.

One of them, Arthur Wakeley, was a stringy individual with a gaunt face darkened by a menacing scowl. The other, Bob Hungerford, had the unmistakable appearance of a thug who prowled fairgrounds in search of easy targets, far more inclined to attack a policeman than become one. Tugging on his handcuffs, he pulled the prisoner along like an angry owner with a badly behaved dog. In spite of themselves, the onlookers felt an instinctive sympathy for the man, wondering what he could possibly have done to justify such harsh treatment and to be compelled to suffer such public humiliation. When the three of them disappeared into a compartment, the small crowd drifted slowly over to it.

There was more drama to come. As the whistle signalled the train’s departure, a young woman dashed onto the platform with a valise in her hand and ran to the nearest carriage. A porter was on hand to open the door and, as the train started to move, she flung herself into the compartment. The door clanged shut behind her. There was a collective gasp from the crowd as they imagined
how she’d react when she realised she’d be travelling in the company of two intimidating policemen and their prisoner.

 

‘Dear me!’ exclaimed Irene Adnam, seeing the trio on the seat opposite her. ‘I seem to have got into the wrong compartment. I do apologise.’

‘No apology is needed,’ said Wakeley, running an approving eye over her. ‘You’re most welcome to join us. Bob and I are pleased to have you with us. I can’t speak for
him
, mind you,’ he went on with a nudge in the prisoner’s ribs. ‘And I doubt if he’ll speak for himself at the moment. He’s gone very quiet. It often happens that way. Slap a pair of handcuffs on them and they lose their tongue.’

‘Until then,’ said Hungerford, ‘this one was talking nineteen to the dozen. I was glad to shut him up.’

Irene smiled nervously. ‘I see.’

She glanced at the man sitting between them but he didn’t raise his eyes to meet her gaze. He seemed to be ashamed, embarrassed and overwhelmed by the situation. The policemen, however, were eager to catch the eye of such an attractive and smartly attired young woman and they clearly found her a more rewarding spectacle than the fields scudding past the windows. Irene stared at the handcuffs.

‘Does he have to be chained to one of you?’ she asked.

Hungerford smirked. ‘Would
you
rather be handcuffed to him?’

‘No, no, of course not – it’s just that he can hardly escape when the train is in motion. Besides, there are two of you against one of him.’

‘In other words,’ said Wakeley, ‘you’re sorry for him.’

‘Well, yes, I suppose that I am.’

‘Don’t be, miss. He deserves to be handcuffed, believe me. In fact, if it was my decision, I’d have him in leg irons as well.’

‘That would be dreadful.’

‘He’s a criminal. He has to be punished.’

‘So you won’t remove the handcuffs?’

‘Not for a second.’

Irene stifled the rejoinder she was about to make and opened her valise instead. Putting a hand inside, she brought out an object that was covered by a piece of cloth. The policemen watched with interest but their curiosity turned to amazement when she whisked the cloth away and was seen to be holding a pistol. Irene’s face hardened and her gentle voice now had some steel in it.

‘You have one last chance to release him.’

‘What are you doing?’ cried Hungerford, shrinking back in fear.

‘She’s only bluffing,’ said Wakeley with a confident chuckle. He extended a palm. ‘Now, give me that gun before somebody gets hurt.’

‘Do as I say!’ she ordered. ‘Release Mr Oxley.’

Hungerford was mystified. ‘You
know
him?’

‘They’re in this together, Bob,’ decided Wakeley, ‘but they won’t get away with it.’ He gave Irene a challenging glare. ‘I don’t think this lass has the guts to pull that trigger. The weapon is only for show. In any case, she could only kill one of us. Where would that get her?’

Irene was calm. ‘Why don’t we find out?’

Aiming the barrel at Wakeley, she pulled the trigger and there was a loud report. The bullet hit him between the eyes and burrowed into his brain, knocking his head backwards. The prisoner suddenly came to life. Before he could recover from the shock of his friend’s death, Hungerford was under attack. He not only had to grapple with Oxley, there was the woman to contend with as well. Irene did not hold back. Knocking off the policeman’s top hat, she used the butt of the weapon to club him time and again. Hungerford was strong and fought bravely but he was no match for two of them. His head had been split open and blood gushed down over his face and uniform. Oxley was trying to strangle him while his accomplice was delivering more and more blows to his head. It was only a matter of time before Hungerford began to lose consciousness.

The moment the policeman slumped to the floor, Oxley searched Hungerford’s pocket for the key to the handcuffs. He found it, released himself, then stole a quick kiss from his deliverer.

‘Well done, Irene!’ he said, panting.

‘What will we do with these two?’ she asked.

‘I’ll show you.’

Opening the door, he grabbed Wakeley under both arms and dragged him across to it. The train then plunged into a tunnel, its rhythmical clamour taking on a more thunderous note and its smoke thickening in the confined area. With one heave, Oxley hurled the dead man out of the compartment. Since Hungerford was bigger and weightier, it took the two of them to shove him out into
the tunnel. Oxley closed the door and gave a laugh of triumph.

‘We did it!’ he shouted, spreading his arms. ‘Come here.’

‘Not until you’ve taken that coat off,’ she said, looking at it with distaste. ‘It’s covered in his blood. You can’t be seen wearing that.’ She opened the valise. ‘It’s just as well that I thought to bring you another one, isn’t it? I had a feeling that you might need to change.’

 

When Caleb Andrews brought the train to a halt under the vast iron and glass roof over New Street station in Birmingham, his only interest was in lighting his pipe. He puffed away contentedly, blithely unaware that two of his passengers had been murdered during the journey from Wolverhampton and that the killers had just melted unseen into the crowd.

Nothing upset Edward Tallis more than the murder of a policeman. As a superintendent at the Detective Department in Scotland Yard, he had devoted himself to law enforcement and felt personal grief whenever one of his officers was killed in the line of duty. Even though the latest victims had not been members of the Metropolitan Police Force, Tallis was consumed by a mingled sadness and fury. He waved the telegraph in the air.

‘I want this villain caught and caught quickly,’ he announced. ‘He has the blood of two policemen on his hands.’

‘We need more details,’ said Victor Leeming.

‘It’s up to you to find them, Sergeant.’

‘What exactly does the telegraph say?’

‘It says enough to get you off your backside and on the next train to Wolverhampton. Apart from anything else,’
said Tallis, ‘your help has been specifically requested by the London and North Western Railway. This has just arrived by messenger.’ He picked up a letter with his other hand. ‘They are mindful of the fact that we served them well in the past.’

‘That was Inspector Colbeck’s doing,’ argued Leeming.

Tallis bristled. ‘It was a joint effort,’ he insisted.

‘The superintendent is correct, Victor,’ said Colbeck, stepping in to rescue the sergeant from the ire of his superior. ‘Whatever we’ve achieved must be ascribed to the efficiency of this whole department. Cooperation is everything. No individual deserves to be singled out.’

Tallis was only partially mollified. It was a source of great irritation to him that he did not get the credit to which he felt he was entitled. Newspaper reports of their triumphs invariably picked out Inspector Robert Colbeck as their unrivalled hero. It was the Railway Detective who claimed all the attention. Tallis could only smoulder impotently in his shadow.

The three men were in the superintendent’s office, blissfully free from cigar smoke for once. Seated behind his desk, Tallis, a former soldier, was seething with outrage at the latest news. He wanted instant retribution. The detectives sat side by side in front of him. Leeming, always uneasy in the presence of the superintendent, wanted to leave at once. Colbeck pressed for more information.

‘Did the telegraph give the name of the escaped prisoner?’ he asked, politely.

‘No,’ snapped Tallis.

‘What about the letter from the LNWR?’

‘I think there was a mention in that – though, shamefully, the two murder victims were not named. The villain takes precedence over them, it seems.’ He put down the telegraph and looked at the letter. ‘Yes, here we are. The killer’s name is Oxley.’

Colbeck was stunned. ‘Would that be Jeremy Oxley, by any chance?’

‘No Christian name is given, Inspector.’

‘But it
could
be him.’

‘Presumably.’

‘Do you know the man?’ asked Leeming.

‘If it’s Jeremy Oxley, I know him extremely well,’ said Colbeck, ruefully. ‘And this will not be the first time that he’s committed a murder.’ He rose to his feet. ‘We must leave immediately, Victor. I have a copy of
Bradshaw
in my office. That will tell us which train we can catch.’ As Leeming got up from his chair, Colbeck turned to Tallis. ‘Is there anything else we need to know, Superintendent?’

‘Only that I’ll be watching you every inch of the way,’ said Tallis. ‘And so will the general public. They must not be allowed to think that anyone can kill a representative of law and order with impunity. I want to see Oxley dangling from the gallows.’

‘So do I,’ said Colbeck, teeth gritted. ‘So do I.’

 

Madeleine Andrews was working at her easel when she heard the familiar footsteps outside on the pavement. She was surprised that her father had returned so early and her first thought was that he might have been injured at work. Putting her brush aside, she rushed to open the door.
When she saw that Andrews was apparently unharmed, she heaved a sigh of relief.

‘What are you doing home at this hour, Father?’ she asked.

‘If you let me in, I’ll tell you.’

Madeleine stood aside so that Andrews could step into the house. As she closed the door behind him, another fear surfaced.

‘You haven’t been
dismissed
, have you?’

He cackled. ‘They’d never dare to sack me, Maddy.’

‘Then why are you here?’

‘It’s because I was the driver of the death train.’

She gaped. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Sit down and you’ll hear the full story.’

Madeleine lowered herself into a chair but she had to wait while her father filled and lit his pipe. He puffed on it until the tobacco glowed and gave off a pleasing aroma.

‘What’s this about a death train?’ she asked.

‘Two policemen were murdered on it,’ he explained, taking a seat. ‘Not that I knew anything about it at the time. We picked them and their prisoner up at Wolverhampton station. Somewhere between there and Birmingham a shot was fired. Dirk Sowerby and I didn’t hear a thing above the roar of the engine, of course, but passengers in the next carriage did. They told the guard and he found blood all over the seat. There was a blood-covered coat in there as well.’

‘What about the policemen?’

‘They’d been thrown out of the carriage, Maddy.’

She recoiled at the thought. ‘Oh – how dreadful!’

‘It really upset Dirk.’

‘It upset both of you, I daresay.’

‘I’ve got a stronger stomach than my fireman,’ boasted Andrews. ‘And it’s not the first time a crime has been committed on one of my trains. That’s how we came to meet Inspector Colbeck in the first place, so you might say that I was seasoned.’

‘Your train was robbed and you were badly injured,’ recalled Madeleine, ‘but – thank God – nobody was actually killed on that occasion. Let’s go back to Wolverhampton. You say that you picked up two policemen and a prisoner.’

‘That’s right. He was handcuffed to one of the peelers. I saw them on the platform and pointed them out to Dirk.’

‘Was the prisoner a big strong man?’

‘Not really.’

‘Then how could he get the better of two policemen?’

‘That’s what we’ll have to decide.’


We
?’ she repeated.

‘Inspector Colbeck and me,’ he said, airily. ‘I’m a witness, so I’ll have to be involved. In fact, the investigation won’t get anywhere without me. What do you think of that, Maddy? Your father is going to be a detective in his own right. I’ll wager that the inspector will be tickled pink to work alongside me.’

 

Victor Leeming was so enthralled at the prospect of hearing the full story that he forgot all about his dislike of rail transport. He was a stocky man with the kind of
unsightly features designed to unsettle rather than reassure anyone meeting him for the first time. Colbeck knew his true worth and – even though they differed markedly in appearance, manner and intelligence – they were a formidable team. The two of them had boarded a train at Euston and shared an empty carriage as it steamed off. Colbeck, an elegant dandy, was known for his aplomb yet he was now very animated.

‘It
has
to be Jeremy Oxley,’ he said, slapping his knee. ‘It’s too great a coincidence.’

‘Who is this man?’ asked Leeming.

‘He’s the reason I joined the police force.’

‘Yet you always say that you gave up your other work as a barrister because you only came along
after
a crime was committed. What you wanted to do was to prevent it happening in the first place.’

‘That’s true, Victor. When I was called to the bar, I had grandiose notions of making wonderful speeches about the need for justice as the bedrock of our society. I was soon robbed of that delusion. Being a barrister was not as lofty a profession as I’d imagined. To be frank, there were times when I felt as if I was taking part in a comic opera.’

‘How did you come across Oxley?’

‘He broke into a jewellery shop and collected quite a haul,’ said Colbeck. ‘When the owner of the premises chased him, Oxley shot the man dead in cold blood.’

‘Were there any witnesses?’

‘There were several.’

‘That was helpful.’

‘Alas, it was not. They lost their nerve when they
received death threats from Oxley’s accomplice. Only one of them had the courage to identify him as the man who’d fired the fatal shot.’

‘Was he convicted on the strength of the evidence?’

‘Unfortunately, no – the case never came to court.’

‘Why not?’

‘He escaped from custody.’

Leeming sighed. ‘He’s an old hand at doing that, then.’

‘There was worse to come, Victor,’ said Colbeck, jaw tightening. ‘He hunted down the witness who was prepared to identify him and showed no mercy.’

‘He
killed
the man?’

‘The victim was a woman – Helen Millington.’

Colbeck spoke her name with a sorrow tinged with something more than mere affection. For a moment, his attention drifted and a distant look came into his eye. Old and very painful memories flitted across his mind. Leeming waited patiently until his friend was ready to continue.

‘I’m sorry,’ said Colbeck, making an effort to concentrate. ‘It’s just that it made a deep impression on me at the time. I was only a junior counsel in the case but it fell to me to persuade Miss Millington to come forward. In doing so,’ he added, biting his lip, ‘I inadvertently caused her death.’

‘You weren’t to know that Oxley would murder her, sir.’

‘Death threats had been sent.’

‘Yes, but that sort of thing happens all the time. Criminals will often try to scare a witness or a jury by
issuing dire warnings. It doesn’t mean that they’ll actually carry out their threats.’

‘That’s what I keep telling myself but the guilt remains. I felt so
helpless
, Victor. She was a beautiful young woman in the prime of life. She didn’t deserve such a fate. I was desperate to avenge her death in some way, but what could I do as a barrister except make eloquent speeches in court?’ He took a deep breath and composed himself before continuing. ‘It was then I decided to join the fight against crime instead of simply dealing with its consequences.’

‘That was very brave of you, sir.’

‘The real bravery was shown by Helen Millington.’

‘What I meant was that you must have given up a good income to work for a lot less money.’

‘There are other kinds of rewards, Victor.’

‘Yes,’ said Leeming with a grin, ‘there’s nothing to touch the satisfaction of arresting a real villain and watching him get his punishment in court. You can’t
buy
something like that.’

‘It’s just as well. I don’t think we could afford it on police pay.’

They shared a laugh. Colbeck glanced through the window and realised that they were just passing Leighton Buzzard station. They were not far from the spot where Caleb Andrews had been tricked into stopping his train so that it could be boarded and robbed of the gold coin it was carrying. As a result of the robbery, during which Andrews had been wounded, Colbeck had first met Madeleine, the driver’s anguished daughter. What had started as a chance meeting had slowly matured into a friendship that had
grown in intensity until it became a love match. He and Madeleine were now engaged to be married. Colbeck at last felt that his private world was complete. Thinking fondly of their future together, he let his thoughts dwell on her for a few luxurious minutes. As he pictured her face, however, and longed to see it again in the flesh, it was suddenly replaced in his mind’s eye by that of the equally lovely Helen Millington. Taken aback, Colbeck gave an involuntary start.

Leeming was worried. ‘Is something wrong, Inspector?’

‘No, no. I’m fine.’

‘You seemed to be miles away.’

‘Then I apologise. It was rude of me to ignore you.’

‘Tell me more about this Jeremy Oxley.’

‘His friends call him “Jerry” and he has a long criminal record. He’s a thief, confidence trickster and ruthless killer. Most of his victims have fallen for his charm. Oxley is very plausible.’

‘Let’s see how plausible he is at the end of a rope.’

‘We have to find him first, and that,’ conceded Colbeck, ‘will not be easy. He’s as slippery as an eel.’

‘So it seems. How would you describe him?’

‘He’s rather different from the villains we normally pursue. In fact, you wouldn’t take him for a criminal at all. Oxley, by all accounts, is good-looking, personable and educated. He has the talent to succeed in most professions. The tragedy is that he chose to make his living on the wrong side of the law.’

Leeming regarded him shrewdly. ‘Catching him means a lot to you, doesn’t it, sir?’

‘Yes, it does,’ admitted Colbeck. ‘I’ve been after him for years and this is the first time he’s crossed my path again. I’m going to make sure that it’s the last time as well. It’s a debt I have to pay to Helen Millington. This is not just another investigation to me, Victor,’ he stressed. ‘It’s a mission. I won’t rest until we have this devil in custody.’

 

It was several hours later but Irene’s hands were still shaking slightly. Oxley enfolded them in his own palms and held them tight.

‘You’re still trembling,’ he observed.

‘I can’t help it, Jerry. When I shot that policeman, I felt as cool as a cucumber. It was only afterwards that I realised what I’d done.’

‘Yes – you rescued me from disaster.’

‘I killed a man,’ she said with a shudder. ‘I never thought I’d be able to do that. I hoped that they’d release you when I pulled out the gun. It never crossed my mind that I’d have to pull the trigger.’

‘But you
did
, Irene,’ he said, kissing her on the forehead. ‘I knew that you wouldn’t let me down.’

She gave a shrug. ‘I love you. That’s why I did it.’

‘And because you did it – I love
you
.’

He squeezed her hands then sat back in his chair. They were in a public house in Stafford, sitting in a quiet corner where they could talk freely. Oxley had already changed his appearance so that any description of him would be misleading. He’d shaved off his neat moustache, combed his hair in a different way and put on a pair of spectacles with clear glass in them. He looked quite different. In
the interests of evading suspicion, Irene had also made adjustments to her hair and to her clothing. Witnesses who saw her diving onto the train in Wolverhampton would not recognise her now. After calmly leaving the train at Birmingham, they had bought tickets to Stafford and travelled there in separate carriages. Nobody on the same journey would have connected them.

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