The chapter in which the two gang members, the Major and twitchy Italian Tony, set off by train on the first stage of Sneed's master plan, dropped off at Shrewsbury station with the loot in a holdall and warned by him not to get any ideas of their own about it - which is precisely what the two men do have.
The Major donned his British Warm and bowler hat, restoring some of his dignity as the Rover pulled away from the station front. The impertinences and incivilities that are one’s lot these days, he thought, gazing after it with distaste.
He picked up the holdall and marched smartly off with his umbrella towards the entrance, where Tony, who had gone ahead, was pretending to study a wall poster extolling the summer joys of Prestatyn.
What, the Major wondered, had happened to trust?
He glanced casually back on his way into the station. The Italian was following on, keeping close to the wall, skulking behind him like some damn native wallah.
The Major paused on the concourse, seeking the booking office.
There had been a flurry of activity from a few taxis pulling up behind Sneed’s Rover, the passengers from them hurrying into the station, and people on their way out.
But now there was a lull, and Tony saw his chance.
He slipped a hand into the inside breast pocket of his suit and crept towards the Major with elaborate intent, a cartoon cat closing in on the mouse, the blade of the flick-knife springing into oiled, bright deadly life with the quietest of clicks.
The point of it was touching the cloth of the Major’s British Warm, and Tony was about to give him a warning prod with it, his other hand stretching for the holdall, when the Major spotted the sign he wanted and abruptly moved off.
Caught off balance, Tony stumbled forward a few paces, the knife jabbing at the air, leaving him standing there with it held out at arm's length, just as the concourse suddenly sprung more passengers.
He shoved it hastily away in a side pocket.
And then he realised what he’d done and his eye started twitching.
He hadn’t retracted the blade he’d honed earlier that day to a razor sharpness, and not only had it gone straight through the pocket of a 100 guinea silk suit without stopping, it had also neatly opened up a rent in the side of the coat on its way there.
He shoved the the knife back into his breast pocket and stalked on after the Major, one arm covering the gaping slit in his jacket.
The Major brought his ticket, leaving Tony smouldering a couple of places behind him in the queue.
Following the signs for Platform 7, he stopped for a train of caged flat-bed wagons, pulled by an electric tug and piled with luggage and goods, that was about to cross his path.
He glanced casually back. Tony was occupied buying his ticket.
The Major, taking the initiative, nipped smartly in front of the wagons, and looked back again. The Italian was lost to view behind them.
Facing him was a newsagent’s kiosk, a buffet, and two public lavatories either side of offices of some sort.
The Major made a dash for them.
Confounding the anticipated expectations of the enemy, as they’d taught him at Sandhurst, and trusting to his luck, he tripped straight down the stairs to the Ladies'.
His luck was out.
He thought at first the place was empty. His idea was to lock himself in a cubicle, and bunker down there until it was safe to assume Tony had given up. But his luck was out.
He heard her before he saw her, and when she emerged from the end cubicle with a mop and bucket he recognised her immediately. He’d seen that face before, or something very much like it, under the peak of one sort of uniform hat or the other. It had bawled at him on the parade ground at Sandhurst, and could be found on the landings of the various HM prisons he’d been a guest of, and in a uniform of a different kind, implacably writing out parking tickets.
He opened and closed his mouth a couple of times, attempting an explanation, even an amused chuckle at the situation, while she, without saying a word, walked stolidly towards him with her mop.
The Major, deciding on a strategic withdrawal, turned and scrambled back up the stairs.
He saw Tony when he came out again, standing in the middle of the concourse, peering about, looking for him.
He tried the door of the first office he came to. It was locked. He had his hand on the doorknob of the second office, had half-turned it, when his eyes met with the sign on the dark blue door. British Transport Police, it said.
He snatched his hand away as if burnt, and considering the buffet too obvious, made a dash for the Gents’.
The Gents’, like the Ladies’, had steep flights of stone stairs down to it from two different parts of the concourse. Unlike his visit to the Ladies’, the Major didn’t intend staying, but to go down one flight and then straight up the other, hoping to enough station between him and the Italian, maybe even allowing him to sneak out of another entrance and grab a taxi.
But, again, the Major’s luck was out.
He’d reached the bottom of the stairs when there was a rush of footsteps on them and Tony appeared, looking heated.
The Major chuckled briefly. “Frightfully amusing, Tony. You’ll never guess what happened. I was caught short, and - ”
“Give me the bag,” Tony said in a low fierce voice, one eye on the other occupant there, standing with his back to them at the urinals. “Give it to me.”
“My dear fellow - !” the Major blustered.
“You heard me.” Tony’s hand slid towards his inside coat pocket. “Hand it over … Yes, I – er - ” he said then in a louder voice, innocently brushing at the front of his jacket. “I – er - ” he said again, stalling as the other occupant went past them and up the stairs.
“Right. Give it to me,” he went on, just as more footsteps sounded on the stone stairs, a man coming down them in a hurry.
Tony stalled again. “Got a light, mate?” he said to the Major.
“Terrible sorry, old chap, afraid not,” the Major said, seeing his chance and starting to edge round him. “I don’t smoke.”
Neither did Tony, but he bit his nails. And his eye had started twitching again.
He grabbed the Major’s sleeve. “Give me the bag. Give it to me or I’ll cut you! Open you up!”
“You won’t get far with it. You heard what Sneed said he’d do,” the Major said, both men speaking in near whispers.
“I’m not going far,” Tony lied. “I don’t trust you with it, that’s all. Now hand it over.”
“The reason I’m carrying it, Tony,” the Major said primly, “as well you know, is because I’m the one least likely to be stopped. You heard - ”
“I haven’t seen any coppers about to do any stopping - have you? Eh?” Tony demanded, blinking rapidly at him, and looking, the Major considered, even for a Mediterranean type, quite demented. And then he noticed the state of his coat. The Italian was coming apart in more ways than one.
“Now, why don’t we talk about it, hmm, Tony?” he said soothingly. “Perhaps over a cup of tea. We’ve got time.” The Major thought again. “Or a coffee. An espresso,” he said brightly, thinking that that sounded Italian. ”You’ll like that.”
“Give it me!” Tony hissed, and made another move towards his knife pocket.
The Major put a hand on Tony’s to hold it there. Tony’s eye twitched, winking at him. The man who’d been in a hurry was now less so, and took in the scene on his way out.
.“Disgusting!” he snapped. “I’ve a good mind to report you.”
“This is becoming all rather unsavoury,” the Major said stiffly. “And may I remind you, Tony, that we have a train to catch.”
“No more talking, Major,” Tony said, pulling the flick-knife out and releasing the blade.
He jabbed it towards the Major’s throat, dimpling the skin with the point of it, and as the Major’s head went up removed the holdall from his limp grip.
And then more footsteps sounded on the stairs.
They both looked up and saw two pairs of uniform trousers descending.
“That chap reported us,” the Major said, and found himself holding the bag again as Tony thrust it at him and bolted up the other flight of stairs, with the Major close behind, both of them missing the rest of the uniforms, the appearance of the two railway porters taking advantage of the facilities after a prolonged tea break.
Tony, with no more opportunities presenting themselves, had to walk, tantalisingly, past Platform 4 for Charing Cross, and the Continent and Monte, following the Major to Platform 7, for Church Myddle and Birmingham.
They sat at opposite ends of the same coach for the twenty-minute journey, the Major, holdall on his lap, gazing out of the window, watching the hunting fields of Shropshire go by, Tony watching the Major, one arm covering the tear in his jacket, his eye beating steadily, like a pulse.
They didn’t have to look far for Platform I at Church Myddle. Church Myddle only had two platforms, and they got off at one of them, Platform 2.
A few other passengers alighted with them and walked down towards the station entrance at the end of it. The Major, followed by Tony, had simply to walk the few yards across to Platform 1 running parallel to it.
And it was then that fate, as Tony saw it, beckoned again. With nothing but the shine of railway tracks disappearing into the distance on their left, and the blank whitewashed wall of a waiting room on their right, he saw that they were, for that brief space, completely cut off from view.
He moved quickly, the blade of the knife flicking out, closing in just as the Major was about to step clear of the shelter of the building’s wall, out onto Platform 1. Just as the Major had one foot on the platform, turned and saw a couple of uniformed police officers talking to a railway official halfway along it.
He pulled back, and spinning round collided with Tony, almost knocking him down, the knife clattering to the floor.
“Whaddya doing - whaddya doing!” he hissed.
The Major couldn’t tell him for a moment.
Then he waved a hand feebly in the direction of what he’d just seen.
“The police. The police are there,” he got out then, and clutched at his heart. “Two of them.”
Tony looked at him suspiciously. He picked up the knife and pointed it at him. “Stay there!” he warned.
He peered round the corner of the building, and then jerked his head back as if singed, and hastily pocketed the knife, remembering in time to retract the blade first.
“I told you, Tony, didn’t I. The police. But why here? Why here?” the Major implored plaintively. “That’s what I don't understand. We didn’t see them at Shrewsbury, so why here?”
“There wasn’t time, maybe,” Tony said, eye jumping. “Maybe that was it, like Sneed said. With that madman driving we were in and out before they could toss out the net. They didn’t have time to do it. And now they’ve got time. And they’re just making themselves busy, that’s all. Just routine enquiries,” he said, a phrase he was familiar with.
“That’s all,” he said again, and nibbled furiously on a fingernail.
“But on the platform the Birmingham train leaves from, Tony. That’s what I don’t like about it.”
The Major removed his bowler, moped at his forehead and wiped the inside of the hat with a handkerchief. He really was getting too old for these sort of games.
It was obvious Tony didn’t like that about it either.
He sidled along the wall and took another peek.
“One of them, a sergeant, he’s writing something down, in a notebook,” he reported.
“You know what I’m thinking, Tony. I’m thinking that maybe they caught the others and they peached on us.”
Tony frowned. “Peached?”
“Peached. Sneaked. Told on us, Tony, told on us.”
Tony went back to his nails.
“That don’t make sense,” he decided then. “They’d have pulled us when we got off, from Shrewsbury. They’d have been waiting for us. That don’t make sense.”
The Major clutched at it. “Then perhaps it’s not us they’re after,” he said, and smiled hopefully at him.
Tony thought about that as well.
“And perhaps it is,” he decided.
The Major’s smile wobbled. “But, as you say, it doesn’t - ”
“You wanna risk it?” Tony jerked his head at the holdall the Major had put down. “Eh? You wanna walk out there with that?”
“Well, I - er …”
“No. No, I thought not.”
“Well, we can’t just stand here,” the Major said, just standing there.
Tony was struck by an idea. “Left luggage,” he said, and scuttling the few steps back to Platform 1 peered round the corner of the building that end. Then beckoned the Major over.
“Thought I’d seen it when I got off. A left luggage place. We drop it in there, get it off our hands. Pick it up later.”
“What, with a hundred thousand quid in it? It’s not even locked.”
The Major found that, like the Italian, he was whispering.
“Then whaddya suggest? Whaddya suggest, huh?” Tony growled. “If we’re copped for this we’re gonna do double, you know that don’t you? It’ll be a ten stretch and more this time, straight off, with a big dollop on top for the guns. You wanna do that? Go down for all that? You’ll be old when you come out.”
The Major’s sigh was heartfelt.
“Well, I suppose we’ve no choice.”
He looked dolefully at the holdall sitting on the ground, saying goodbye to it, saying goodbye to Bournemouth.
“That’s right, you got it. We got no choice. Well, go on, what you waiting for? You carry it. As you all say, who’s gonna suspect you, nice English gent like you?”
The Major reluctantly picked up the bag, and, for a change, started following Tony.
Platform 2 was bare of police officers or anyone else.
Tony tried the door of the left luggage office. And then tried it again, turning the worn brass doorknob first one way and then the other, pushing and then pulling it. Then he shook it. The door stayed locked.
“Tony, Tony, it’s closed,” the Major noticed then despairingly. “Look, the shutter’s down.”
“There might be somebody in there. Having tea …” Tony sneered
“Try knocking, then,” the Major suggested, and fretfully checked out the platform.
Tony winked at him.
“Knocking. Try knocking,” the Major said, and mimed the action.
Tony knocked, rapping sharply on the door. Then he knocked again, and when there was still no answer, banged on it.
The Major winced, his head sinking into his British Warm as if braced for a hand on his collar.
And then Tony in a sudden fury grabbed the doorknob and started shaking it violently, the door rattling in its frame.
“My dear fellow!” the Major protested, his imagination seeing the two officers on their way round to investigate a sudden outbreak of vandalism on Platform 2.
But Tony wasn’t listening. As far as he was concerned there was only him and the door there.
He stared at it, eye jumping and breathing as if from exertion - or as if getting ready to hurl himself at it.
The Major looked wildly around for escape.
The station entrance was at one end of the platform, and nothing but railway tracks at the other. Across from Platform 2, over the rails, a steep overgrown embankment rose to a perimeter fence of railway sleepers.
At his age it had to be the entrance.
The Major dithered in an agony of indecision, held by the sight of all that money, just sitting there.
And then his heart lurched as someone shouted from the direction of the entrance.
It was a porter, hurrying towards them and holding something up, waving it at them, which turned out as he drew near to be a bunch of keys.
“I saw you trying to get in. Sorry to keep you, gents,” he said, blowing and looking harassed. “We’re one short today. Which means I had to do the announcement for the inbound Shrewsbury, and then rush round and take the tickets off it. Then I was supposed to do the booking office, for when they start turning up for the outbound Birmingham. Well that will have to wait now. If I’m not there they’ll have to pay on board or at the other end. I can’t be in two places at once.”
“Indeed not!” the Major agreed, hearty with relief.
“Not that they don’t expect it sometimes, I can tell you. And of course our blessed station master’s busy, isn’t he,” he said, going through the keys. “Having a chin-wag on One. You must be off the Shrewsbury,” he added.
The Major hesitated. “Yes,” he admitted, realising that they had to be off the Shrewsbury. “Yes, we’re off the Shrewsbury.”
“Yes, we’re off the Shrewsbury,” Tony echoed, one arm covering the tear in his jacket, his head to one side as if comforting his twitching eye.
“There we are,” the porter said, inserting one of the keys.
“Splendid!” the Major said.
“No we’re not,” the porter said, taking it out again.
“More like the parcel office, come to think of it. Not that there’s a lot of parcels in it these days. Mostly stuff people have dumped there. Old destination boards, a broken weighing machine, a couple of luggage trolleys with their axles gone, that sort of thing … No, it’s not that one either,” he said, discarding another key, while the Major whistled through his teeth and glanced casually around.
“Well, at least the rain’s stopped,” the porter said. “Although it saved the station master having to water his blessed roses, so that’s all right. Between you and me I sometimes think that’s all he turns up for … No, nor that one. We don’t get much call to use this office, see, little local station like this, not these days. But don't get me started on that ... It’s not that one, either. Still, I suppose we have to consider ourselves lucky we’ve still got a station, that we haven’t gone under the Beeching axe ... And it’s not that one. And I know this one, with the dab of whitewash on it, that’s the booking office.
“Time was, you see, when the keys were all kept separate, hung on a board in the station master’s office, each with a wooden tag with the name of what it opened on it.”
He regarded them.
“Well, I ask you, what could be clearer than that?”
“What indeed,” the Major muttered.
“What could be more simple than that?”
“Quite,” the Major said tightly.
“Then somebody went and lost a key. And the station master had one of his brain waves, didn’t he. Decided in his infinite wisdom to put them all on one ring. Got the lot on it, this has. Office keys, sheds, staff room, locker keys, cupboards, signal box, toilets, every blooming thing. His thinking was - no, that’s the waiting room key, I think … Now let me see … Don’t worry, gents, it’s on here somewhere. Though to tell the truth, I’m not sure anyone knows what all these are for now, me included ... No, it’s not that one, either. And that's the grit box. I can tell you that straight off, by the shape. We have to keep grit on the platform, see, for when it’s icy. But we have to keep the box locked, otherwise the blooming school kids chuck the stuff about all over the place. Yes, his thinking was, that by putting them on one ring - ah, there we are,” he said, turning it in the lock. “I knew we’d get there in the end. Hang on, and I’ll open up ...”
“Come on, come on!” Tony growled when he’d disappeared into the office.
“Yes, his thinking was,” the porter resumed, reappearing behind a counter after the shutter had rattled up, “that it’s harder to lose a bunch of keys than a single one. Well, that’s all very well, as far as it goes. But you saw where that left us ...”
“Quite,” the Major said.
“You saw the result of that yourselves.”
“Indeed,” the Major grunted, hurriedly heaving the holdall up onto the counter, the sound of the sawn-off and pistol clunking together, adding to his nerves. The Luger was empty but, sawn-off or otherwise, shotguns have gone off accidentally.
He chuckled briefly, and then said, “Camera equipment. Yes, we - er - we’re both rather keen on the photographic art, you know. Aren’t we - er - Mister Smith.”
“Yes, we’re rather keen on that,” Tony mumbled.
“Ah, I see,” the porter said, smiling politely.
“We’re waiting for the Birmingham train, actually. Is it - er - is it on time, do you know?” the Major said, pushing the bag towards him, and doing a quick sweep of the platform.
“Yes. Yes, it is.” The porter was frowning. “But you could have boarded it at Shrewsbury, the ten thirty-five, and gone straight through with it.”
The Major, never short for long of an answer to an awkward question, drew himself up. “That’s precisely what my colleague and I intended doing,” he said huffily. “But we were misinformed by a member of staff there, told that what turned out to be the Bristol train was the Birmingham. We assumed he had the time wrong. Fortunately for us a fellow passenger put us right, and suggested we pick it up here.”
“I see …” the porter said, one hand on the holdall, and not sounding as if he did entirely.
The Major came up with the rest of the story.
“But as it turns out we didn’t mind terribly, because we - er - we intended anyway to – er – to return and tour the area. A short holiday, as it were, after we’ve concluded our last bit of business. A chance to indulge our joint interest in photography, and, given this part of the world, in - er - in archaeology. Without the digging, of course. The remains of castles, that sort of thing. The Saxon and Norman ruins which are known to abound here. The past through which the wind now blows, carrying its voices, and all that, you know.”
“I get you,” the porter said.
“Not to mention of course the stone footprint of the Roman. One thinks in particular of the glory that was once Uriconium, the Romanised capital of Cornavii, to be found in modern day Wroxeter. Or, to give it its Latin form, Viroconium Cornoviorum,” the Major went on, warming to it, while Tony shifted and muttered. “Or simply Viroconium. Or, no doubt to the plebeian order who crowded its paved streets and gossiped in its wine shops, the demotic Viro. A city established as a legionary fortress around AD fifty eight. Academics dispute among themselves, as academics will, about the precise date.”
“Oh, ah,” the porter agreed, and smiled vaguely.
“By hire car,” the Major added, snitching up that detail. “We intend visiting the various sites of interest by hire car. Far more convenient. But we had to make a business trip to Birmingham first, do you see.”
“Ah, I see … I was wondering about that. So your thinking was - ”
“Our thinking was that we’d leave our holdall here, attend the business meeting as scheduled, and return on a later train?” The Major turned it into a question.
The porter sucked in a breath.
“Not today, sir, I’m afraid,” he said, shaking his head. “Not today. The last inbound Birmingham today is due in just over an hour. Outbound Birmingham, yes. There’s two more today. But no inbound, I’m afraid.”
“Oh, dear,” the Major said. He hadn’t expected that.
“Do you hear that, Mister Smith?”
Tony, his back to the wall, where he could keep an eye on both sides of the platform, grunted.
“Tomorrow, yes. There’s an afternoon one tomorrow. Gets in at four thirty-seven, that does. And the same service runs on Tuesdays and Thursdays. But not today. Sorry ...”
The porter waited.
“Oh, dear,” the Major said again. “That does rather put a different complexion on things. Still, can’t be helped, can’t be helped. It will just have to be tomorrow then. Our main luggage, do you see, is in our hotel in Birmingham. Which served as our base, as it were.”
“I see …”
“It’s - er - as I say, our main luggage is in Birmingham.” The Major indicated the holdall with his umbrella. “That contains our cameras, and overnight kit for our various business excursions. So the question now - ”
“So the question now,” the porter said, leaning, involved, on the counter, “is whether you take it with you on the Birmingham. Or leave it here and come back for it tomorrow.”
“In a nut shell.”
“And if I’ve got it right - and correct me if I haven’t - you’ll be leaving Birmingham with your main luggage to come back this way again for your little holiday.”
“That is precisely so.”
“Right. Well, sir, as I see it, it seems to me that there’s not much sense in you taking it with you if you’ve got to come back again tomorrow, is there. That’s the way I see it, anyhow.”
“Yes. Yes, you have a point there. He has a point there, Mister Smith.”
“That would be my thinking ...”
“Yes, quite. Well, that settles it,” the Major said with a little laugh.
The porter shot up a finger in a sudden afterthought.
“Unless of course, as it probably does do, it contains your overnight stuff, your shaving things and pyjamas, and so on.”
“Yes – s,” the Major said slowly, realising that he could hardly say otherwise. “Yes, it does, as you say, contain our toilet kit and pyjamas, and so on.”
“Just put the bloody thing in,” Tony snarled out of the corner of his mouth.
“Ah, well then.”
And then the porter had another thought. “Course, you could always take your pyjamas, and so on, out.”
“Yes - s. Yes, we could do that,” the Major had to agree.
The porter, having solved the problem, smiled and obligingly returned the holdall.
“There you are, sir. And I dare say I could even find you a couple of carrier bags for them.”
The Major stared at it, his mind blank. Tony detached himself carefully from the wall.
And then the Major brightened.
“Ah. Ah, yes, thank you. Most considerate of you. But come to think of it, the hotel provides a complimentary shaving set. Disposable razor and so forth, you know? And we have a change of pyjamas, and what have you, there, with our main luggage,” he said, pushing the bag back again.
“Oh, well, in that case …”
“Quite,” the Major said.
“You might as well leave it here then.”
“Yes, I rather think that’s the answer”
“That’s what I’d do, anyhow.”
“Yes, I suggest we do that, Mister Smith. Leave it here and retrieve it tomorrow.”
“Be one less bag to carry coming back.”
“As you rightly say.”
“And it’ll be safe enough here, gents,” the porter said, scribbling on a label and tying it to the handle of the holdall. “As you know, when there’s no one in attendance the office is kept locked.”
He handed the Major a ticket torn from a book of them.
“There you are, sir. You pay when you pick up your luggage. That number on your ticket,” the porter went on, “matches the number here on your luggage label. It’s a good system, couldn’t be clearer. And we’ve never had a problem with it. Which means of course that any day now it’ll be changed. Have a good journey.”
The Batch Magna novels at: http://www.batchmagna.com
© Copyright 2016 Peter Maughan. All rights reserved.