The Riddle of the Rail - Fred M. White - ebook

The Riddle of the Rail ebook

Fred M White

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Infrequently puzzles can be solved. However, the main character, inspector Norcliff, is trying to solve this problem. The inspector had no resemblance to the average detective fiction; Indeed, he represented the exterior much more like a successful middle-aged businessman, than a hunter of his fellow creatures. He was the best in the business. Therefore, he was ready to take on a new business with great enthusiasm.

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Contents

Chapter I

Chapter II

Chapter III

Chapter IV

Chapter V

Chapter VI

Chapter VII

Chapter VIII

Chapter IX

Chapter X

Chapter XI

Chapter XII

Chapter XIII

Chapter XIV

Chapter XV

Chapter XVI

Chapter XVII

Chapter XVIII

Chapter XIX

Chapter XX

Chapter XXI

Chapter XXII

Chapter XXIII

Chapter XXIV

Chapter XXV

Chapter XXVI

Chapter XXVII

Chapter XXVIII

Chapter XXIX

Chapter XXX

Chapter XXXI

Chapter XXXII

Chapter XXXIII

Chapter XXXIV

Chapter XXXV

Chapter XXXVI

Chapter XXXVII

Chapter XXXVIII

Chapter XXXIX

Chapter XL

Chapter XLI

Chapter XLII

Chapter XLIII

CHAPTER I

The foreman porter of the goods yard with two of his hands trailing behind him paused at length before a waggon in the midst of a clatter of laden trucks on the isolated siding and indicated it with grimy forefinger.

“Now get to it,” he directed. “And don’t you leave that van till it’s empty, mind. Here’s the manager of Tiptons downs in the office carrying on as if the Devon and Central Railway belonged to them. Says that he ought to have had the stuff three days ago.”

“So ‘e should,” one of the porters said sotto voce.

“Yes, that’s right enough, Bill,” the foreman agreed. “It’s this holiday excursion traffic that throws everything out and gives us double work for no more pay. But get on with it. Tiptons’ lorry will be here any minute now.”

The two railwaymen mounted the waggon and proceeded to strip back the heavy tarpaulin that lay over it to protect its somewhat fragile contents from the vagaries of the English climate. The van itself was filled with spring produce from the Warwickshire district–early gooseberries, potatoes, spring rhubarb and the like–which had been sent down to the West by goods train with a view to the Whitsuntide holidays. But, as the foreman said, the goods train had been shunted here and there over the hundred and fifty miles to make room for the various excursion trains radiating from the Midlands right down to what is known as the Cornish Riviera. It was rather unfortunate for the consignee of these perishable goods, but there was no help for it. All the railway authorities could do now was to expedite the unloading as quickly as possible, and then their side of the task was finished.

Hardly had half the tarpaulin been rolled back before one of the workmen looked across at his mate, who was tugging at the other end, and shouted something that the latter failed to understand.

“What’s up, mate?” the second man asked. “Blime, but you look as if you’d seen a ghost, Bill!”

“You just come ‘ere,” the other man whispered hoarsely. “There, my lad, what d’you make of that?”

The speaker pointed to something lying on the top of a layer of baskets filled with early gooseberries. It was the body of a man, a middle-aged, well-dressed man with a small brown moustache and pointed beard, reclining there as if he had been asleep. But it was no ordinary sleep, as both the railwaymen, looking down upon him, knew only too well. They had seen too much of that sort of thing during the years in France to be mistaken.

“Yes, he’s dead enough,” the first man said, as he glanced into the face of his companion. “And it don’t look as if there’d been any violence, either. No marks and no blood, nor nothing.”

“Yes, an’ no robbery, neither,” the other man put in. “Just twig ‘is watch chain an’ the diamond pin in ‘is scarf.”

“Yes, an’ that there hothouse rose in ‘is buttonhole. He must ‘ave crept into the waggon when it was waiting in one of the sidings with the object getting a lift on the cheap. An’ yet a cove dressed as ‘e is, with that gold watch chain and diamond pin an’ all the rest of it, ain’t the sort as can’t pay ‘is fare. Looks to me like a first-class passenger.”

“Yes, you’re about right there. You nip along as far as the office an’ ask Mr. Gregory to come this way. This is a job not for the handlin’ o’ the likes of you and me.”

A little later on, a man in authority came down into the siding. He asked a question or two, then made a brief inspection for himself and, without further delay, dispatched one of the workmen to Barnstaple police headquarters, in search of a superintendent.

A quarter of an hour later, the body of the dead man was lifted out on to the line for the inspection of the superintendent. He made a more or less perfunctory examination before he spoke.

“Um, I can’t make this out at all. No signs of violence whatever, no bones broken and no blood. I am not a medical man, so I cannot say for certain, but I should say that the poor fellow has been dead for a day or two. One of you go along and fetch the ambulance, so that we can take the body as far as the mortuary.”

Meanwhile, the superintendent, together with the man in authority, stood idly waiting there. To them presently came a little, inquisitive-looking man, with rimless pince-nez and an expression of something more than curiosity on his pinched features. He was lame as to his left leg, but he hopped along dexterously enough as he plied the superintendent with all sorts of questions.

“Now, look here,” the superintendent said. “It’s no use worrying me, Mr. Jagger, because I can’t tell you any more than you know. Yes, the body was found on the top of a waggon load of vegetable matter! and there it lies for you to see for yourself. Who the man is and how he got there is a mystery, and probably will remain so till after the inquest. But I don’t mind telling you that there are no signs of violence on the body, and nothing to suggest that the man did not die a natural death. And this much I don’t mind saying. Whoever the man is, he wasn’t short of money. Beyond his diamond pin and gold watch and chain, I found over forty pounds in his note-case. And that is all you will learn for the present.”

“Oh, that’s good enough to get on with,” the little lame man said cheerfully. “You see, I must look after the interests of my paper, and, besides, I am the local correspondent on the ‘Daily Bulletin.’ I must get away and telephone this at once.”

There was nothing more that could be done until the body of the dead man had been examined by the police doctor, and even he was comparatively puzzled when he made his examination in the mortuary, attended by the superintendent of police.

“I can’t for the life of me make it out,” he said. “I can see no sign of any marks that would indicate foul play. I can’t find anything wrong, not even the slightest derangement of clothing. And look at that rose in the buttonhole. A Gloire de Dijon, unless I am greatly mistaken, and certainly a flower that must have come from a greenhouse at this time of the year. It is a bit faded, of course, but not a single leaf has been disturbed.”

“Poison,” the superintendent suggested. “Man poisoned and then his body carried, in the hours of darkness, and placed in the waggon. Not a bad way of getting rid of a corpse, so that it will eventually be found perhaps a hundred and fifty miles from where the crime was committed. See what I mean?”

“No, I confess that I do not,” the doctor admitted. “I presume that train came direct from Brendham, or, at any rate was placed on rail somewhere in that district.”

“Well, certainly the train started near about there and, in the ordinary course of things, wound have come straight through. But, you see, there has been such a tremendous amount of holiday traffic which has only been cleared off this morning, and that means that the goods train must have been held up three or four times on the way. Of course, I can’t say without making inquiries, but the train might have been shunted in two or three places during the nights since it started for the West. However, we shall see.”

“When would you like to have the inquest?” the doctor asked.

“Well, in the ordinary course of events, it ought to be to-morrow, but in the circumstances, I should like to have it postponed for another day, at least. You see, this appears to be something quite out of the common, and, in any case, it may be a few days before the man’s friends turn up to identify him. He might be travelling on business and writing no letters, so that his relatives would not have the slightest idea that he was dead. I don’t know why, but I feel that this is going to turn into a very big thing. One of those tragedies that the public freeze on to and all the papers lay themselves out for special features. We shall have half the reporters in London down here before to-morrow is out. That is why I want the inquest put off a bit, because I am quite certain that the Yard will have to have a hand in this business. In fact, I think I shall get on the telephone to London at once.”

The superintendent was not far wrong in his conjecture, for the next morning’s issue of the ‘Daily Bulletin’ came out with flaring headlines and a more or less pyrotechnic description of the strange event that had come to light in the goods-yard at Barnstaple station. All of which the superintendent recognised as the handwork of that smart reporter Jagger. He had scarcely assimilated the melodrama before he was called to the telephone. He could hear by the hum of the wire that he was on a long-distance call and it did not require much intelligence on his part to guess that Scotland Yard was at the other end of the line.

“Inspector Norcliff speaking,” came the words, more or less distinctly. “That Westport headquarters? Oh yes, Mr. Grierson. About that railway mystery. Sorry I could not get on to you yesterday, but I was out of town all day. As a matter of fact, I have just read the account of the finding of the body in this morning’s ‘Daily Bulletin.’ No fresh developments, I suppose?”

“No, sir,” Grierson replied. “And, so far, no inquiries as regards the dead man. I may say that our doctor here is considerably puzzled. He agrees with me that there has been foul play somewhere, but there is no sign of that to be seen on the corpse. If you could only make it convenient to get down here–”

“Oh, you need not trouble about that,” came the reply. “I am catching the eleven ten from town, and I am bringing one of our own medico-scientific experts with me.”

With that, the brief conversation ended and the superintendent went back to his work. He was glad enough to hear that he was going to have the finest assistance that the brains of Scotland Yard could lend him, with a view to the solution to a case which he frankly admitted was a little outside his grasp.

“Well, that’s all right, so far,” he told himself. “I can’t do any more for the present, though perhaps the ‘Daily Bulletin’ account might help in bringing forward somebody to identify the body.”

CHAPTER II

Inspector Norcliff sat in the corner of a first-class carriage on the Western bound express with a companion seated opposite him. They had the compartment entirely to themselves, so that they could discuss what was already known as the Barnstaple mystery without being overheard. The inspector bore no sort of likeness to the average sleuth of fiction; indeed, he presented an appearance much more like a successful middle-aged business man than a hunter of his fellow creatures. He was tall and rather inclined to slimness, with grey moustache and nearly pointed beard, and his dress was that of a prosperous city man, such as might be seen by the hundred every morning on the suburban lines.

His companion, on the other hand, was insignificant looking, not to say shabby. He wore a blue serge suit, which might have been slept in, and a soft collar that resembled a rag more than anything else. But his keen, intellectual features and his high forehead proclaimed him to the thoughtful observer as an individual distinctly out of the common. And indeed, the man known as Vincent Trumble had more than a passing reputation amongst the ranks of those who are interested in psycho-analysis and medical jurisprudence. For the time being, at any rate, he was more or less attached to Scotland Yard and one of its most valued staff.

“Well, doctor, what do you make of it?” Norcliff asked.

Trumble looked up from the ‘Daily Bulletin,’ which he had been studying, word for word so far as the railway mystery was concerned, ever since the train steamed out of London.

“Oh, I am not going to commit myself, my friend,” Trumble smiled. “All the same, this is a most interesting account. That reporter chap down at Westport must be a bit of a genius in his way. With very little to go upon he hasn’t missed a single point.”

“Yes, that’s all very well,” Norcliff said. “But it doesn’t get us any further. Was that man murdered?”

“My dear chap, how on earth can I tell? If you ask me, as man to man, I should suggest that he was. Of course, there might have been some reason why he hid himself on the top of that vegetable waggon. For instance, he might be a fugitive from justice. If you accept that view, then there is nothing out of the way in the fact that he was wearing a valuable gold watch and chain and a diamond pin, to say nothing of the fact of his being in possession of some considerable means. The Midland police may have been after him, for all we know to the contrary.”

“If they had been, I should have known it,” Norcliff said.

“Oh no, you wouldn’t, my friend. There has been no time. The hue and cry will not really begin until all the police offices in England have duly digested that sensational column in to-day’s ‘Daily Bulletin.’ A point to me, I think, Inspector.”

“One up, doctor,” Norcliff smiled. “Go on.”

“Oh, well, it is only a game, so far as we are concerned at present,” the doctor said. “I am only showing you what might be. The man was getting away from his pursuers, and he hit upon that ingenious method of putting as much ground as possible between himself and those upon his track. Probably, he hoped to reach Plymouth or Falmouth and get passage on some outward-bound boat. And then, instead of a prosaic ending like that, he died suddenly on the way. We may be in pursuit of a phantom, after all.”

“Yes, we might,” Norcliff agreed, “but if he died a natural death, the post-mortem examination will show that.”

“Of course it will. But there is another side to the question. Suppose it wasn’t a natural death, and suppose the man was not running away from justice? Don’t you think it most extraordinary thing that one who was evidently a professional or high-class business man should know exactly how to get on board that goods train? I mean, he could not have boarded it at the point of dispatch without being seen, because that smart little journalist managed to elicit the fact that the waggon was loaded in daylight. I don’t know where he got the information, probably by asking fruit dealers in Westport. At any rate, there it is, and it’s a guinea to a gooseberry that the journalistic faculty has not gone wrong.”

“But what does it lead up to?” Norcliff asked.

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