............... ....stories



About fifteen years ago when I was out of work I did a very foolish thing. I applied for a job as a policeman. I was 22 at the time and full of ambition. I saw myself as a Poirot or a Sherlock Holmes, and in those days every detective had to start his career on the beat.

After my initial training at Hendon I was allocated to a Station in a small village near York. Being a Londoner, this was quite a change and I relished the idea - even if it was November. I imagined myself patrolling pretty country lanes, getting to know the locals and enjoying the fresh air, and every now and then stumbling on some intriguing misdemeanour that would require a superior brain like mine to sort out.

On my first day, in case of delays, I was to catch the early train from Kings Cross and report to York H.Q. at 11 o'clock. If all went to plan, that gave me about two hours spare in York to stroll around the city or do whatever I chose.

Anxious that nothing should go wrong, I arrived at Kings Cross in good time. The 06.30 to Doncaster and York was already waiting. It was one of the old-style diesels that still occasionally ran in those days, with old carriages which had wooden panelling and superbly comfortable seats. The train was almost empty and I settled myself in a compartment not far from the engine, placing my suitcase and helmet above me on the rack.

Soon I heard the train filling up. Doors were opening and slamming and people were talking. Then a tall man in a strange black domed hat with a wide brim entered. He placed his briefcase on the seat, removed the hat and undid his coat. It was then that I saw he was wearing a dog-collar. He smiled at me serenely, removed his coat and placed everything except his newspaper on the rack. Then he sat down opposite me, crossed his legs and began reading the paper - of which there were several sections, which he folded neatly and placed on the seat at his side. He looked about 40, was well groomed and apart from his collar and a grey shirt wore nothing but black.

 A few minutes later an older, stouter, distinguished looking man peered through the window and smiled. After a moment he entered the compartment.

"Ah, a cold fresh morning vicar." he said, swinging a massive and very worn briefcase onto the rack. He was wearing a gown that resembled those worn by professors, and he held a clear plastic bag in which appeared to be a judge's wig, curly and grey.

  "Indeed, judge." said the vicar, looking up, "and it won't be any warmer up north I wager."

  The judge nodded, then glanced at me. "Ah ha, the policeman." he cried, "How do you do?"

  "Hi." I replied, giving him a smile before returning my eyes to the window.

  The judge took a seat beside the vicar and extracted one of the vicar's newspaper sections and began reading, resting the bag containing his wig on his lap.

 I looked at my watch. It was exactly 06.30. Right on time, and with a jolt, the train began to move. Several minutes later, a string of people walked past in the corridor. Then a small, plump, untidy looking man in a tweed suit entered and slid the door shut behind him.

"Whew," he panted, "Just made it."

   He must have been at least 60, older than the judge but with a good mop of unruly hair. He also carried a bag, about as big as the judge's, and when he turned I saw he was holding a stethoscope. He hoisted his bag onto the rack, then, looking in the mirror - which they used to have in those old carriages - he placed the stethoscope around his neck and adjusted it as if to appear ready for surgery.

"You'll do yourself an injury." said the judge.

"So will we all," answered the doctor, "getting up at this ungodly hour… sorry vicar."

  All three chuckled. I grinned.

  The doctor sat down next to me, stretched out his legs and closed his eyes.

The train was picking up speed now and we were rushing through suburban stations at almost one a minute. I stared out as we passed near the police college on the outskirts of the city and then into open countryside.

  As the train sped on, I reflected on how odd these three were. Not being a regular traveller, I wasn't sure if this sort of encounter was usual. They seemed, well, not ostentatious exactly, but uncommonly open and familiar, almost childishly so. But then, they were professional men, in highly respected occupations. Wasn't it only natural that they should be so at ease with each other? If another policeman had come in, wouldn't I, assuming I'd been in the force a while, respond with the same kind of rapport and jocularity? Possibly, though, they already knew one another and perhaps even met frequently in these very circumstances. I sat back and enjoyed the scenery and let them fade from my thoughts; after all, I was quite thrilled at the prospect of what awaited me.

  The doctor moved in his seat. "Your gun's showing, vicar." he said.

  What? I thought, turning my head - a vicar with a gun!

  The vicar looked up, then peered down at the breast pocket of his jacket. A bulky black object protruded slightly, but it could have been anything. He pushed it from sight with his finger and gave it a couple of taps. "And so is your poison, doctor." he replied, grinning.

 I turned my eyes, though not too obviously, to the doctor, who glanced down at his pocket. Several thin objects were sticking out. "But that's to be expected." he said, "Syringes are part of my normal equipment."

"Not in your breast pocket, surely?" interposed the judge.

"But suppose I misplace my bag," said the doctor, leaning towards him, "or the bag is stolen? Then what?"

"He's right." said the vicar, "It's a little thing, but we have to guard against all eventualities."

The judge frowned, "Makes my position more difficult, that's all." he said, "It's one alibi less when he comes up before me in the dock."

  The doctor shrugged, "I think the vicar will present your biggest headache." he said, "I'm a geriatric old fool while he's young and fit with a shrewd face… far more capable of…"

"In a job like mine," the vicar interrupted, "no-one would even begin to suspect."

"Nor mine." said the judge.

They both stared at the doctor.

"Nor a dithering, overweight general practitioner past retirement age." he said, "even with a pocket stuffed with syringes."

"But what do the syringes contain?" said the judge in an exaggeratedly eloquent voice.

 " Morphine." said the doctor, gruffly, "Entirely legitimate and quite ordinary in fact."

  The vicar grinned, "A tidy little team, wouldn't you say?" he said with a chuckle.

The others chuckled too, while I must have been frowning deeply.

They seemed to be completely ignoring me, as if I'd become invisible.

  "Just think," the vicar went on, "There's something very complete about us: the doctor sees the victim off, I bury them, the policeman arrests the culprit, and the judge tries them and sends them down. All very neat."

They thought this was hilarious and laughed for several seconds. Then the two men opposite me swapped newspapers, the doctor closed his eyes again, and silence resumed.

My situation seemed inconceivable. A vicar with a gun, apparently in some kind of collusion with a poisoning doctor and a corrupt judge? And discussing all in front of a police officer? Did they consider themselves above the law? Could they be, I wondered, members of 'The Brotherhood'? There was no sign. Or was it some weird play on fantasy to keep themselves amused, enacting precisely the roles that contradicted or mocked their actual standing and eminence in society? We all practise escapism now and then, but to my reckoning this seemed a bit overrich.

I'd almost forgotten why I was on the train, so occupied was I in trying to fathom what these three were about. It was, to say the least, unsettling; and now I couldn't get them out of my head, however hard I stared out at the countryside and sky as the train hurtled on its way.

Soon we began to slow.

"Peterborough." said the doctor, waking up, "Why no buffet on these early trains? Oh well, I'll do the honours."

"Good man." said the vicar, adjusting himself.

The train ground to a halt, the doctor took his exit and three minutes later returned with a tray containing four coffees and four croissants with butter on paper plates, which he placed on the seat between me and himself. Then the train pulled away and the doctor handed the refreshments out, passing equal share to me.

"Most kind of you." I said, surprised.

"My pleasure." he replied, "We're all in this together, after all."

Whatever was that supposed to mean, I wondered? Any scheme they were up to was nothing to do with me. I wanted no part in it. It all sounded rather sordid… or was it merely for amusement…?

After a while I couldn't stand the suspense any longer and somehow dragged up the courage to speak. I'd been on the brink of doing so several times but now I actually did it.

"I don't mean to intrude or spoil anything," I said, softly, "but were you serious, the things you were discussing, or is it all to be taken lightly, a joke, a charade…?"

"My son," said the vicar, gravely, edging forward on his seat and glaring straight into my eyes, "It is deadly serious. You see, it's to be the perfect crime, the perfect murder… or almost perfect, because in truth nothing can ever be wholly perfect. There has to be a flaw, and it is precisely that which we have to determine."

The judge and the doctor were grinning broadly, which only confused me further.

Then the doctor said, "Well, vicar, are you going to shoot her, or am I going to poison her?"

"How about both?" said the judge, "Poisoning followed by shooting. Forensic would never be able to decide which was the cause of death. You might both go down for being accessories, but at least one of you would be cleared of murder. After all, you can't be convicted of killing a body."

 I thought about this and it struck me that if the poison had time to take effect before the victim is shot, then the poisoner, clearly, is the murderer, and the gunman would be in the clear - though would probably be convicted of something. On the other hand, if the poison hadn't had time to work before the victim is shot, the gunman would be the murderer, but the poisoner could be convicted of attempted murder because the victim would have been alive when it was administered. I wasn't a budding Poirot for nothing, I thought.

  "I think I've seen the flaw." I said, suddenly horrified to think that I'd begun colluding with their plan.

  "There are several." said the judge, "And two men in the dock would involve far too much court time. I think it has to be me."

  The doctor got up and said, "I'm for a leak."

  The vicar got up too, "I'll join you." he said. And they left the compartment.

  The judge leaned towards me and said, "You're a young man with a fresh mind. Who do you think it should be?"

"I'm a policeman." I said, "I want no part in it."

"Well, chum, you're involved like the rest of us. Who, then, would you be likely to arrest first?"

"The doctor." I said, "though it really depends more on evidence, motive and so on."

"Absolutely right." he said, "The doctor it must be. But once he's eliminated, who next?"

"The vicar." I said.

"Good. Then it has to be me. The only question is: how? Any suggestions?"

This was too much. Now I was being asked how a judge might commit murder? I suddenly felt a strong compulsion to move out and into another compartment. I also needed a leak, so I stood up, and was about to reach up for my suitcase and helmet when the others returned.

"It's free at the moment." said the doctor, standing in my way but clearing my passage through the door and politely projecting his arm to usher me out, "Carry on."

 I hesitated, then went out into the corridor and along to the toilet. How was I to get my suitcase and helmet now? I could leave them till we got to York, though what if someone took them and alighted at Doncaster? I decided to stand in the corridor and keep an eye out in case someone should remove them before we arrived.

At one point the judge emerged to go to the toilet and I was too slow to avoid him seeing me, so I remained where I was and as he passed he said, "You can go back in now, chum, we've sorted it out."

 I thanked him. Then a few moments later, on his return, he winked at me and said, "This your first job away?" I nodded, and he added, "I didn't think I'd seen you before. I expect we'll meet up a lot in future, apparently things are getting quite busy in our trade just now." I must have frowned then, because he patted me on the shoulder and said, "Don't worry, chum, you'll get used to it."

Shortly we stopped at Doncaster, and by the time we got moving again I'd calmed down and felt much more relaxed. I thought, not far to go now, and I'm in no danger, better to play along and perhaps even gather evidence. It could boost my prospects no end, I reasoned, if I solved a murder even before I started. So I went back and took my seat as before.

"Welcome back." said the doctor. I nodded.

After a while the vicar put down his newspaper and looked up at me. There was a peculiar expression of puzzlement on his face. Then suddenly, glaring into my eyes, he snapped, "It's you!"

"What's me?" I said, alarmed, glancing around.

"The murderer, of course." said the judge, grinning, "There's no way anyone would suspect an ordinary cop, especially with all us distinguished bods floating around."

"This is too much." I said angrily, standing up.

"Stay right where you are!" said the vicar sharply, extracting his gun with a slick movement of his wrist and pointing it straight at my chest.

 I was dumbstruck. The other two were smirking maliciously. I sat down again and when I saw the gun more clearly, I froze. It was identical to one we'd been shown at the training college. The only difference, I somehow noticed in my agitation, was that it had no safety catch.

Then the judge stood up and said, in stern voice, "I'll go and tell Digby."

"Do that." said the doctor, equally sternly.

The judge went into the corridor and walked in the opposite direction to the toilet. A second later he appeared back at the doorway and said, staring at me. "That's funny, I thought we were only having one of you. I suppose that's your colleague in the next compartment?"

"What…what… do you…mean?" I managed to stutter out. The gun was still pointing directly at me.

"Just a minute." said the judge, disappearing again in the same direction as before.

At that moment the train lurched slightly and somehow the gun fell from the vicar's hand. I winced, expecting it to go off as it hit the floor. But instead, to my great surprise, it bounced around as if it was made of plastic. I made a grab for it. The vicar scarcely flinched, and even moved his leg to assist me.

"Thanks." he even said.

  The gun weighed about half an ounce. It was plastic; only now could I see the crude moulding. What the hell were they playing at? What were they trying to do to me? Were they from some asylum and their escorts in the next compartment?

At that moment the judge returned and said, taking his seat, "I don't understand why there's two cops, but anyway Digby's altered the script. I told him what we thought, and he said he'd take it into account."

Then a big man in a cord jacket came in holding a clipboard. "OK," he said, "We're nearly there. The technical lads should be all set up and ready for us. You know what to do. There'll only be a few minutes to get shots of you getting off the train, so we've got to get it right first time round. The rest we'll discuss in the station buffet when the train's gone."

  He wrote something on his clipboard then said to me, "I'm sorry, they must have booked you by mistake, but now you're here we may as well use you. In fact, it's just as well; it was only down to the budget that we meant to book one."

Before I could say anything he was gone. Then a young policeman like myself put his head in and said, "Come on mate, let's get to it. I take one side, you the other. Simple enough. Guess you missed rehearsals? Come on then."

Bemused and hugely relieved, I got up, grabbed my suitcase and helmet and followed him out. As I left the compartment, the vicar, the judge and the doctor, all three, gave a little cheer and clapped, and the vicar said, "Great performance, lad. Very convincing. Never let up for a moment."

If I hadn't been so confused, and thankful that the gun was merely a replica, I 'd have probably felt like lumping them one. As it was, I forced a smile and edged my way along the corridor.

One of the assistants took my suitcase; then, when the train stopped, we policemen, watched and followed by several pre-positioned cameras, escorted a struggling, posh middle-aged woman, well known to television soap fans, off the train, through the station exit and into a waiting police car. Having only just learned the techniques of arrest, the task was straightforward and easy, and I showed my colleague a trick or two. The others were to be seen with us as we alighted the train, and a complicated scene involving them took place on the platform as the train pulled out. Some of the more difficult shots, especially out in the road, had to be retaken a number of times.

  Digby, the producer/director, said he was so impressed with my performance that he wanted to employ me on a long-running serial that was being planned. When I told him my real reason for being there he was flabbergasted. He said I'd have to join Equity immediately, or they'd need to re-shoot the whole scene which would cost a fortune.

  He passed me on to Elise who dealt with administrative issues and seemed to know everyone intimately. She gave me a left-luggage ticket for my suitcase, and I told her about my ordeal on the train - which she thought was splendid. Then she related a similar incident that had happened to her when she began work in the theatre.

 I said, "I'm surprised I didn't twig when the judge first arrived and called me 'the policeman' instead of 'a policeman'. Or when they all looked so stereotypical."

"Thank you." she said, "I did the casting. And they would have had no idea that you weren't part of the company. Many actors like to warm up by pretending to be their character. They'll invent all kinds of scenarios in order to psych themselves into their role. When filming 'Death in Venice' Dirk Bogart reputedly spent the entire six months being his part, eating, sleeping, everything."

  This sounded like real fun. I signed some forms, and she said I'd receive a cheque for £500, and a formal offer of employment within the next ten days.

At first, I didn't know what to do. I'd never considered acting before. I arrived at York HQ with just five minutes to spare. Then some impulse compelled me to walk away. I went to a department store, bought and changed into a new shirt and jacket, putting the conspicuous part of my uniform in the bag, and spent the day sightseeing.

 I can't say precisely when I made the decision, but my reaction to the vicar's gun told me I wasn't cut out for the force. I resigned the next day. So I'm still a cop, a pretend cop, which is rather safer, if less secure, and maybe now I'll someday be the real Poirot, or even Sherlock Holmes.


Hastings 21st Aug 2001