This is the fifth instalment of Case Files, a series by creative writing students at York St John University. The students’ inspiration came from real-life crime stories, objects in our collection or their own imaginations. To immerse yourself in the world of mystery and detective fiction and take part in crime writing activities, don’t forget to check out the National Railway Museum’s Summer Sleuthing programme, running from 22 July – 2 September.
The Dining Car
By Daniel Russell
Only the black smoke rising from the train pulling into platform five disturbed the crisp, cold morning air. The outside of the train was dark coloured and well used, the carriages separated only by steel, rusting to a bronze colour. As the train came to a halt, the guards walked to the doors. Dressed in black buttoned suits, the warmth from the train made sweat drop from underneath their top hats. Walking across the carriages of the train had removed leather from the front of their small-heeled, smart black shoes. A silver chain holding a carriage key fell from the right side of their waistcoats into a small pocket on their chest. Removing the keys simultaneously, the guards unlocked the doors of the train, alerting the people waiting on the platform outside.
The dining cabin was always a popular choice for customers who had the money. The luxury seating and the first-class preparation of food on-board ensured refined, comfortable travelling. Underneath the tables of solid oak, silver chairs holding puffed-up cushions presented a platform for the passengers to sit. On each table, the first-class dining which had been assured, was presented through the perfectly laid cutlery; forks on the left, knives on the right. Next to the knives sat two wine glasses, a smaller glass for the white, and a larger glass to help the red wine breathe.
The guard began to walk down the carriage. He had taken his top hat off now and it was resting between two of his fingers on his left hand. After each step, he checked the tables either side of him, making sure they were perfectly presentable to the oncoming travellers. A newspaper was laid inside a small compartment at the side of each seat and as he walked past, the guard picked one up and looked at the back pages, focusing on the crime section. The re-stocking of coal could be heard from the dining cart and as the worker launched his shovel full of coal into the engine, he sang a song loudly, in an attempt to surpass the boredom. The chatter of passengers was becoming increasingly loud and knowing that they were about to board, the guard grabbed either side of his smart waistcoat, straightened his legs, and managed to forge a pretend smile that spread widely across his bony cheeks. The passengers were stood outside of the door, still speaking noisily, waiting to be greeted. The guard walked through to the end of the carriage and stopped at the doors separating the kitchen from the dining area. Opening the door with his right hand, he stood and glanced over at the chef, who was busy cutting up vegetables. No words were spoken. The chef nodded at the guard with a stern look. The guard nodded back with a similar expression and walked to the door of the carriage to welcome the passengers.
“Finally” exclaimed a young man wearing a blue suit.
“It’s freezing out here, get us inside!” moaned another passenger, an older looking woman, dressed in a dark fur coat. The guard apologised for their long wait, moved aside from the door, and used his left arm to shuffle the passengers through into the dining cart. The women were first to walk onto the train, with the men moving aside whilst they elegantly held their bags and stepped up onto the train, before gracefully finding their seats. The men were less graceful, marching onto the train at speed and shaking the carriage as they gave each other little time, before the next male was making his way on board. As the passengers looked for their seats, and removed any coats they were wearing, the guard stood at the rear end of the carriage, looking over everything and making sure everything was moving along quickly and professionally.
The guard was keeping his eye on certain passengers more than he was others. Taking their seats slowly and frantically looking around the carriage were two criminals; a man and a woman. He continued to watch over the criminals with a firm and serious look, until the man, Charles Johnson, caught his eye and quickly sat down in his silver seat, picking up a newspaper and raising it over his face, hiding everything apart from his dark brown, beady eyes.
A mastermind criminal with numerous convictions to his name; his smug smile did little to hide his wanted appearance and his smart suit gave off a sense of professionalism. Before entering the train on that frosty, cold morning, the guard had checked the conviction book thoroughly, as he did before every shift, and Charles’ name in black pen, stood out consistently. He used the railways to commit his crimes of robbery, stealing jellies, stealing boots, stealing wines, and these were only a small number of his wrongdoings. Hidden away inside large steel containers, he somehow managed to get his deceiving hands on these objects, thus enhancing the smugness of his dry smile.
Still sat with the newspaper covering a large percentage of his face, he frantically shook his right foot; up and down, up and down. Was he nervous? The guard’s stare was intimidating. He used his eyes to pierce the criminal’s skin and chip away at his dishonest thoughts. In an attempt to keep his authority and composure, the guard gripped his wooden baton, tucked away in his back pocket. Watching this, Charles remembered a throbbing pain, as a different guard had struck him earlier in the year. He bit his top lip and quivered, only slightly, but the guard still noticed. For a brief second, the pair made eye contact for the first time, the guard’s blue and the criminal’s brown eyes met and for a second. The train seemed to stop its movement and the guard stood as if he was made of solid stone.
The bell from the kitchen echoed through the carriage and rang inside the ears of the passengers. The eye contact between the criminal and the guard stopped, and Charles exhaled deeply, presenting his satisfaction at being able to sit without the guard’s watching eye over him. The smell from the kitchen was blissfully intoxicating and as the chef opened the door, the passengers, normally so composed in society, turned with gluttony and watched as the first course was brought before them. A steel catering trolley moved down the carriage. Soup was the starter; roast red pepper and tomato. “Red or white?” A tall, young male, dressed in smart clothing followed closely behind the chef, offering wine to the passengers. Holding the bottle with the palm of his hand, with his thumb resting on the base, he gently turned his wrist and poured the wine slowly into the glasses. “I’ll try the red.” A woman with glasses hanging on the edge of her uppity nose used two of her fingers to move her wine glass to the edge of the table.
“Certainly, Madam.” After placing the bottle of white into the small cooler on his tray, he clutched the red wine, and poured the expensive fluid into the woman’s glass. The guard watched closely, as Elizabeth took hold of the soup spoon with her right hand, before moving her wine glass back into position.
A less well-known criminal, but Elizabeth was still a passenger who worried the guard. Often allowing others to get their hands dirty, whilst she sat at home in comfort and controlled her masterful operations, she was hard to track. A string of connections allowed her to manipulate situations to help her gain control of other individuals in order to add to her power. She used the railways a lot, usually occupying the first class carriage to travel through Britain, taking in her surroundings with expensive wines and cigarettes. Criminal activity on trains was something she was unfamiliar with, but the large case placed underneath her leather seat looked suspicious, as if it contained something she did not want anyone to see, especially the guard, who was watching from the opposite end of the train.
Her lipstick was as red, and rich, as the Merlot she was slowly sipping and each time she moved her wine glass away from her dishonest lips, a perfect mark of her smile stained the rim. Steam from the soup before her rose from the bowl and separated evenly on the window at the side of her. When the sun broke through the condensation Elizabeth looked left to avoid the glare. Her shoes were precisely polished and matte black and their three inch heels added to her air of superiority, whilst assisting her posture. Her reserved behaviour had concerned the guard, who began to walk down the aisle of the carriage, looking right, then left, at the passengers who were coming to the end of their starters. Elizabeth could hear the footsteps of the guard, as the sound of his heels echoed through the train. She looked over her small shoulders and sighed, readying her for an interruption of privacy.
“Mrs Townsend.” The guard nodded his head in the direction of Elizabeth, greeting her warmly. She accepted the greeting with a small smile, and nodded back.
“Hello, anything I can help you with?” she asked. The guard held his hands together and then wrapped his arms around his back, looking professional and welcoming.
“Oh no, nothing at all, just making sure the service and your travel has been to the standard you were expecting”. Elizabeth could tell this was a lie but continued to act accordingly.
“Exceeded the expectations, thank you”. Understanding that he had outstayed his welcome, the guard smiled, said his goodbyes and then walked back down the carriage, before looking outside and taking in the surroundings.
The country winds were blowing through the long branches of the solid oak trees that were scattered across the fields around the tracks, and as the leaves fell, the moving train sent them back into the gust. The tracks led the passengers through a cinematic experience, with the blinding, crisp colours of nature painted perfectly across the windows, flicking from one scene, to the next. Throughout the journey, the train seemed to slow down as if it was tired and out of energy, and as the carriages passed an old, wooden farm house, the train slowed once more and the feeling of tension was noticeable in the dining cart. As the tray holding the glasses clinked due to the train applying the brakes, the guard instinctively reached for his billy club. This was his route, and he knew there were no bends here, the nearest stop was some forty minutes away and this worried him. The surrounding fields were open. Civilisation was sparse in these expansive moors. The train could only be stopping for a handful of reasons:
A mechanical failure. Unlikely, the train was checked thoroughly this morning.
An obstruction on the track. Again, unlikely. This would never result in a complete stop.
A medical emergency. Once again, unlikely, a doctor was on board to help with these emergencies.
The guard gripped his club unconsciously as he considered the most likely option.
Billy noticed the guard gripping his club nervously and ran his tongue over his front teeth. He shifted naturally, drawing comfort from a heavy hatchet concealed secretly inside the inner pocket of his large coat. He remained outwardly calm, but inside wondered why the train was slowing. Was it possible they had discovered his true identity already?
Elizabeth noticed the heavy-set man shift uncomfortably in his seat. There was something about the intensity of his dark eyes that made Elizabeth feel an abrupt chill, even though the dining car was warm. She reached her ring hand to her neck and held the carrot gold necklace that hung gently over her petite rib cage. She wished her lover had accompanied her on this journey, but no, he couldn’t have been here, not for this endeavour, not for her plan to work.
Charles knew Elizabeth vaguley, although he was unsure of the identity of the mysterious man she was looking at. He placed his hands deep into his pockets and looked at the floor, making sure any attention brought upon him was not enough to question his involvement in why the train was slowing and coming to a halt. At this moment, and for the first time today, the guard was clueless, helpless, confused. He stood still and looked through the carriage.
His face was sinister and his eyes were a dark shade, a colour that was unfamiliar to the guard, but the mysteriousness of the passenger and the threatening look plastered across his pale face, presented someone he was unfamiliar with in every aspect. On the table rested Billy’s hands, and the size of his fingers were peculiar. He wore leather gloves that tightly secured his gargantuan hands, although the carriage was warm. His eyes were fixed to the windows and his face held no emotion. He never blinked, not even once, and he could not look away. It was as if he wanted to keep something from the outside with him whilst he was on the train. There was a tattoo on the left side of his neck of a black snake. The snake was boxed in a sharp border that made it seem untouchable, as if the animal held meaning. The guard examined the tattoo, wondering and questioning himself, on whether he had seen such art on any criminals before. Hidden beneath his gothic, dark clothing, held the answer to whether Billy had any other tattoos. Every item of clothing worn by the criminal was black, from his shirt, to his large, working boots underneath the table. There was no colour, no brightness, no happiness, just a criminal.
The confusion circling around the carriage because of the stopping of the train had led to a breakdown of communication between the guard and the chef. On the tables, before every passenger, were empty soup dishes and glasses with no wine. Most of the passengers sat in silence, with the lack of professionalism coming from the dining cart, causing them no fuss. However, the more privileged individuals, sat with their noses high, looked disgusted, and their chatter amongst them was marked by disappointment and anger. The guard noticed the disgruntled nature of some of the passengers, and as a perfectionist, he challenged himself to match their expectations, marching towards the door separating the passengers and the chef, in order to end the hold up.
The door swung open at force, alarming the chef and the young waiter, sat on a stool by the door, twiddling his thumbs with boredom. “Why has the train stopped? I have seven fine pork loins cooking away, vegetables by the dozen sizzling to perfection and at this rate, no one to serve them to!” The chef was holding a knife, sharp enough to sting the eyes of the guard as he watched the blood from the meat drip from the knife and onto the white apron of the chef, causing a deep puddle of red.
“I can’t give you the reason for why the train has stopped, however, service will resume as normal, continue as you are, although, I would suggest that the starter plates are removed abruptly. Let’s not give them anything else to moan about”. Both the guard and the chef looked at the boy on the stool, who got to his feet, straightened his back and grabbed a tray, before heading into the carriage, removing the starters and offering wine.
The chef was appreciative of the guard’s response, “that’s what I like to hear, service as usual, give me ten minutes.” The guard smiled at the chef, before turning on the spot and returning to the carriage.
A calmer atmosphere and a few forced smiles was what the guard expected, but as he walked into the carriage, the waiter pushed past him forcefully, running into the kitchen and just about managing to balance the plates on his tray. “What on earth has happened?” The guard whispered quietly under his breath. The guard could hear everything. A tune being whistled rung through his head, and as he listened, memories emerged of him whistling along to this song, a song that to him, was cheerful, a song that to him, was beautiful. The guard listened to the boots that marched across the track and with each step, stones flicked into the air, before plummeting down and crashing against the metal with a high-pitched ring. The different sounds, together, created a harmonious piece of music. Although most of the passengers had eyes like paintings of horror, at that moment, with the music, there was nothing to fear. Then, there was silence.
Men began to circle the train, like a pack of wolves moving around pray. Gripping each side of their opened black coats, they smirked uncontrollably and separated evenly across the carriage, five men on each side. The train was silent, but the faces of the passengers spoke a thousand words. At each window, a pair of eyes from the outside, looked in, staring, trying to place an authority, showing everyone on the dining cart, they were in charge. The criminals were unfazed. Charles and Elizabeth spoke with their eyes, both lifting an eyebrow simultaneously, and secretly raising a thumb under the solid oak tables. Charles began to unbutton his suit jacket, and as each button unfastened, a smart waistcoat, with drawstrings from his trousers, smothering his shoulders, emerged. He placed his right hand over his chest, checking whether the small pistol, hidden inside the pocket of his waistcoat, was ready for him to use. Satisfied with the touch of his pistol, armed with five bullets, with ten more boxed in the back of his trousers, he got to his feet and began to walk down the carriage, to the bemusement of the guard. Elizabeth was next to move. She held her necklace again, closed her eyes and imagined her lover, hoping that the last time she would see him, would not be in her thoughts. Charles passed Elizabeth’s seat and she was quick to follow him, after she felt the slight touch of his arm against her slim torso. The passengers still sitting in their seats, struggled to decide whom to watch. Some continued to watch the dreaded men outside, wondering why such a disturbance had occurred, and others watched the criminals on board the train.
Elizabeth and Charles walked through the train and the guard was the only thing in their way. He stayed standing, his feet planted on the red carpet of the carriage. Charles was leading, his face puzzled. The guard’s stance was strong, his legs wide and his chest out. The guard slowly moved his right arm to the back of his trousers, readying himself to bring out the baton; he lifted the pocket cover slowly, still focusing on the man ahead of him. He tried to swing his arm around his body, but a powerful grip prevented his movement. A sharp kick to the back of his leg sent the guard to his knees and the towering figure of Billy, stood over him.
“What’s the plan?” Billy spoke with both hands pressed on the guard’s shoulders. He used his thumbs aggressively, pushing down on his collarbone. A criminal smile spread across the face of Charles.
“Tie him up, then we push forward to the main entrance of the train. Are you armed?” Billy removed his glove, presenting burnt flesh around the palm of his hand; he removed two guns from the back of his suit jacket, before removing a small firearm from the guard’s pocket. The men continued to brief each other. Elizabeth had walked back to her seat unnoticed. Standing on her tiptoes, she reached into the luggage compartment, and pulled down a large bag, padlocked at numerous parts on the zip. She used her left hand to remove a pin from her perfectly pinned up hair, before she placed the pin inside the lock, frantically twisting it left and right, until the padlock opened. She repeated this on numerous occasions, before she opened the case with ease. What was inside shocked the carriage. Piled high were guns of the highest order.
The guard’s jaw dropped. The criminals smiled like never before, with devious grins. Excitement ran over their lips and spread across their cheeks. “H…ho…how?” Charles stuttered.
“That’s for me to know,” replied a very serious Elizabeth. “Make your choices, I’ll watch him.” She pointed at the guard. The criminals searched through the case quickly, grabbing anything that looked large, that looked menacing, and that looked enough to keep them alive. As they debated the weaponry, the men outside came closer to the carriage doors. They were in two groups now, ready to enter the train.
“They cannot get in,” remarked Charles, “they need a carriage key. Only the guards have the carriage keys. They’ll need to use force.” The criminals took comfort from this, as they felt they had the upper hand. Although Charles’ remarks held truth, the men continued to walk to the doors of the carriage and instead of using force when they were a footsteps away, they waited, patiently. The criminals, now armed and ready, had crouched into defensive positions, Elizabeth behind, whilst Charles and Billy stayed a few paces ahead. A long rope kept the guard sat upright against one of the tables adjacent to the three. Everyone on the train looked at the small hallway where the two doors met, waiting to see what would happen next, and then, simultaneously, the doors of the carriage opened slowly, making a shivering creaking sound, before they tapped the wall. Then there were footsteps and the whistle the guard was so familiar with rang through the train and made him open his eyes. Out of the group, only one man walked into sight. He stood before the criminals, raising his right hand and when he closed it shut into a fist, the whistling stopped. He then raised his left hand, which was holding a small metal object tight, shaped like a T, it was a carriage key. He placed the key inside the pocket of his waistcoat, the same waistcoat, worn by the guard.
“We’ve been after two of you for a while,” the man grimaced, “but a third, a third we weren’t expecting”. Two other men followed the man; they wore the same clothes and held the same stance. “Right, I’m going to explain how this is going to go, the guard is cut loose now and stands with us, you then give up your weapons before handing yourselves to me, that way, you won’t die today”. A hysterical laugh followed. Charles and Billy fell to the floor, whilst Elizabeth giggled politely, holding her petite hand against her mouth. Another two men entered the picture, standing beside the three already stood in the hall. “What on earth is funny?” There was anger in his voice. “We have more men, more authority, more gu…” A bullet fired into the air, crashing through the ceiling and entering the cold, blue sky, bringing the man’s rehearsed speech to an end. The criminals’ laughter also stopped. they held their fully-loaded weapons, and just smug looks remained.
“YOU SEE, SIR,” Billy shouted, “WE ARE ALL CRIMINALS HERE”. The man’s eyes focused on a case, a case left alone on the table in the middle of the carriage, a large case, a large, EMPTY, case. Every man, stood around the small hall in the dining cart was speechless and you could hear the breath fade away from their confident mouths. Every passenger on that entire train stood, armed.
The faces of every person on that train, tells the end of the tale. The chef and the waiter had heard everything, and listened whilst stuffing their faces with the finest pork and the most succulent vegetables. They were smiling. The criminals stood tall, holding a power they had never even imagined. They were smiling. The passengers looked down the sights of their guns, loving that they had travelled today, as ordinary men and women. They were smiling. The men who had bombarded the train, to no avail, panicked and the guard sat, still tied to the cold table. He whistled. He whistled the tune with which he was so familiar.