‘Why is that, may I ask?’

‘I’m the manager of a large bank,’ said Giddens, pompously. ‘I have important decisions to make. I can’t instruct my clerks from fifty miles away.’

‘There’s an excellent postal service between here and the capital,’ argued Follis. ‘Besides, you can’t possibly return to work when you’re unable to walk. I know that it’s difficult, Mr Giddens, but you have to accept the situation as it is. You’ll be here in Brighton for a little while yet.’

Terence Giddens bit back an expletive and turned his head away. Trapped and helpless, he frothed with impotent rage. The pain in both legs suddenly became a searing agony.

Superintendent Edward Tallis was seated at his desk in Scotland Yard, scrutinising a report. In response to a knock on his door, he barked a command and Robert Colbeck entered.

‘Good afternoon, sir,’ he said.

‘Ah!’ said Tallis, looking up. ‘I was wondering when you would deign to appear, Inspector. I thought you had perhaps forgotten your way here.’

‘I was investigating the train crash, Superintendent, but I found time to write an interim report for you and made sure that it was delivered early this morning.’

‘It’s right here in front of me. Your handwriting is graceful as ever but that’s the only compliment I feel able to make. The report is full of unsubstantiated guesswork. What it lacks are hard facts.’

‘I’m here to present those to you now, sir.’

‘Not before time,’ said Tallis raising a censorious eyebrow. ‘Well, since you’re finally here, you may as well sit down.’

Colbeck sat on the chair in front of his desk and waited patiently while the superintendent pretended to read the report again. Relations between the two men had always been strained. Tallis was a thickset man in his fifties with short grey hair and a neat moustache. A military man with the habit of command, he expected instant obedience and did not always get that from the inspector. He disapproved of Colbeck’s flamboyant attire, his debonair manner and his idiosyncratic methods of detection. Tallis was also envious of the fact that Colbeck tended to receive adulation in the press while he, a senior officer, was rarely mentioned unless as a target for criticism.

‘Your report hints that a heinous crime has been committed,’ said Tallis, setting the paper aside and sitting back. ‘Is this another typically wild conjecture on your part?’

‘No, sir – Victor and I found proof positive of villainy.’

‘What is it?’

Colbeck told him about their discoveries at the site of the accident and about his conversation with John Heddle. He exonerated Frank Pike from the charge of speeding. The superintendent listened carefully, his face expressionless. When Colbeck had finished, Tallis fired questions at him like a stream of bullets.

‘Who was responsible for this outrage?’ he demanded.

‘A former employee of the railway,’ answered Colbeck.

‘What makes you think that?’

‘Consider the choice of time and location, sir. Anyone could find out the departure time of the Brighton Express by looking at a copy of Bradshaw and could therefore estimate its likely arrival on the stretch of line concerned. But only someone who had worked for the LB&SCR would know when goods trains would be running on the up line. They were meant to collide. Whoever planned this crash wanted to achieve maximum death and destruction.’

‘Why?’

‘Revenge.’

‘Against what or whom?’

‘I fancy that the person we are after bears a grudge against the railway company.’

‘What sort of grudge?’

‘Perhaps he feels he was unfairly dismissed or has another reason for wanting to get his revenge. I’ve asked Victor to track down the names of anyone who may have left the company under a cloud in recent times. That’s our starting point, sir.’

Tallis stroked his moustache while he pondered. He shook his head. ‘I’m not entirely convinced that the culprit was a  railwayman.’

‘That’s because you didn’t see the way that the bolts and fishplates had been removed so that a section of the rail could be levered away. It was the work of an expert,’ said Colbeck. ‘Anyone else wanting to derail a train would simply have put a large obstacle on the line. The problem with that was that it would have been seen by the driver from some distance away, allowing him to shut off steam and brake much earlier. Frank Pike only noticed the damaged rail when the express had almost reached it.’

‘Does the inspector general agree with your conclusions?’

‘No, sir – Captain Ridgeon is finding it difficult to abandon his earlier assessment that it was an accident caused by human error.’

‘His opinion should be treated with respect.’

‘He’s an army man,’ observed Colbeck, dryly. ‘Once he’s made a decision – however mistaken it may be – he defends it to the hilt.’

Tallis bristled. ‘There’s nothing wrong with service to Queen and Country,’ he said, huffily. ‘I was proud to do my duty and found it an excellent training for police work.’

‘That’s because you’re an exception to the rule, Superintendent. You are known and admired for the flexibility of your mind.’

Colbeck spoke with his tongue firmly in his cheek. Tallis, in fact, was renowned for his dogged inflexibility. Depending on the circumstances, it could be either his strength or his weakness, a single-mindedness that was a positive asset or an inability to look at a case from more than one angle. Unsure if he was being mocked or receiving a compliment, Tallis settled for a non-committal grunt.

‘I don’t think you should disregard Captain Ridgeon’s opinion altogether,’ he warned. ‘I’d be interested to meet the fellow.’

‘I’m certain that you will, sir,’ said Colbeck. ‘Sooner or later, he’ll be coming here to complain about the way he believes Victor and I are hampering him. The captain is not accustomed to having any of his decisions questioned.’

‘That’s the privilege of being an officer.’

‘He’s no longer in the army, Superintendent. It’s time he adjusted to civilian life, as you have done so successfully.’ Tallis heard the light sarcasm in his voice and was about to interrupt. ‘There are, of course, two other possibilities,’ Colbeck added quickly. ‘The first has to be mentioned if only to be discounted.’

‘Why?’

‘Because it’s one that other people may seize upon without realising that it will only mislead them.’

‘What on earth are you talking about, man?’

‘The fact that the culprit may work for a rival company,’ said Colbeck, ‘and that he attacked the LB&SCR out of spite. It’s an obvious supposition.’

‘Then why dismiss it?’

‘There’s no precedent for rival companies stooping to such extreme methods. Passions run high among people vying for the right to control a particular line and they’ll resort to all manner of unfair tactics to secure their ends. But they’ll draw back from causing a serious accident,’ he continued. ‘Apart from anything else, a crash on one line affects the whole railway system. It makes the travelling public more wary of using trains. In short, it’s very bad publicity. It’s therefore in the interest of all companies to avoid accidents.’

‘You said that there were two other possibilities,’ noted Tallis. ‘What, pray, might the second one be?’

‘It’s a theory I have, Superintendent.’

‘Ah, I was waiting until you trotted out another of your famous theories. It was only a question of time.’

‘Actually, sir, it was Victor Leeming who had this idea.’

‘So you’ve infected the sergeant with your disease, have you?’ said Tallis with a sneer. ‘One theoretician is more than enough in the Detective Department. We can’t have two of you coming up with mad hypotheses that have no factual basis.’

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