The Railway Crossing by John Escott
Dunstan Thwaite looked at the railway crossing and decided that it was time for John Dunn to die. It was a very suitable place for a murder. There were trees all around, and they hid the trains which came so fast along the railway line. The nearest house was Thwaite’s own, and this was also hidden by the trees. People and traffic did not use the crossing very often, and the big gates were kept locked. There was a small gate used by passengers going to the station, but at night it was always quiet.
Thwaite was a worried man. He had to use sleeping powders to help him sleep. But after tonight, things were going to be different. The time had come to stop the blackmail. The time had come for John Dunn to die.
It all began five years earlier…
Thwaite worked in the offices of a large company, and his only money was the money that the company paid him. It was not much, but it was enough. Then he met the beautiful Miss Hilda Lorraine and asked her to marry him.
She came from an important family who were supposed to be very rich, but in fact they had less money than Thwaite had thought. He learned that he would have to pay for the wedding himself. And he did not have enough money for the expensive kind of wedding that Miss Lorraine wanted. So Thwaite stole a thousand pounds, by changing the figures in the company’s books. He planned to put the money back after he was married, but someone discovered that it was missing.
Thwaite kept quiet. Another man was thought to be the thief, and he lost his job. Thwaite still said nothing.
But John Dunn worked in the same office. He worked closely with Thwaite and guessed Thwaite’s crime. He searched through the company’s books until he found what he was looking for. Then he went to Thwaite.
‘Sorry to have to ask you, Mr Thwaite,’ he said. ‘I need a hundred pounds… for my son. He’s in a bit of trouble, you see…’
‘But you don’t have a son,’ said Thwaite.
Dunn just smiled. It wasn’t a very nice smile. ‘A hundred pounds,’ he said again.
And then Thwaite knew that he was being blackmailed.
He paid Dunn one hundred pounds, and Dunn said nothing more for a year. During that time, Thwaite got married.
Then the day came when Dunn asked him for more money.
‘Two hundred and fifty pounds,’ he said to Thwaite.
‘I can’t pay-‘ began Thwaite.
But he did. Either he paid or he went to prison.
It went on for five years, and each time Dunn wanted more money. Thwaite found it difficult to live on the money that he was left with. His wife liked expensive things. An expensive house, an expensive car, visits to expensive restaurants. She also discovered that some of the money her husband was paid each year seemed to disappear. He tried to lie about it, but he knew that she thought he was paying to keep another woman.
Oh, how he hated John Dunn! Something must happen!
And then he remembered the railway crossing.
It was not a new idea. Weeks before, he had thought about what could happen there. The idea came when the doctor gave him some powders to help him sleep. He thought about giving Dunn enough of them to kill him, but then he got a better idea. Although he was afraid, Thwaite slowly realized that murder was the only answer to his problem.
Then Dunn asked for more money.
‘Five hundred pounds, Mr Thwaite,’ Dunn told him.
‘Five hundred!’ said Thwaite. ‘Why not ask for the moon? You’ll get neither one nor the other.’
‘Five hundred,’ repeated Dunn, calmly.
It was then that Thwaite decided to murder the other man. He pretended to think about the money for a moment, then he said, ‘Come to my house tomorrow night and we’ll talk.’ He remembered his wife was going to be away in London all night. ‘And bring those papers from the office which you want me to look at.’
‘All right,’ said Dunn.
The following evening, Thwaite put two hundred pounds in his pocket. Then he put half of one of his sleeping powders into a whisky bottle. There was only enough whisky for two glasses, but there was an unopened bottle next to it. Next he put a hammer into one pocket of his overcoat, and a torch into the other pocket. The coat was outside the door of his study. Lastly, he moved the hands on his watch and on the study clock forward by ten minutes. Those extra ten minutes would give him his alibi.
Thwaite knew that he must be extra careful. He knew that people at the office thought there was some secret between him and Dunn. A secret that Thwaite didn’t want anyone to know.
‘If Dunn is killed,’ he thought, ‘they’ll wonder if it was really an accident, or if I murdered him.’
But if his plan went well, the police would believe that he hadn’t left the house.
Thwaite sat down to wait for John Dunn. He thought about what he was going to do. Murder! He could almost see his hand holding the hammer above Dunn; could hear the awful sound of it crashing down on to the man’s head. He could see Dunn’s dead body! Dead all except the eyes, which looked at Thwaite… followed him everywhere he went…
He tried to calm himself. He remembered why he was doing this. When Dunn was dead, his problems were over.
Half an hour later, Dunn arrived. Jane opened the door. Jane was the servant who lived in the house with Thwaite and his wife. She brought Dunn into the study.
Thwaite smiled in a friendly way. ‘Oh, good. You’ve brought those papers for me to see, Dunn. Thank you.’
After Jane left, the two men looked at each other.
‘Give me the papers,’ Thwaite said. ‘I’ll look at them now that you’ve brought them.’ Fifteen minutes later, he gave the papers back to Dunn and sat back in his chair. ‘Now, about that other matter.’ He got up. ‘But why not have a drink first?’
‘No, thank you,’ said Dunn. He looked afraid.
‘What are you afraid of?’ said Thwaite. He gave Dunn the opened whisky bottle and two glasses. ‘We can both drink the same whisky, if you like. Here, you do it.’
After a moment, Dunn put whisky into each glass, then he waited until Thwaite drank before he drank his own. Thwaite watched him. How long before the other man began to feel sleepy? Thwaite needed all of one sleeping powder to make him sleep, but Dunn did not usually take them.
‘Listen, Dunn,’ said Thwaite, ‘I haven’t got five hundred pounds, but I can give you this.’ He took the money from his pocket and put it on the table.
Dunn counted it. ‘Two hundred?’ he said, with a laugh. ‘Are you trying to be funny?’
‘I’m not saying it will be the last,’ said Thwaite. ‘Take it now and be pleased that you’ve got it.’
Dunn shook his head. ‘Five hundred, Mr Thwaite.’
‘I’ve told you, I can’t do it,’ said Thwaite. ‘And I won’t do it. You can tell everyone what I did – I don’t care anymore. It’s been five years, and I’ve done a lot of good work for the company during that time. I saved them a lot more than a thousand pounds. I’ll sell this house and pay them back. I’ll take my punishment, then I’ll go and live in another country and give myself a new name.’
‘And your wife?’ said Dunn.
‘My wife will leave the country first,’ Thwaite told him. ‘She’ll wait for me to come out of prison. It won’t be more than two or three years. So you can take the two hundred pounds, or you can do your worst!’
The powder in the whisky was beginning to make Dunn sleepy. He looked stupidly at Thwaite, and Thwaite began to worry. Had he given the other man too much? He looked at the clock. There was not much time left.
‘Will you take it, or leave it?’ asked Thwaite.
‘Five hundred,’ said Dunn, in a heavy voice. ‘I want five hundred.’
‘You can go and do your worst,’ said Thwaite.
Dunn held out a shaking hand. ‘Come on, pay me.’ Thwaite began to worry again. ‘Are you feeling all right, Dunn? Have some more whisky.’ He opened the other bottle and put some whisky in Dunn’s glass. Dunn drank it, and it seemed to make him feel better.
‘That was strange,’ he said. ‘I didn’t feel very well, but I feel a little better now.’
‘If you’re going to catch your train, you must go,’ said Thwaite. ‘Tell me tomorrow what you finally decide to do. Take the two hundred with you.’
Dunn thought for a moment, then picked up the money. He looked at his watch, then looked at the study clock. ‘Your clock is wrong,’ he said. ‘I have ten more minutes.’
‘Wrong?’ said Thwaite. He looked at his own watch. ‘It’s your watch that’s wrong. Look at mine.’
Dunn looked and seemed unable to understand it. He stood up… and almost fell back again.
Thwaite hid a smile. This was how he wanted Dunn to be. ‘You’re not feeling well,’ he said. ‘I’ll take you to the station. Wait until I get my coat.’
Now that the time was here, Thwaite felt cool and calm. He put on his coat, feeling the hammer in the pocket, then went back into the study.
‘We’ll go out this way,’ he said.
There was a side door from the study into the garden. Thwaite closed it silently and it locked automatically behind him. It was his plan to return that way, go in quietly again, and then to change the clock and his watch back to the right time. Then he would shout ‘Goodnight’, and close the front door very loudly, pretending that somebody had left just then. Next, he would call Jane and ask for some coffee, making sure that she saw the clock. Then, if the police asked her later, Jane could say that Thwaite did not leave the house and that Dunn went to catch his train at the right time.
It was a dry night, but very dark. A train carrying freight went slowly by. Thwaite smiled to himself. There were plenty of freight trains at that time of the night. He needed one of them to hide his crime for him. He planned to hit Dunn on the head with the hammer, then put his body on the railway line. A freight train would do the rest.
Slowly, the two men walked on, Thwaite holding Dunn’s arm. A light wind moved among the trees. Thwaite gently pushed the half-asleep Dunn forwards. He put his hand into his pocket for the hammer… And stopped.
His keys! They were still inside the house, and he could not get back in without them! He would have to ring the front door bell. His alibi was destroyed!
It was a bad mistake. Everything was wrong now. He couldn’t go on with the murder.
‘Most murderers make mistakes,’ thought Thwaite, trying to calm himself. ‘I’ve been the same.’ But he was shaking with fear as he thought about the mistake. Suddenly, he could not walk another step with Dunn.
‘Goodnight,’ he said to the other man.
And before they reached the crossing, he turned and walked back to the house.
For ten minutes, Thwaite walked up and down outside until he began to feel calm again. Then he rang the bell.
A few moments later, Jane opened the door.
‘Thank you, Jane,’ he said. ‘I went to see Mr Dunn over the crossing, and I forgot my keys.’
He went to bed a happier man. He was not a murderer.
When he was eating his breakfast the next morning, he decided what to do. ‘I’ll tell them at the office that I stole the thousand pounds,’ he said to himself. ‘I’ll take my punishment, and then I can have some peace again.’
It suddenly seemed so easy.
Until Jane came in.
‘Have you heard the news, sir?’ she said. ‘Mr Dunn was killed by a train on the crossing last night. A man who was working on the railway line found him this morning.’
Thwaite slowly went white. Jane was looking at him strangely. What was she thinking? What story did he tell her the night before? He couldn’t remember!
‘Dunn killed!’ he said. ‘How terrible, Jane! I’ll go down.’ The body was in a small railway building, near the line. There was a policeman outside.
‘A sad accident, Mr Thwaite,’ the policeman said. ‘You knew the man, didn’t you, sir?’
‘He worked in my office,’ replied Thwaite. ‘He was with me last night, discussing business. I suppose this happened on his way home. It’s terrible!’
‘It’s very sad, sir,’ said the policeman. ‘But accidents will happen.’
‘I know that,’ said Thwaite. ‘But I wish he hadn’t drunk so much of my whisky. I was going to walk with him to the station.’
The policeman looked closely at Thwaite. ‘And did you, sir?’
‘No,’ said Thwaite. ‘The cold night air seemed to make him feel better. I turned back before the crossing.’
The policeman said no more, but later that day two more policemen came to the office. ‘Have they talked to Jane?’ wondered Thwaite. Again he told them, ‘I left Dunn before we reached the railway crossing.’ They wrote down what he said to them, then went away.
Next day, they came back.
There were things that Thwaite could not explain to them. Why did the whisky bottle contain what was left of a sleeping powder? Why was the study clock wrong by ten minutes? (At dinner-time earlier on the same evening, Jane had noticed that it was right.) And why was a hammer found in his overcoat pocket?
Then the police found papers in Dunn’s house. The handwriting on them was Dunn’s. It told the story of Thwaite and the thousand pounds, and it told how Thwaite was a thief. The police then discovered that money taken from Thwaite’s bank account over the last five years always appeared a few days later in Dunn’s bank book.
Lastly, the time of death was known to be 10.30 pm because Dunn’s blood was found on the train that went through the railway crossing at that time. It was also seven minutes before Jane opened the front door to let Thwaite back in.
At first, Thwaite had no answers to all their questions.
Finally, on his last morning, he told them the true story. Then he went to his death bravely.