by William Gallagher
“I’M at Euston now, I’ll be on the 18:03 to New Street,” said Alice. Then because she knew they’d ask and they weren’t smart enough to look up a timetable, she took her phone from her ear and looked at the e-ticket email. “Can’t hear you,” she said. “I’m checking. Right, it’s due to arrive at 19:27. Want the booking reference?
Unbelievably, they did. These were the most paranoid clients she’d ever had and as ever with the cautious, they were also incautious: by saying yes about the booking reference, they had as good as confirmed to her that they had access to her email. She’d need to ditch that email account when this was done but then she would be able to afford to.
Still, might as well give them a scare. Later on they’d enjoy having some worries, they’d feel they’d got their money’s worth. She knew the type, though they weren’t usually after anything this big. “One thing. Watch for police. There’s no sign here, I’ve definitely not been followed but I think my email has been hacked. If they’ve done that or if they’ve tapped this line, we’ll have to deal with them. And that costs extra.”
She half-listened as they blustered. Half-listened to them, half wondered where the Chop and Wok takeaway had gone. That was one reason she’d picked Euston. Loved that place. She joined the queue for a sausage roll instead. She was at the counter before they’d finished blustering and had to let the next person go ahead of her. “Thanks,” she said into her phone. “It’s a pleasure dealing with professionals.”
Good. They rang off happy. Alice watched the man she’d let ahead of her buy what looked like the very last seven sausage rolls. She wandered off back by the ticket machines towards Boots where she bought a sandwich instead
A chicken sandwich, crisps and a bottle of water. A meal deal for office workers. Alice hadn’t worked in an office for nearly 10 years now and if this went as planned, she wouldn’t have to work anywhere ever again. She popped the sandwich into her bag, unable to stop herself beaming at the gleam of diamonds there. And then she stepped out into the crowds of Euston Station, every neck in the place slightly hurting as everyone stared up at the departure boards.
Alice knew the routine. You watch how every other destination had a platform but the Birmingham one just said nothing. Blank. There was the time, there was the destination, but they held off revealing the platform until the latest possible time. Only for Birmingham. She wondered if it only seemed to be for there, if really everyone waiting to go everywhere felt the same frustrated delay. But no, there was the 17:12 to Penzance on platform six, there was the 17:25 to Edinburgh on platform one. Only the Birmingham trains had no platform number yet and somehow that made the wait feel longer.
She did the pointless trick of moving to where she could see the tiny Arrivals screen down below the departures. It was a small TV monitor dwarfed by the main boards but it listed arrivals and everyone going to Birmingham looks at it for a clue. There are always trains coming in from the city and they do always list a platform and you do always wonder if that means this is the platform the train will go back from, but it doesn’t. Surely it must do, sometimes, even if only by random chance, but Alice had never known it work.
Still, she looked, more from boredom than anything else. More from wanting to seem like everyone else, more from not wanting to stand out. If she really wanted to blend in, mind, she would be on her phone and exactly as she thought that, they rang her back. So unprofessional.
“Black jacket, long black skirt, white blouse,” she said. “Plain brooch on left lapel. Hair up since I met your boss. I’m carrying a brown leather laptop bag and a matching clutch. It’s the business woman secretary look.”
She listened for a moment. “No, we agreed I’d meet one of you. I don’t do crowds. I’ll meet only you. How will I recognise you?”
Alice only half-listened, suddenly jostled by the Euston rush. Every time a train was shown as being ready for boarding there would be a mass rush from the concourse as everyone tried to get a seat. “Watch it,” called Alice, because it would look odd if she didn’t. “Not you,” she said into her phone. “Have you found out what platform I’ll arrive on? Birmingham New Street has changed a lot since I was last there, I hear it’s confusing as all hell now.”
They named a meeting spot on the platform where they would be waiting for her the moment she got off the train. She didn’t bother saying she’d noticed they used the word “we”. There was no possibility that they’d really only send one man. She could only hope that they were professional enough to avoid the meeting spot until the right time. Nothing attracts attention at a station like a group of men waiting on a platform and ignoring several trains in a row.
It attracts attention on the platform and it also makes you very easy to spot from the train, thought Alice, as her one pulled in to Birmingham New Street and she saw them from the window. She saw their desperation. She saw their fear. She couldn’t be certain but she was pretty sure she could also see a police officer talking into a radio.
And then the train was moving. Alice quickly pulled her hair loose, letting it fall over her shoulders just in case any of the men thought to look up at the windows but they didn’t. As the train passed along the platform, she jolted at the sight of even more of them. Their body language – tense but bored – gave them away and there had to be every single man in the group waiting there. The last thing she saw from the window was a stream of police coming down the escalators.
Alice took out her phone and gave it a thankful squeeze before switching it off and tossing it in the bin across the aisle.
“Tickets and passes,” came a voice.
Alice took her ticket out of her clutch bag and handed it to the guard. “What time do we get to Edinburgh, please?”
© William Gallagher 2016