The man was strangling a woman in front of my eyes.
I couldn’t believe it was happening!
I can still remember the terrible shock of it, my attention bizarrely drawn to his attenuated middle finger, cut off at the knuckle, pressed into the soft white flesh of her neck, then the moment her body sagged.
Instinct took over, and I aimed my phone at the train window and snapped shot after shot, before the other train, which had been running parallel with ours, gathered speed and accelerated away, leaving me stunned, scared and terrified.
It was a Sunday morning, early, and so both trains were practically deserted.
“Excuse me,” I said to the man in the opposite corner of my railway carriage.
He looked up from his newspaper, and I took in his face as a bit-part in this nightmare. Noticed his overlarge spectacles, a beaky nose and a blank expression.
“Can you tell me the emergency phone number for the police?” I asked him breathlessly. “I’m English you see, it’s my first time in America. I can hardly believe I’m saying this, but I think I just saw a murder.”
“A murder!” he echoed, putting down his newspaper and staring at me. “Dial 911. I do declare! A murder, you say?”
“Yes, a man strangling a woman on the train that was just running alongside us just now.”
I dialled and was put through as he stared at me, goggle-eyed. “Thank you, sir,” said the police operator after my garbled torrent of words. “Sure, we have all the details. Could you come into the police station to make a statement?”
“Well, I don’t know how to find it,” I told her. “You see I’m a tourist here, from England, visiting my fiancée in Ballantrae. If I give you the address could someone visit me there? I’m on the train right now, you see.”
“No problem, sir, we really appreciate your help.” I gave her all the information I could about the time it had happened, the general description, and that I’d got a picture of the killer on my phone. “We’ll send officers to see you at that address in about twenty minutes.”
“Boy oh boy!” my new friend enthused as he leaned forwards to look at the pictures on my phone. “Looks like you’ve found the Ballantrae Strangler! It’s been in all the papers – nine victims so far, always young attractive women, and the killer has covered his tracks every time – no fingerprints, no DNA, nothing. And the cops seem to screw up over and over, losing evidence, losing witnesses, there’s a public outcry about the lack of success. It’s as if that bastard is always one step ahead.”
“It’s terrible,” I told him, still shocked and upset, wanting to cry, and feeling as if I was going to be sick.
“A bad start to your vacation.”
I nodded. “Well, that’s the trouble, it’s not exactly a vacation. You see, I met my fiancée, Annie, a few months ago, when she was on holiday in London. Within a week we were inseparable, and she agreed to marry me. I’ve come out here to meet her family.” I gabbled on, unable to stop myself. “We haven’t decided whether to live in England or America. I haven’t a clue about what’s practical or possible, but I work in IT, so I could get a job here, but I know nothing about work permits, either here for me, or at home for Annie.”
“A big decision.”
“Well, at least Annie’s father is a County Sheriff, so he’ll know about the legal side of things before we make any final decisions.”
“Sherriff eh? He’s an important man then.”
“Is he?” I answered. “At home we don’t have Sheriffs, the highest police rank is Chief Constable for a county. I’ve heard that here, a Sherriff is a political appointment.”
“Sure is. I guess you’ll be son-in-law Numero Uno when you help your new dad solve a crime like this.” He smiled for the first time. “Catching the Ballantrae Strangler will certainly catch him some votes come election time.”
“You elect Sheriffs?”
“It’s the best way – if crime figures go up under one guy, you can vote in another, that way you have a top cop who gets results. Hey, fella, I sure am glad to meet you. I can see the newspaper headlines now: ‘English tourist catches the Ballantrae Strangler’.”
“That’s the last thing I want,” I told him, cringing at the thought. “I hoped to keep a low profile. I’m shy, I hate being the centre of attention.”
“Go with the flow, Mr Englishman. That’s my advice to you.” The sunshine reflected off the shiny metal frames of his glasses. “And I hope you and your Annie will be very happy together.”
The next few minutes flashed by: getting off at the station, finding a cab and giving the address and panicking at the thought of having to relive the terrible thing I had seen. Had the girl suffered for long? Could I have rapped on the window to stop him in time to save her? Could I have done anything to save her life?
When the door was answered by Annie’s mum, or ‘Mom’ as I had to remember to say, she was so effusive and delighted to meet me, that I could hardly get a word in edgeways.
“Hi there, Barry, we’ve heard so much about you! Is it really true that you met Annie on the Millennium Wheel in London, that you proposed to her outside St Paul’s Cathedral, that you took her round all the London art galleries? What does your mom and dad think about you getting married to an American girl?”
“Oh Barry, look at you, you’re so adorable, so shy, I do declare that you’re tongue tied! We’ll sure show some good old Southern hospitality and we’ll go to Nashville, they don’t call Tennessee the centre of country music for nothing. Have you been to Graceland, Elvis Presley’s home? Come meet my husband, John, his grandparents came from Ireland, and my folks came from Scotland, so you marrying Annie, is kind of like completing the circle of Britishness, don’t you think? We vacationed in England a while ago, and everything there is just so old it takes your breath away. . .”
I was led into the large front room while she prattled on, and the huge, silver-haired middle-aged man had his back to me as I came in.
As he turned around, the first thing I noticed was the middle finger of his left hand was cut off at the knuckle.
I looked into his eyes and I knew.
And things slipped into place. My companion on the train saying that the killer knew a lot about police procedure, he never left a clue. How the investigation had hit problem after problem, missing evidence, witnesses who disappeared. As if bad luck had been dogging the hunt for the killer at every turn.
And as he looked into my eyes I could see a flash of instant recognition. He must have sensed me watching him and glanced my way through both train windows for one split second.
“Hey, Barry, there are a couple of police officers at the door, they say they want to talk to you,” I heard Annie’s mom twittering on behind me. “They’re here now. . .”
As I stared at Annie’s father, I wondered how I could ever explain things to his daughter, how she would hate me forever for destroying her world.
And, for us, I realised that there could never be any kind of happy ever after. . .
(image courtesy of Khusen Rustamov, from Pixabay)