Bill shook his head in disbelief. “How could we lose a passenger—there isn’t anywhere to go and we’ve just walked a fair distance towards the coach?”
Dawn said, “We brought in a case of bottles of water and told the passengers to take it easy and share. Everything was going well and then a few people asked if they could get out to stretch their legs, so those of us up front said, it was okay but not to leave the area beside the coach.”
“How did it come to light that we’d lost somebody?”
“A woman at the back started asking about Ken, a man who’d been sitting near her earlier—Ken had failed to get back on board.”
“Has anybody gone out looking—for example in the area between the back of the coach and the entrance we used, remembering that it’s now blocked?”
“Alan and Calvin have gone together and they’ve been gone for about twenty minutes. They haven’t got a strong flashlight like you guys, but they’ve both got mobile phones with strong lights on. Oh, God, I should have—”
“Okay, Dawn, calm yourself. You’re not to blame—there are a lot of people trapped in here, but thanks to our circumstances, these people are no longer your responsibility. Now, we’re a big bunch of human beings who need to help each other.”
“How can you be so calm?”
“I’ll have a private breakdown later,” he whispered and winked, but didn’t smile. “We owe it to ourselves and everybody in this group to keep our shit together. I know it’s frightening to most, but we’re alive, and our aim now, is to stay that way.”
“What should I do?”
“I reckon your strengths will come to the fore when needed, but for now, you get back onto the coach, close the door and sit down. Paul and I will go and find the other two guys and see what might have happened.”
“What do you think, Bill?”
“I don’t know what to think, Paul, but I can hear those two fellas calling out somebody’s name, so they haven’t found anybody yet.”
“Maybe the man has fallen over and bumped his head.”
“Yes, you’re probably right.” Bill shone the flashlight several metres ahead, just as he’d done when they had walked in the other direction and deeper into the tunnel. This time they knew they only had to walk about a quarter-mile, or less if they found the others.
“Ken!” Alan and Calvin’s voices were calling out alternately and leaving a brief silence for a response. A weak beam of light was playing left to right up ahead.
Bill and Paul were within thirty metres of the other two men. The original search party stopped and both shone their mobile phones on something on the ground.
“Oh fuck—” Alan hardly managed to speak before he vomited several times.
“Come away,” Calvin said, and then he looked back at the approaching light. “Who’s that?”
“Bill and Paul, mate—what have you found?”
Calvin had an arm around the older man’s shoulders as he continued to retch. “I don’t know if it’s the man we’re looking for, but whoever it is, it’s too late.” At this point, Calvin puked alongside Alan.
Paul said, “What should we—”
“You stay with these two guys—I’ll check it out.”
“I can come with—”
“No, Paul. Stay with these two guys, please.” He paused for thought. “Make sure they don’t wander off.”
Alan, Calvin and Paul stood together within touching distance and the beam of the flashlight played left and right as Bill left them to go ahead to investigate. The beam stopped for a few seconds and then swung left and right, stopping briefly a few times. After a few minutes, Bill returned to his companions.
“Before we get back if anybody asks, we found him and it looks like he tripped and fractured his skull on the metal rail.”
“His body wasn’t nowhere near the rail—”
“Alan, please, trust me on this—he tripped and fractured his skull on the metal rail. Okay?”
“Okay,” Alan murmured. All bravado had left the man who earlier was eager to tackle anybody for any reason.
Bill said, “Calvin, Paul—have you got the story straight?”
“Fell and fractured his skull,” Calvin said.
“I’ve got it,” Paul said. “What do you think really—”
“For now, let’s not go there, but I need you guys to trust me. I’ll think about what we have to do on the way back.
“What about burying him?”
“Alan,” Bill said. “Please try to let it go, mate. In a few hours, there won’t be anything to bury, and besides, all we could do is pile rocks on top of him.” He looked at the three subdued men. “If somebody will come back with me later when that scene has calmed down, I’ll bury his remains as best as I can.”
“I’ll come back with you,” Paul said. “Is it just to hold the flashlight for you?”
“Yes, but that’s all you’d be doing.”
The four men trudged back to the coach, each in a mixed-up world of his own. Three of the men were mystified. Alan and Calvin because they’d set eyes on a mass of voracious rodents feasting—something they’d never forget, and Paul, because he didn’t see it, but had a fair idea what was there.
Bill was mystified, but apart from the horrific scene, he had found two items which caused him to sense that he’d have to tread carefully with every passenger on the bus—there was a killer to find among them.
Dawn was in her usual swivel seat up front, and close to her seated on a wooden box was Steph. The driver’s seat was unoccupied, as were the two front seats on either side nearest the driver and guide.
“How are we doing with our register, ladies?” Bill climbed into the driver’s seat. He was trying to sound upbeat—as he had since the rude awakening of landing in a disused railway tunnel in a luxury tourist coach.
“We’ve only got a few to go now,” Steph said. “Have you got something else lined up when we have the information?”
“I have, but there’s a sequence I’ll need to get right or my plan will go tits-up—sorry, I mean pear-shaped.”
Steph smiled, which brightened her handsome face. She winked. “Don’t worry, we’re big girls.”
Bill resisted the temptation to take the conversation further, but as an ex-soldier, his brain already had the next four responses lined up. Instead of speaking, he glanced at the concentration on Dawn’s face as she worked with her register. Bill looked along the aisle and could see Paul sitting among the passengers. It was fortunate that some of the seats had not been taken on the one-day tour.
“Okay, and these are the last two,” Dawn said, showing her electronic tablet to Steph.
The author wrote the information rapidly onto her pad and stopped. “Okay, job is done. We don’t have to rely on the tablet now, and we’ve registered the name, age, and occupation of everybody onboard—except Ken. We think he was a salesman.”
“What do you mean, you think he was a salesman?”
“That’s what the young woman said—the one he’d been sitting beside.”
“What’s her name?”
“Anne Brown,” Steph whispered and traced a finger down her list. “A florist.”
Bill leant forward and whispered, “Did you two girls wander off with the others when they went to stretch their legs?”
“No,” Dawn said. “Steph stayed with me beside the coach to help me to rearrange and count the bottled water and the boxes of snack bars and things. That’s why we have one box inside now.”
Steph nodded downwards and tapped on the box she was perched on. “What’s on your mind, Bill?” The woman’s bright expression had been replaced with a furrowed brow and squinting eyes.
“Both of you, please, go along with me on this for a minute while I get my head around the circumstances of Ken’s disappearance.”
The two women nodded and gazed at the man for whom no problem seemed insurmountable.
“Let me get this straight.” Bill paused. “When the passengers were told they could stretch their legs and they all got off, are you sure everybody left the coach?”
“Absolutely everybody,” Dawn said with confidence.
“Nobody could have maybe been in the toilet cubicle at the back?”
“No, and I’m certain.”
“Why so certain?”
“When everybody else left the coach I used the toilet, and when I came out two minutes later, Steph was sitting in the coach. She used the toilet and then we were together all the time until everybody came back.”
“Good—you two have just given me hope for building a plan of action.”
The two women exchanged a look of bewilderment and then turned to look at Bill.
“I’m sorry girls, I can’t afford to write anything down so I’m running scenarios and strategies around in my head.” He paused and sipped water from the bottle beside him. Bill looked from the front cabin section of the coach back along the aisle. Alan, Paul, Calvin, Norman and Chloe were all in conversation with others—not each other, which was good. Bill was pretty certain of those five people and they seemed to have endeared themselves to the others.
Dawn said, “Is there anything we could do to help, apart from producing this list of information?”
“How many more of those wooden boxes do you have in the luggage compartment?”
“Five—we carry quite a lot of water at this time of year”
“For that, we should all be eternally grateful.” Bill nodded. “If the compartment is unlocked I’ll borrow a couple of boxes to use as seats. I’d like the sidelights switched on so that I can sit out at the front of the coach to interview our passengers.”
“Do you intend to interview everybody?” Steph said.
“Yes, but don’t worry, it will be painless.” He reached out. “May I?”
“Of course.” Steph handed over her list of passengers. “I take it the interview sessions will be out front so that you have a level of confidentiality?”
“Yes, because we have to ensure we don’t have any more accidents. The easiest way is to ask folk not to wander off, or to discuss things and blur the possible issues.”
Dawn said, “Do you have experience in this sort of thing, Bill?”
“No, but I’ve read lots of good books—talking of which, which genre do you specialise in Steph?”
“Thrillers mainly, but I’ve written other genres too.”
“How many thrillers have you penned?”
“I’ve written ten, and though I don’t want to sound big-headed, they’re pretty successful.”
Bill nodded. “I think I’ve just discovered the ideal person to interview first.”
Steph smiled. “Do you intend to make an announcement that you’re speaking to everybody?”
“What would your opinion be?”
“If I was trying to keep a sense of secrecy, I think stealth would be the way forward.”
“Okay, go on.”
“I’m pleased that we’re dealing with an accident and not something more sinister, but we do have to get the questions right to build up a picture.”
“I follow that, and it’s sound reasoning.”
“Well, how about we go outside and we can use my interview time to help set you up an appropriate approach for your questions?” She paused. “That way, we don’t have to whisper and nobody has to know what we’re discussing.”
“You’ve just given me an idea, and if it works, our chances of success will be improved.”
“What now?” Steph smiled briefly.
“Let’s go outside and grab a couple of those wooden cases to sit on.” He half-turned. “Dawn do you know how to switch on the sidelights?”
“Yes, I know this coach from top to bottom—I just don’t drive it. You two go on and I’ll get to it. I take it nobody is to know what you’re doing?”
“If anybody asks, just say I’m trying to work out a way to keep everybody safe—which is actually the truth.”
“I like that,” Steph said. “Maybe you’ve got more good ideas than you give yourself credit for.”
Bill and Steph stepped down and off the coach when Dawn operated the door. Five minutes later the pair were sitting on boxes opposite each other over the rails at the front of the coach.
Steph said, “Okay, now that we’re out here and Dawn isn’t privy to your latest idea, what’s really on your mind? I’ve been involved in accident investigation at work in my life and you are way beyond the point of that concern.”
“If you didn’t mind, I’d like you to sit in on all the interviews. Ostensibly, it’s to take notes, but with your background in writing thrillers I’m pretty sure you’d have a shrewd mind when it came to spotting something out of the ordinary.”
“I’m flattered at the confidence you’re showing in me, but you still haven’t levelled with me.”
“I’m going to tell you something, and you have to keep a straight face, just in case somebody looks down at us from the front of the coach.”
“I don’t like the sound of this, but go on.”
“Ken didn’t have an accident, Steph.”
“Oh my God. Can you be sure?”
“I’d stake my life on it—whatever time I’ve got left.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“When I reached the blocked tunnel entrance with Paul, the other two guys who were searching were unaware of us and still using the lights on their mobile phones. We were a distance away and approaching when Alan and Calvin discovered Ken. Unless they’re both professional actors their reaction to the scene told me all I had to know. Those two guys were in a state of shock.”
“I know Paul was with you, but how did he react when he saw the body?”
“I didn’t let him see it—I told him to support the other two guys.”
“I’ve seen some pretty gruesome things in my life—I used to be a paramedic. How bad was it?”
“The body was nowhere near the rails, so he didn’t fall and bang his head, but it was severely damaged.” Bill saw no point in mentioning the feeding frenzy he and the others had witnessed. “While the others were being sick I was alone at the scene for a few minutes, and I found two important items. One was a large rock a few feet away, which had a dark stain, and was wet.”
“What was the other item?”
Bill reached into a pocket and produced a small black wallet, showing it to Steph, but shielding it with his body so that nobody on the coach would see what it was. “The warrant card of Detective Sergeant Ken Wallace.”