SHORT FICTION: THE CATHCART CIRCLE JOB by GORDON BROWN

When the parcel arrived that morning, I hadn’t had time to open it and consigned it to the top drawer on my bedside cabinet until later that night when, whisky in hand, I retrieved it and opened it to reveal a sheaf of typed paper. The front page read:

The Definitive Guide—How to Rob a Train.

A Manual

By

Thomas Lionel Walker Armstrong

The memory of Thomas comes flooding back with the force of a slap to the back of the head with a shovel. Thomas Lionel Walker Armstrong had once given me a lift in an ancient Fiat 500, saving me from some men who wanted to rearrange my facial features with menace. My ride with him had been short but painful on the ears. I had been obliged to sit through the car journey, hands folded, listening to how he, Thomas Lionel Walker Armstrong, had, after meeting Bruce Richard Reynolds of the Great Train Robbery fame, sent Bruce a document outlining how he, Thomas Lionel Walker Armstrong, would have undertaken such a robbery. A manual as he had called it. He had asked if I wanted a copy. I had declined. Yet here, apparently, it was. Somehow, he had found me.

I flip to the first page.

My name is Thomas Lionel Walker Armstrong and I am, with no undue deference to myself, a man of wide ranging ability and aptitude. I have, on many occasions, been praised for both my contributions to the lives of other people and my fortitude in the face of adversity. I see it as my role in life to be of service to my fellow man and, to this end, I further add to my life’s oeuvre with this document to act as an addendum to the Thomas Lionel Walker Armstrong legacy.

Thomas typed as if penning a nineteenth-century novel.

It must be understood that what I have produced is a work of extreme exactitude and, on reflection, it has allowed me to identify that there were some basic, and, to me, self-evident errors made back in 1963. 

I wonder if Bruce Reynolds ever saw this document. In 1963, along with a gang of seventeen others, he had robbed the Glasgow to London mail train of over £2.6 million. In the intervening decades it has achieved almost legendary status in the UK psyche for its scale and audacity. When Thomas told me of his manual I doubted that he had really met Bruce, but then again stranger things happen every day, and I would have loved to have been there if Bruce really had read it.

First of all, let me say that this is not a work of fiction, as is my want I practice what I preach. I do not speak of that which I have not undertaken. And, Mr Reynolds, you can be assured that the following is constructed with a most successful robbery under my belt.

I put down the paper. Back in Thomas’s car I had taken him to be a liar from minute one. A man who liked the ratio of talking to listening to be twenty to one in favour of his own voice. He had talked to me with authority about the whole Great Train Robbery, about how he had met Bruce and how he had figured a much better way to execute the theft. But would he really have robbed a train to prove his theory? Or was this all a major Walter Mitty exercise?

I pick up the document again.

If you are wondering what train I chose to practice on you can find more information on the Internet under the search term ‘The Cathcart Circle Job.’

I can’t help myself. I put the paper back down and fiddle with my ancient laptop. I hesitate for a second before entering the term The Cathcart Circle Job into the machine—after all, isn’t every search I’ve ever made been logged and noted by my ISP? What if Thomas had robbed a train? I was in a car with him when he told me about the manual. Should I have reported it? Should I now contact the police about the so-called The Cathcart Circle Job?

I shake my head. I’m being stupid. The man was an idiot. I type.

I’m surprised to find that there are a couple of hits. The first explains that the Cathcart Circle is the name for part of the rail network that services the south side of Glasgow. This I know. I use it almost daily. Eleven stops that circle back to Glasgow Central station. Although trains loop round the stations the circle also has a couple of branch lines that run off to the more outlining areas of the cities’ surrounds. In total, the network comprises twenty-one stations, including Glasgow Central, and is heavily used.

The second hit on the screen is a website I’ve never heard of before, www.tellmeitisntreal.com. Fearful that I’m about to click on some virus or porn ridden Trojan horse I look at the other hits beneath it, but the relevant ones all link back to the tellmeitisntreal website.

Before delving deeper I decide to read a bit more from Thomas’s musings.

My planning, for what is now known as The Cathcart Circle Job, was meticulous. It forms the basis of the seven-step plan that functions as an appendix to this paper. A guide that I am in the process of patenting.

Can you patent a method for robbery?

If you wish for me to send this seven-step guide it will require a transfer of funds. I am charging one thousand pounds per copy, plus the signing of a non-disclosure agreement, before I will despatch it.

I can’t see Bruce falling for that one.

To prove that my guide is worth such a stipend I direct you to not only the success of the Cathcart Circle Job, but to the unprecedented secrecy that surrounds the event. This is due, in no small part, to the authorities desire to keep my methodology out of the public domain. To give you some idea of the scale of my endeavours, and noting that this was nothing but a small trial run, I managed to acquire over one million pounds Sterling from The Cathcart Circle Job.

I pause again. I’m fairly sure that if someone had stolen a million quid from a local train, authorities desire for secrecy or not, that I would have heard about it. I turn back to the link on my screen. I play it safe and type into the search box the words, Tellmeitisntreal scam site. My machine groans a little and the barely functioning broadband spits out answers. Reading through the headlines it transpires that the website is legit. A place where people post the obscure—seeking feedback and validation of their stories. I decide that it’s worth a look, back-track to the original link and click on it.

The website is slick. Not an amateur job. At least in my limited view it looks pukka. The Cathcart Circle Job link is a post by a member called Weirdjonny23. It’s short and to the point: Can anyone tell me if they have heard of The Cathcart Circle Job?

There are two replies laid out beneath the question. The first simply states that a million pounds has gone missing. The second calls it the most daring train robbery in Scottish history. Weirdjonny23 has asked for more information but the last post was a few months ago. There’s nothing else.

I return to Thomas’s paper.

The simple fact that this robbery has never been reported tells you all that you need to know about how infallible my guide would be for future ventures. I need not enter into any further details at this stage, for fear of revealing too much. After all stage magicians do not write to lesser magicians telling them their secrets.

I bet Bruce would have loved been called a ‘lesser magician.’

In order to reassure you of my best intentions I have placed the guide with a legal entity that I trust. On the payment of one thousand pounds to myself, I shall instruct the release of the guide to yourself, after you have signed the attached non-disclosure agreement.

I thank you for your attention and it leaves me only the sad duty of informing you that had I been part of your attempt to rob the TPO in 1963 that you would have fared better.

Thomas Lionel Walker Armstrong

The rest of the document is not, as I thought, the ‘guide’ to the perfect robbery, but is the NDA that needs to be signed.

I place the pile of paper on the bedside cabinet and type in a few more variants on The Cathcart Circle Job into Google, but get nowhere. As an accountant, I’m used to scammers and charlatans. I seem to attract more than my fair share of shady customers and, as I knock back the last of the whisky, I dismiss the whole thing as the ravings of an idiot and hit the pillow.

Two days later I’m riding the Cathcart Circle and I still have that stupid document front of mind. I know that it’s just a piece of nonsense and I would have forgotten all about it, if it wasn’t for the two replies to the website query. Every time I think on it I tell myself it’s a load of pig filth. And, yet, the thought of someone getting away with a million-pound robbery is too tempting to bin.

On an impulse I pull out my phone and dial George, a friend who once, with his partner Tina, had saved my life. George has contacts in low places that would know about million pound robberies.

‘George?’

‘Hi, Charlie.’

‘George this is a daft question.’

‘Really,’ he says. ‘From you?’

‘I know but this is daft, even for me. Have you ever heard of ‘The Cathcart Circle Job?’

‘The what?’

‘A train robbery on the Cathcart Circle.’

He laughs. ‘Are you still on about the Great Train Robbery?’

Tina, George and I had had a run in with some of the gang members of the Great Train Robbery a while back. ‘Kind of. Remember I told you about a man who gave me a lift and told me all about the Great Train Robbery?’

‘Thomas someone?’

‘That’s him.’

‘And.’

‘Well, he sent me a plan?’

‘A plan?’

‘Well he doesn’t call it a plan, he calls it a manual. In it he claims that a million pounds was stolen from a train in something called the Cathcart Circle Job. He says that he did it and that no one knows about it.’

Understandably George laughs at this.

‘A million quid?’ says George, giggling. ‘From a commuter train? And no one knows? Come on, Charlie. Have you been drinking?’

I shrug to myself. ‘What I thought. Sorry to bother you.’

He’s still laughing when I hang up on him.

I lean back in my chair, trying to leave the damn thought alone.

‘Charlie Wiggs?’ 

The question comes from a young man decked out in a denim jacket; a brown satchel is wrapped over his shoulder. He’s sitting on the seat behind me. I have no idea who he is.

‘Sorry?’ I say.

‘You’re Charlie Wiggs.’

‘And you are?’

‘Tim Rothman.’

I’m none the wiser. He can tell I’m confused and explains, ‘I heard you mention the Great Train Robbery. You were involved with some of the robbers recently. Weren’t you?’

‘Sorry I don’t…’ I leave it hanging.

‘I couldn’t help but overhear your call.’

‘Overhear what?’

‘About the, what did you call it, the Cathcart Circle Job. Something to do with a million pounds being stolen.’

I stand up. This isn’t a conversation I want to have. I walk to the door. The next stop is Central Station and it can’t come quick enough.

Tim follows me.

I stare at the door, willing the train to speed up.

Tim taps me on the shoulder. ‘Look, Charlie, I’ll be straight. I’m a freelance reporter.’

Shit.

‘That conversation you had on the phone was way too interesting for me to leave. Can we chat?’

I turn around. ‘Look, can you leave me alone? That call was private.’

‘A bit too loud for that, Charlie. Come on a quick chat.’

The train is still a few minutes from the platform. 

He presses me. ‘You said a man gave you a lift. That he talked about The Great Train Robbery.’

I should learn to be more careful when I call someone in public. I look at him. ‘Just leave me alone. It was a private joke.’

He shakes his head. ‘I don’t think so.’ 

I could knock the smile from his lips. 

‘You mentioned you had a…what did you call it? A manual.’

‘Look…’

He interrupts. ‘So do you possess a manual on how to steal a million pounds from a train?’

The platform crawls into sight. I’ve never known a train to move so slowly.

‘It’s nothing to do with me,’ I state. ‘Now leave me alone.’

‘So, there is such a document.’ He pulls a digital recorder from his pocket. ‘A quick quote would be good.’

At last the train crawls to a halt. I’m out of the doors before they are half open and I sprint to the exit, leaving Tim trailing.

I spend the rest of the day boring myself to death over my client’s financial woes but the encounter with the reporter weighs on my mind. I said way too much on the phone to George. But what of it. It’s all a pile of idiocy. The plan is a nonsense document constructed by someone floating on the edge of sanity.

 I’m tidying up with my last client and thinking about a glass of beer and a hot soak, trying to dismiss the whole thing, when my phone rings. Tina’s number flashes up.

‘Hi Tina.’

‘Charlie, have you seen the Internet?’ She sounds flustered.

‘Frequently.’

She ignores my attempt at humour. ‘Look up the Daily Record website. Type in your name.’

‘Why.’

‘Just do it.’

I have that feeling that comes just before the world is about to dump on me. I’ve had experience of such feelings more times than I ever wanted. My inner alarm is ringing all the way to the top floor. I pull my laptop from my briefcase and wait while it fires up. I connect to the Internet. After a few false starts I find the article Tina is talking about on the Daily Record website. A headline flashes at the top of the page:

Did Someone Steal a Million Pounds from a Glasgow Train?

I read on, depressed.

A story is circulating that someone may have pulled off one of the biggest heists in Scottish history. But is true or is it a hoax? Charlie Wiggs, of Shawlands, the man recently involved with the Great Train Robbers, admitted that a plan exists to rob a million pounds from a Cathcart Circle train. Further enquiries have revealed that people have been asking about what is known as the Cathcart Circle Job and that some believe as much as a million pounds has been stolen. Details are thin but with the involvement of Charlie Wiggs, maybe there is something to this. If you have any information please get in touch, after all, if someone is down a million quid maybe there’s a reward waiting in the wings.

The reporter’s name is Tim Rothman.

By the time I arrive at my home there are three reporters and a TV camera squatting on my doorstep. I rush past shouting, ‘No comment.’ Once inside I sink a beer in two slugs and fill the bath.

A few hours later I emerge feeling a little more relaxed. I tune into the ten o’clock news and, fearing I’ve made the big time, wait on the regional Scottish news to come on. I’m not disappointed. The last article takes Tim’s story and builds on it. A shot of my house is centre stage and the piece starts with me rushing to my door shouting, ‘No comment.’ The report then cuts to some commuters who are more than willing to say that it’s quite possible that someone could have had that much money on them. Why not? One commuter adds that she had seen some very big bags on the trains lately and that they could easily hold that sort of cash. The anchor is smiling when the camera cuts back to her.

I have to turn off my mobile and disconnect the land line half an hour after the news finishes to stop the constant ringing.

I decide to go to bed, praying that the story will run out of wind by the morning. After all there’s nothing to it other than Thomas’s ravings. 

At seven-thirty the next morning the doorbell rings and I’ve barely slept. I slink downstairs and sneak a look through the curtains. My heart sinks. Police. Two of them. Both are looking straight at me as I peak at them. I let them in.

An hour later they leave, Thomas’s ‘manual’ in hand. They all but laughed as I explained the story. They apologise for having to interview me but it seems my story is trying to break the Internet and they had to be sure there was nothing behind it.

I decide to call my clients and inform them that today isn’t a good day for me and that I won’t be seeing them as planned. I power up my mobile and it exhibits the traits of a mad monkey on caffeine. Sixty-six missed calls and thirty-eight messages. I shut it down. I’ll make my apologies to my valued clientele once things have calmed down a little.

I spend the rest of the morning blanking the doorbell, ignoring notes under the door, swearing at raps on the window and dodging sundry other attempts to entice me from my cave.

Mid-morning I risk a surf on the Internet. 

It reveals that I’ve become a minor star. The lack of factual substance to any robbery hasn’t prevented the web from expanding and speculating. The existence of Thomas’s ‘manual,’ presumably leaked from the police, has put Thomas Lionel Walker Armstrong’s name into play. He’s rapidly eclipsing my newly found fame. And, like me, has gone to ground.

The rest of the day crawls by—a snail across glue. At just after five o’clock, George turns up. He has a key to my place and bypasses the one remaining reporter before nipping in.

When I hear the door open I leap out of my chair.

‘Sorry to scare you, Charlie?’ he says as he enters the living room.

He slumps into my armchair. A small cloud of dust rises, reminding me that I’ve been neglecting my cleaning chores. 

He can’t hide a grin. ‘So, when do you move house?’

My face creases, ‘Move?’

‘With your new-found millions, I’d have thought a more salubrious place of abode would be high on the agenda.’

‘Funny guy. Millions is it now?’

George pats the chair, raising more dust. ‘I went for a pint with a few of the lads last night. John Michaels reckons a big suitcase could hold a good three or four million pounds.’

‘Suitcase?’

‘Aye, the woman on the TV last night was talking about how big the cases on the trains were.’

Mother.

‘Do you mean the commuter they interviewed?’ I say. ‘Come on. Really? She saw nothing. Because there was nothing to see.’

‘The lads have got you down as the next Ronnie Biggs.’

‘I wish the hell I’d never phoned you.’

George rolls his eyes. ‘Me?’

‘Aye. From the train. That’s where that nosey wee shit of a reporter overheard me talking to you about that stupid manual.’

‘Well that’ll teach you. So do you think there was a robbery?’

I want to spit. ‘No. Bloody no. It’s all bollocks. How could anyone steal a million pounds from a train and no one know about it?’

‘I wouldn’t say no one knows about it. It’s all over the news.’ George leans back. ‘And if I was you, I’d be expecting the begging letters soon. New money always attracts the vultures.’

‘Look.’ I’m nearly shouting. ‘I’ll fetch you a whisky if you promise to say no more about the bloody thing.’

George nods. ‘Sounds fair.’

An hour later he leaves but, just before he exits, he says, ‘Tina wants a word. Says you’re not answering your phone.’

‘Are you surprised? I’ve had it switched off.’

‘Can you call her?’

‘Okay.’ I sigh.

Once George has vanished I risk switching on the mobile. I ignore the frantic signals to retrieve calls and dial Tina.

‘Hi,’ she answers. ‘So the rich are deigning to converse with the masses.’

‘Enough, Tina, enough. George said you wanted to talk.’

‘I think I might have figured out what’s going on with this train robbery thing.’

‘Sorry.’

‘There’s more to all this than someone with a daft plan.’

‘Like what?’ 

‘I think you should look up Amazon?’

I grunt. ‘Do I need to? I’ve had enough of the Internet. What the hell for?’

‘I think you’ve been used, Mr Wiggs.’

‘Used?’

‘Type in Thomas Lionel Walker Armstrong into the search bar on Amazon.’

I scrub some grit from my eyes, close down the call and pull out my laptop.

A few minutes later I’m staring at a page on Amazon and repeating a single word over and over: ‘Bastard, bastard, bastard.’

Three days later I’m standing outside Pollok FC’s football ground, not far from my home. I’m staring up at a sky engorged with water and fit to burst. 

A little further down the road from where I’m standing is a pub. The pub has a function room. Outside the function room sits a truck; the letters STV branded on its side. A snake of cable runs from the truck into the building, passing near a small crowd that has gathered at the function room’s entrance.

Next to the truck, parked a country mile from the kerb, is a scruffy Fiat 500. I recognise the car. It belongs to one Thomas Lionel Walker Armstrong.

 In the gathering murk the car’s dents and scratches highlight how well used it has been. And that’s the way I feel. Well used.

I trudge towards the crowd. I have no intention of going in. No desire to enter the function room. Even though I crave an encounter with the man who has hired out the room, I know better and will remain outside.

The ridiculous woolly bunnet on my head accompanied by the overwrapped scarf, wound around my face, are there to provide anonymity. The story that I had hoped would blow over is still strong. I’ve been confined to quarters and this is the first fresh air I’ve tasted in seventy-two hours. A print-out of the page Tina directed me to on Amazon is stuffed in my pocket. 

The function room door opens and the crowd wander in as the first of the rain sprays off the concrete at my feet. 

A few minutes later I hear a small ripple of applause from inside.

The sound is a cue for a woman, heavily made up, to jump from the TV truck and zip into the building. 

Behind me a man hustles up and tries to squeeze by. ‘Excuse me?’

I turn around.

A small man in a dark grey anorak asks me, ‘Are you going to the book launch?’

‘No.’

‘Oh, but you must. I’m a friend of the author, my names Sam Kidlow. It’s a great read.’

He stands there and I realise that I’m blocking the entrance. Unconsciously I’ve crept towards the door. I step to one side.

‘A cracking idea for a book,’ he says. ‘I hear a movie company has optioned the rights.’ 

He jogs in.

I watch the door swing closed behind him. Another burst of applause breaks out. I reach in and extract the Amazon print-out from my pocket. I open it up. 

A picture of a book stares up at me. The book’s cover is the schematic map of the Cathcart Circle with a large sack of cash overlaid. Crude, as if done by an amateur on PowerPoint. Next to the book squats some copy:

The Cathcart Circle Job

a novel

by Thomas Lionel Walker Armstrong

The untold story of the most daring train robbery in Scottish history.

Some laughter leaks from the function room.

I stare down at the print out.

Beneath the description of the book lies a single review. 

‘A cracking idea. If you want to know how to steal a million pounds I would buy this book today.’ —Sam Kidlow

Sam has rated the book five stars.

More laughter mixes with the rain as it teems down. I crumple up the print-out and throw it at the Fiat 500.

I begin to walk away. 

Then, despite myself, I let a weak smile drift over my lips.

Thomas Lionel Walker Armstrong may have come across as an idiot to me but he’s no fool.