Fred Russell rolled up his shirt sleeves and then adjusted his straw boater to keep the sun out of his eyes. It was crowded on the paddle steamer, the ‘Duke of Cambridge’ on this pleasant summer morning as it ploughed its way up the Thames towards Kew Gardens.
The steady rhythm of the steam engine and the splashing of the two giant paddle wheels mixed with the chatter of families and the noises of other river craft. Fred nervously glanced at his picnic basket that he had stowed under a nearby seat. There was standing room only and it would not do to lose his basket. He had planned this day with his usual meticulous thoroughness.
That is what they had written on his reference from the Bank of England when they told him they would have to let him go. ‘Mister Frederick Russell is meticulous, thorough and entirely trustworthy.....’ Fred smiled to himself, they were right on two out of the three. With luck they would never find out how wrong they were on the last, however Fred never trusted to luck. By the end of the day Fred Russell would disappear and Frank Mitchell would take his place. He had all the papers to establish his new identity in his jacket pocket inside the picnic basket, that and two thousand slightly tattered, used, untraceable, five pound notes.
Fred’s plan had hatched several years earlier after he had been transferred to the currency destruction department where they burnt old notes that were too worn or defaced to be used further. The number of each note had to be entered into the huge ledger that was Fred’s responsibility, That way should any note escape its fiery fate or a counterfeit of the same number appear then there would be a record. By the end of the first year Fred had noted that nobody had ever asked to check a single number. That was when he had the idea. He could simply pocket a note every now and then and nobody would be any the wiser. The chaps feeding the incinerator only checked the total number of bundles and never actually checked the number of notes. There was still the problem of the number in the ledger though. If anyone did ever check it then any note he used could be traced. Then it struck him, all he had to do was to make a ‘mistake’ in writing in the number, easy enough to mistake a 8 for a 3 or a 1 for a 7 on an old worn note. So each day he kept an eye out for suitable notes and carefully hid them in a secret pocket in his jacket.
Fred had been careful not to spend many of the notes while he was still working, too lavish a life style would be noticed. He had taken quite a while to work out just how he was going to vanish. During his holidays he had started visiting graveyards, looking for one of an infant boy of roughly his own age and parents who had also died within a few years, that would help avoid difficult questions. He had found Frank Mitchell’s grave and that of his parents, they had all died in a house fire on the same day. That was just what he was looking for. Getting a copy of Frank’s Birth Certificate was easy and after that establishing his alternate identity by renting a cheap room in Kew he visited most weekends. After a few months he was able to set up a bank account using the landlord as a reference and was set, the bank could be used to provide proof of identity for almost anything, even a passport.
Fred worked methodically towards his goal. Ten thousand pounds would see him living in comfort for the rest of his life. Now he just needed to work out how to get the bank to let him go without raising their suspicions. One day as he was entering a false number into the ledger it struck him. He could use the very ploy he was using to steal the money to help him escape this terrible job. Gradually he started taking notes to the head of the department that were particularly worn and asking for a second opinion on the numbers. Over a month he increased the frequency of his visits and then started taking notes that were easily readable. Eventually the head of department sent him to have his eyes tested. Failing an eye test was child’s play. A week later they had given him his notice, a good reference, even a farewell tea.
On this his first day of freedom he had packed the money from the chest under his bed into the picnic basket, walked out of his rooms with a cheery wave to the landlord and walked down to the river. He would never return.
As the ship neared the moorings at Kew Gardens people started moving around so as to be ready to disembark. Several children started pushing to get to the head of the queue. As he was jostled towards the railing Fred grabbed at the picnic box and joined the throng. As the passengers headed towards the entrance of the gardens Fred took a side path that led him away from the park and towards the lodging house where they knew him as Frank.
Setting the picnic box on the bed Fred opened it to look at his ill-gotten gains and his face fell. Sandwiches, cake and bottles of ginger beer ...