Case for Sergeant Beef, Chapter Twenty-Two

Case for Sergeant Beef

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO
   
MRS. PLUCK’S PAST

“Anybody would think we were commercial travellers or employed on finding out people’s opinions for a Gallup Poll,” I said next day as we reached the village of Pitley.  “We seem to do nothing but knock on people’s doors and ask questions.”
“We’ve got to find out the truth,” said Beef.  “People won’t tell you things unless you ask.  Besides, you ought to be pleased with this one.  It’s the first young lady we’ve had in this case.”
“Young married woman,” I pointed out.
“And that takes away all the glamour, does it?”
But I must say it didn’t.  When Mrs. Muckroyd opened the door to us I caught my breath and wondered how she could be the daughter of the grim Mrs. Pluck.  She looked only about nineteen and was, if I may use the word, dainty in the extreme.  The pale winter sun caught her fair hair and her eyes were blue and gay.  She was smiling and would I think have been friendly and pleasant if Beef had not put his foot in it and announced in his coarse and brutal way that he had “come about the murder”.
Her face changed in a moment.  She looked startled, as well she might.
“What?” she cried.
“The murder over at Barnford.”
Her reaction this time was instantaneous.
“Jim!” she called.
Jim Muckroyd who emerged from an inner room was six foot four of solid Yorkshire manhood.  I could well believe he had been a sergeant-major in the Commandos.
“What is it?” he asked.
“They . . . you tell him . . .” she gasped to Beef.
Beef stood his ground.
“Morning, Sergeant-major,” he said.  “I’m investigating the death of a man named Shoulter over at Barnford, and there’s a little information Mrs. Muckroyd could help us with.”
I think all of us became aware at this point that a head was over the garden wall to our left and the door to our right had opened suspiciously.
“Better come in,” said Jim Muckroyd, and we trooped into a warm little kitchen.  On the table were the remains of the young couple’s midday meal.  There was a chair for each of us.  Beef began talking.
“Thought I’d better tell you straight out what we wanted.  No good pretending that we’d come to sell something and get into conversation that way.  It’s like this.  I’m not the police.  I’ve retired from that.  Private investigator, see?  Working for Miss Shoulter.  And trying to find out who killed her brother.”
“What can we tell you?” asked Jim Muckroyd.  “I wasn’t even here.  Only got released three days ago.”
“Ah.  But you see Mrs. Muckroyd was over there that night.  Seeing her mother.”
“That’s right,” said the girl, who seemed to have recovered.  “Mum wrote to me to come over.  She wanted to see me particular.”
“What time did you meet her?”
“About seven.”
“Half a minute,” said Muckroyd.  “Let’s get this straight.  Is my wife’s mother suspected of having anything to do with this murder?”
Beef coughed.
“Well, it’s like this,” he said.  “Mrs. Pluck can’t make up her mind to speak out straight.  I won’t say she’s suspected and I won’t say she’s not.  But when anyone won’t talk out, and tells you things that turn out not to be true, you’ve got to follow up and find out the real facts.  The best service you can do her is to tell me the gospel.”
Jim Muckroyd and Beef stared at one another for a few moments, then the Yorkshireman seemed to make up his mind to trust Beef.
“Tell him what you know, lass,” he said shortly to his wife.
“But I don’t know anything!  And you ought to be ashamed of yourself thinking bad about my mother.  She’s one of the best.  What she’s done for me you’d not believe—bringing me up and everything.  And she’s so kind-hearted she wouldn’t hurt a fly.  I know she couldn’t have had anything to do with it.”
“Then if you’ll speak out we’ll soon get her clear.  Now what was this urgent business she wanted to see you about on Christmas Eve?”
The girl’s voice was so low that I scarcely caught her words.
“It was money,” she said.  “She needed some money.”
“Ah.  Were you surprised?  Or has she ever wanted money before?”
“Never.  I was terribly surprised.  Mum doesn’t drink and doesn’t spend anything on herself.  And she’s got a good job.  She wouldn’t tell me what it was for, either.  I could see she was ever so worried.  I asked her if she’d been gambling, and she said of course not.  I couldn’t get the truth out of her.  It was something she didn’t mean me to know.  All she’d say was that it was for the sake of my happiness and she had to have ten pounds at once.”
“And did you give it to her?”
“Not at once.  Jim was still away.  I had to draw it out of the Post Office, but I sent it over a few days later.  Then a funny thing happened.  It came back by return of post.  She said she did not need it now.  Things had changed.”
“She seemed worried that night?”
“Ever so worried.  Not herself a bit.  I could see something was wrong.”
“What sort of thing?”
“Something big.  Mum isn’t one to get worried.  I’d never seen her like that before.”
“Anything to do with her job?”
“I don’t think so.  She seemed to like that all right.  She laughed a bit about the old fellow she worked for.  But he treated her all right and she never said a word against him.  No, it was something else, I think.  She’s had a hard life, you know.  Father dying when I was a baby and that.”
“Do you happen to know, Mrs. Muckroyd, where your mother met your father and where they were married?”
Mrs. Muckroyd seemed surprised.
“Why, at her home at Pittenden, I suppose.  Mum’s father was a farmer there.  I always understood from her that she’d married while she was still at home.  Why?”
“Because I think I can find out what was on your mother’s mind.  Now you say you met her at seven?”
“Yes.  She was standing waiting outside the post office when the bus came in.  We went round to Mrs. Wilks’s and sat there talking.  Then I left her to catch the last bus at ten o’clock.”
“Other times you’ve met her lately she’s seemed herself, has she?”
“Well . . . yes.  But soon after she started to work for this Mr. Chickle there was something that upset her.  Then she seemed to get over that.  I wish you could find out what it’s all about.”
I did not speak, but I thought I knew.  When she had taken the job at “Labour’s End” she had heard the name Shoulter as one of Mr. Chickle’s neighbours, and then she had learnt that Miss Shoulter had a ne’er-do-well brother and realized that it was none other than the husband who had deserted her many years before.  But her state of mind on Christmas Eve had been caused by the fact that Shoulter had found her out and was demanding money, threatening to go over and see her daughter and tell her who he was if Mrs. Pluck did not give him what he asked.  The woman obviously loved her daughter and would do anything to shield her.  The question was, had she gone to the length of murder? No one knowing Mrs. Pluck could doubt that she was capable of it.  I looked at the pretty, rather distressed girl and hoped that this would turn out not to be the truth.
Suddenly, as we sat there, the front door could be heard opening and in a moment the kitchen door too.  Mrs. Pluck was standing there, a really horrified expression on her gaunt face.
“Oh!  They’ve got here! You haven’t told them anything, Mabs?”
“Why, Mum, whatever’s the matter?” cried Mrs. Muckroyd, running to her.
Mrs. Pluck was sobbing.
“I knew they’d come and question you.  I knew they would.  What have you told them?”
“Why, nothing, Mum.  There was nothing to tell.  Only about my meeting you that night and your being worried lately.”
Jim Muckroyd told her to sit down.
“Far best speak out,” he said.  “You’ve got nowt to hide.”
“You don’t know.  You don’t understand.” She turned to Beef.  “I told you I never had anything to do with the murder.  It was as much a shock to me as anyone.  Why can’t you leave us alone?”
“You place us in an embarrassing situation, Mrs. Pluck,” I volunteered, since I could see that the situation was one which called for tact.  “It is our business to find out the whole truth of this.  You did mislead us at first.”
“Only because I didn’t tell you I’d met Mabel that night.  I didn’t want her dragged into it.”
“Still, you will admit that it was most misleading.  Sergeant Beef and I have had to go to a great deal of trouble to find out the truth.  And even now you won’t tell us what is worrying you.”
“I haven’t said anything’s worrying me, have I?”
“You know there is something,” put in her daughter.
Mrs. Pluck put away her handkerchief and turned with an angry look to Beef.
“I’ll tell you what is worrying me,” she said.  “All this nosing and prying into the private business of folks that is nothing to do with anyone except themselves.  Call yourself a detective and go and tell poor Emma Wilks you’re a friend of mine to get Mabel’s address then come over here startling the life out of her about a murder she doesn’t know anything about.  It’s right down mean and cunning, and if there’s any way I can have the Law on you I will.”
Beef looked rather sheepish, but help came from an unexpected quarter.  Jim Muckroyd seemed to have the old-fashioned notion that men should stand together under feminine assault and had sensed that Beef meant no harm to him or his wife.  He rallied with a quiet interpolation.
“Take it easy, Ma,” he said.  They’ve got their job to do like everyone else, and you did lead “em up the garden.  Now what is it you want to know from her?”
There was a very tense silence.
“I want to know the name of her first husband,” announced Beef solemnly.
Jim Muckroyd blinked.
“And you’ll go so far as to say that the name of my mother-in-law’s first husband has something to do with finding out who did this murder?”
“Sergeant Beef never asks questions out of mere curiosity,” I put in loyally.
“I’ll go so far as to say that it might have,” said Beef.
“All right then.  What was it, Ma?”
“I’ve told him once,” Mrs. Pluck retorted sulkily.  “I’ve only been married once.  His name was Pluck.”
Beef stood up, and I followed his example.  Jim Muckroyd came out with us, shutting the kitchen door behind him.  When we reached the road he gave us a slow smile.
The old girl’s all right,” he said.  “I know her.  She’s been too wrapped up in the wife.”
“I can see that,” said Beef, and becoming more human added: “And nobody can’t blame her.  You’re a lucky man, Sergeant-major.”
“Dare say I am.  I’d like to know that this business was cleared up though.  Not a good thing having your mother-in-law questioned about a murder.  When do you think you’ll know the truth?”
“You may not like the truth,” said Beef.
“You don’t think the old lady did it, do you?
'I didn’t say that, did I?  There’s a lot of things I’ve got to find out before I say who did it.  But when you start what she calls nosing and prying you sometimes have to find out things that are best forgotten, see?  Still, if anything should come up which won’t be very pleasant for you to hear, I don’t think it would make much difference to you and your young missus, would it?”
Jim Muckroyd smiled.
“No,” he said.  “There’s nothing could do that.  Still, I’d like to know the old girl’s out of it.  She’s a good sort.”
We all shook hands and Beef seemed relieved as Jim Muckroyd returned to his house.
“Nice young couple, that,” he announced.  “It’s a good thing we meet some decent folk now and again in these cases.  We see plenty of the other sort.”
I heartily agreed.

Case for Sergeant Beef, Chapter Twenty-One

Case for Sergeant Beef

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE
   
A NICE YOUNG COUPLE

Once again Beef took his information to Chatto.  I thought that this time there was something a trifle patronizing in the C.I.D. man’s manner.  Or if not patronizing, perhaps encouraging, as though he considered Beef a younger and less experienced man who must be kept going by kindness.
Without comment Beef described the marks on the tree near Mr. Chickle’s house and left the inspector to draw what conclusions he chose from them.  Chatto scribbled a note but said nothing.  When Beef referred to the evening on which we had watched Mr. Chickle with the outsize shoes, Chatto nodded impatiently.
“Yes,” he said.  “Chickle has reported that and brought in his finds.”
“Good.”
Chatto shewed some interest in Bridge’s story, particularly his account of the man in the raincoat.  It was agreed by all three of us that the man was Flipp, but the conclusions that each of us drew from the fact may have varied.  In the matter of the red tape Chatto nodded.  It was when Beef produced the Christmas card and described where it had been found that Chatto was really enlivened.
“That’s about the last straw,” he said.  “I think we may as well arrest Flipp.”
“Think so?” said Beef.  “Of course you know your business best, but it looks a bit circumstantial to me.  Nothing really to convince a jury with.  And Flipp’s not the man to plead guilty.”
Chatto looked mysterious.
“We’ve got something else,” he said quietly.  “The poison book.  Hidden under the floorboards in Shoulter’s room.  Flipp bought the morphine all right.  Signed for it under the name of Phelps two weeks before his wife died.  Our handwriting experts say there isn’t a doubt of it.”
“Then why not arrest him for the murder of his wife?  You seem to have a better case than what you’ve got here.”
Chatto shook his head.
“It needs the two cases,” he said.  “Much more convincing.  But why do you want me to wait?  Have you got another, iron in the fire?”
“Not what you could call an iron.  But I should like to know a little more about Mrs. Pluck.  She wasn’t on the bus that Christmas Eve.”
“Oh, Mrs. Pluck,” said Chatto in a voice which implied that he had no interest in the woman at all.
“Well, there are some rather queer things about Mrs. Pluck,” apologized Beef.
“How long do you think it will take to clear them up?”
“Give me three days.”
Chatto thought for a minute.
“It’s true that I would like to get something a bit more concrete before arresting Flipp.  We’ve got motive, opportunity, and presence near the scene of the crime.  But they don’t constitute a final proof.  I don’t think we shall make an arrest before next week-end.”
“That’s good,” said Beef.  “That’ll give me time to clear up all my points.  Chickle’s going away for a few days tomorrow.”
“Yes,” said Chatto, as though anxious to shew that he knew as much as or more than Beef about Chickle’s movements.  “To stay with his old friend Flusting in South London.  Neighbouring shopkeepers for twenty years, I understand.”
“Some Lodge,” said Beef.  That’ll give me a chance for a nice quiet chat with Mrs. Pluck tomorrow.”
“You’re welcome,” said Chatto.
But the “nice quiet chat”, as Beef had called it, turned out to be one of the most interesting conversations among the many in this loquacious case.
“Come in,” she said wearily, as though she had guessed that sooner or later we should arrive at the door with the object of questioning her.  “What is it this time?”
Beef slowly lowered himself into a chair.
“How’s Mr. Chickle?”
She looked up suspiciously.
“Why?”
Beef gave a ponderous shrug of his shoulders.
“Just wondered.”
“Well, if you want to know, he’s been funny.  Very funny.”
This common, but curious, misuse of the language did not seem to perturb Beef.
“In what way?” he asked.
“Ever since it happened, he won’t hardly speak.  He’s all right with you, I dare say, but it’s my belief he puts that on.  He used to be nice and chatty and always have a civil word when he met me.  Now he looks as though he’s seen a ghost half the time.  Proper miserable.  And he’s off his food.”
“Worrying?”
“Well, not so much worrying as miserable.  Anybody’d think he’d lost all his money.  I can’t make it out at all.  It’s something to do with the murder, because up to that afternoon he was right as a trivet.  Used to laugh to himself.  Thought himself someone, too.  D’you know one day after he’d been sitting in his room writing, he turned round to me and said—‘I’m a remarkable man, Mrs. Pluck.’  ‘Are you, sir?’ I said.  Well, I mean, what could you say?  ‘Yes,’he says, ‘and what’s more,’ he says, ‘the time will come when everyone’ll recognize it.’  ‘Indeed, sir?’  ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘long after my death, of course.’  And he laughs away to himself as though he was pleased as Punch.  But he’s not been like that since the murder, I can tell you.”
“Ah,” put in Beef encouragingly.  Then, since Mrs. Pluck volunteered no more information, he added:  “Did you ever see that big pair of lady’s shoes he had?”
She gave a croak of laughter.
“Did I not?  He had them brought home with a lot of old shoes he bought at the jumble sale.  Nothing any good except a pair of carpet slippers he took to and wore every night.  When I first saw them I asked him, whatever sort of an elephant they were made for, but he didn’t say a word, and I dare say that was because they’d belonged to Miss Shoulter and I’ve always fancied he was a bit sweet on her.  Well, they were lying about for weeks, then I never saw them again till a few nights ago when he brought them home wrapped up in an old bit of mackintosh after I’d gone to bed one evening.  Well, it was the night you came to see him last.  Next morning he saw me looking at them and spoke very sharp.  ‘Don’t touch those!’ he said.  ‘They’re for the police.’  And that was all.”
Beef spoke as sharply as Chickle must have done.
“Did you ever wear them?”
“Wear them?  Me?  I’d have been lost in them.”
“Did you even try them on?”
“No.  I did not.”
“I see.  Now there’s something I’m going to ask you straight and I want a straight answer.  What did you do on Christmas Eve?”
“I told you—”
“You told me you took the bus to Ashley and you never did nothing of the sort.  I want to know where you were.”
Mrs. Pluck’s long lips remained pressed close together.
“Come on, now.  Better speak straight out.  We shall get to know sooner or later.”
“It wasn’t anything special.  If you must know I met my daughter.”
“Where?”
“Well, we had nowhere to go for a chat.  I’d written to her to come over and meet me at the bus stop.  Then we went round to the house of a lady who’s a friend of mine.  I suppose you’ll want to know who she was, so I may as well tell you.  It was Mrs. Wilks, and we sat in her back room for an hour.”
“You must have wanted to see her urgent,” commented Beef.
“Not extra.  Only it was Christmas Eve and anyone likes to see her own daughter then, don’t they?”
“What did you talk about?”
“Family business.”
“Was Mrs. Wilks there?”
“No.  She left us together.  Well, it was private.”
“What time were you there till?”
“Last bus for Ashley.”
“You went straight from that house to the bus station?”
“Yes.”
“And came straight home?”
“Yes.”
“Never went up the path at all?”
“Certainly not.  And just as well I didn’t with a dead corpse lying there all the time.”
“Did you have anything to say to your daughter about your husband?”
“My husband? I told you he left me nearly twenty years ago.”
“You told me a lot of things.  And some of them were lies.”
“My daughter thinks he’s dead.”
“And is he?”
“1 don’t know and I don’t care.”
Mrs. Pluck was breathing heavily.  I thought that my theory was being confirmed.
“Where did you say you married him?”
“I didn’t say and I’m not going to say.  It’s my affair and no one else’s.  I don’t know why you want to keep on at me about things that are nothing to do with you.  You’re supposed to be finding out who murdered Shoulter.”
“And that,” said Beef triumphantly, “is exactly what I am doing.”
“Not by asking me questions, you’re not.  I had nothing to do with it.”
“What’s your daughter’s address?”
“Never you mind.”
“That’s silly, Mrs. Pluck.  We can find out easily enough.”
“You find out then.  Only don’t you start dragging her into this else you’ll have her husband after you and he was a sergeant-major in the Commandos.”
“Have to chance that,” said Beef.  “So you won’t tell me straight instead of having a lot of police inquiries made round her home?”
The police would never do such a thing.  Besides, Mr. Chickle says it’s Flipp they suspect and may arrest any minute.  They won’t pester me or her with a lot of silly questions.”
Beef stood up.
“Well, if you won’t tell me you won’t.  But it won’t take me long to find out.”
As we were walking home I asked him whether that wasn’t rather an idle boast and pressed him to tell me how in fact he meant to discover it.
“Easy.  We’ll go and see Mrs. Wilks now.  Ten to one she’s never thought to warn her.”
It took us some minutes after returning to Barnford to find out which was Mrs. Wilks’s cottage, but when we knocked on its door it was opened by a little, neat, smiling woman whom I mentally described as a nice old body.
“Excuse me', said Beef amiably.  “Is Mrs. Pluck’s daughter here?”
“Mrs. Muckroyd?  Not to-night.  She’ll be over in a day or two, I expect.  She always looks in here when she comes to see her Ma.  Was it urgent?”
“Not extra.  I shall be over her way tomorrow, so I can see her then.  I can get there by bus, can’t I?”
Mrs. Wilks smiled cheerfully and I felt rather ashamed to take advantage of her trusting good nature.
“Yes.  Change at Ashley.  You’ll find her home right in the village of Pitley.  Get down at the post office.  It’s nothing wrong, I hope?”
“Nothing at all.  I’m a friend of Mrs. Pluck’s, see?  Have you known her long?”
“Only since she came here.  Must be eight or nine months.”
“Well, I’m much obliged to you.  I’ll say good night.”
As we returned to the Crown, Beef chuckled.  “There you are.  Told you it would be easy.  Now it’s time for a drop of pig’s ear.”
“It always is,” I said bitterly.
“You’re right there,” Beef retorted.

Case for Sergeant Beef, Chapter Twenty

Case for Sergeant Beef

CHAPTER TWENTY
   
BOY SCOUTS AT WORK

And what must Beef do next day but organize and lead his ridiculous Boy Scouts’ treasure hunt.  It was a Saturday, I remember, and having a holiday the boys turned up in great numbers.  Beef sat under a tree with the patrol-leaders about him and intricate plans seemed to be drawn up during the discussion in the course of which there was a good deal of repetition of that “every inch” phrase of Beef’s which had already been used a number of times.  Personally, I sat apart and smoked a pipe, regretting once again that I had relented in my decision to throw up the chronicling of Beef’s exploits and turn to the less eccentric profession of insurance.  Boy Scouts searching “every inch” of a wood, I said.  Ridiculous.  A good detective should know exactly what to look for and exactly where it was likely to be found, not sit discussing plans of action with patrol-leaders or whatever these sniffing and coughing youngsters might be.
Last night’s episode, I admitted, had been curious.  If Beef was right in supposing that the footmarks of Miss Shoulter found near the corpse had been made by someone wearing her shoes, what in the world had little Mr. Chickle been doing with them at eleven o’clock at night on the very footpath of the crime?  Why had he tried to drop them out of sight?  Why had he said he had found them on the footpath when Beef had seen him disappear into the thickness of the wood and return with them?  I flatter myself on being a pretty shrewd judge of a man’s truthfulness, and I was convinced that his story of a little stroll for the sake of sleeping well was a fabrication.  Moreover, Beef had actually been expecting him to do something of the sort that he did.
And yet I could not bring myself to suspect Mr. Chickle.  Apart from the fact that he had no motive, had never even met Shoulter so far as we knew, he was obviously incapable of murder.  Or even if one’s imagination could be stretched to a point of believing that he might have poisoned someone, the mere association of a violent crime with the kindly little retired watchmaker was absurd.
Mrs. Pluck, now, was a different matter.  She had proved herself a liar in the most incriminating matter of her alibi on the night of the crime, and also in the scarcely less interesting one of her ability to fire a gun.  She was a big masculine woman who could easily be capable of murder, I thought, when I remembered her big, horny hands and dour face.  Then I had a brilliant inspiration.  There was some mystery about her husband.  I remembered her indignation when Beef had asked his name and her flat refusal to discuss that part of her life.  There was also a story that Shoulter himself had been married and had deserted his wife.  What if these two stories were one?  What if Shoulter had been the absconding husband of Mr. Chickle’s strange housekeeper?  Then with her false story of her movements on the night of the crime, the whole thing fitted.  True the last shot noticed by the inhabitants of Deadman’s Wood had been at half-past six.  But what of that?  With shooting so common in the vicinity, a report could easily have been unnoticed.  Or perhaps Chickle knew the truth and to save his housekeeper was deliberately lying to us.  That would account, too, for his evasions and odd behaviour.  He knew, perhaps, that it was Mrs. Pluck who had worn the outsize shoes and had concealed them in some place afterwards.  When he had heard that the Scouts were to search the wood, he had decided to retrieve them in order to save the woman.  It was all far more in conformity with the character of Chickle as I knew him than any suspicion that he himself was implicated.
But there were other suspects.  My investigations into crime have taught me to avoid fixed ideas and to keep an absolutely open mind.  There was Bridge, for instance.  All very well to accept his story because he was the kind of man whom Beef liked—hard-drinking, hard-living, and over-masculine.  Look at it how you like, he was a man who well might have committed a violent crime.  And it was surely something of a coincidence that he had been near the scene of the crime within a few moments of the firing of the first double shot, and that by his own admission.  I was by no means prepared to accept his story blindly, and what was more, I did not believe that Beef had done so.
Of course, I could name others who might be involved, and I had to admit that the case looked pretty black against Flipp, the police suspect.  There was Miss Shoulter, who might also have had a motive for all we knew, and Mr. Aston was a “possible” since he lived in Copling, and could have been in Deadman’s Wood that day, especially since it was red tape (of a kind which Beef had now found to be identical with that in his office) which had been used for faking the suicide.
“Going over your suspects?” enquired Beef suddenly.
I started.  I had not noticed him approaching.
“Certainly not,” I said, rather huffed.  “I know who did it.”
Beef gave his coarse laugh.
“You know, do you?”
I decided to brazen it out.
“I do.  And I shall be interested to see how long it takes you to work it out.”
“The police know, too,” reflected Beef.
“Oh, the police,” I said, rather contemptuously, I’m afraid.
“You don’t want to underrate them.  Chatto’s a very shrewd chap.”
“Yes,” I said.  “But it will take more than shrewdness to solve this crime.” Once having taken up this rather confident line I had decided to go on speaking with authority.  “It will take a quality which I don’t think that either of you have in sufficient strength—that is, imagination.”
Beef laughed again.
“Well, all I can say is if you know who did it you’ve got a wonderful imagination.  Wonderful.”
“How are your search parties doing?” I asked in order to change the subject.
“They’re on the job now.  They’ll cover every inch . . .”
“Exactly.  Every inch of the wood.  In the meantime what do we do?”
“Take it easy,” said Beef, “and await developments.”
At that moment a dishevelled youth who needed a haircut and a pocket handkerchief sidled up.  He was flushed with excitement, but he did not seem anxious to say anything in front of me.
“Well, Lionel?” asked Beef, for he had already learnt all the boys’ names.  “Lionel’s the leader of the Porcupine Patrol,” he explained to me.
“’Ippopotamus,” corrected Lionel.
“Well, what is it?”
He glanced uneasily in my direction.
That’s all right,” said Beef grandly.  “This gentleman is in my confidence up to a point.  You may speak in front of him.”
I ignored this ridiculous mummery.
“Found something,” said the boy called Lionel.
“What have you found?”
When at last he spoke it came out with a rush.
“You know you said we was to look at the barks of all them trees round that bungalow where that old toff lives with that old housekeeper down the bottom end of the path towards Barnford, don’t you?  Well, we done it.”
“What?”
“Looked.  And just as you go into the wood, well about as far as a cricket pitch only perhaps a bit shorter, there’s a tree where the bark’s been ripped as you might say to ribbons just below a bough which runs out straight towards the bungalow, and Albert Stoke, whose father’s a keeper over at Whitton, though he’s laid up now, says a gun’s been fired straight at the tree from quite near and you better come and have a look.”
Beef nodded.
“Yes, I did.”
“Did what?” I asked disgustedly.
“Did better go and have a look.  Come on.”
We found the tree in question surrounded by eager youngsters.  I wondered what Mr. Chickle might think if he chanced to look from the window of his study, which directly overlooked us.  I felt extremely foolish and Beef went through a lot of hocus-pocus with a tape measure while the Boy Scouts watched in breathless silence.  The bough, as the boy had said, stretched out almost precisely at right angles to the tree and pointed straight towards Mr. Chickle’s home, as though the tree were a natural fingerpost.  And there was a narrow, but unbroken, space from the tree to Mr. Chickle’s lawn.
Beef had examined the bark of the tree just below the junction with the bough, and had found it scarred and charred as Lionel had described.  If it was the result of a gunshot the weapon must have been quite close to it, indeed one would have said along the under side of the bough itself.  The same idea seemed to have occurred to Beef, for he was scanning the bough closely.  Suddenly, to my disgust, he actually pulled a magnifying glass from his pocket, on which a chorus of “Coo!” went up from the boys.
“Beef!” I expostulated.
“Come and look at this,” was his only reply, and he indicated some indentations and scratches on the bough.  “See?” And turning to the members of the Hippopotamus Patrol he declaimed, “Boys, you’ve done it.  This will be a great help.  I’m proud of you.  Now go on to your square of the wood.  That’s from the wire fence to where Nelson Grover found the jay’s nest, isn’t it?”
“That’s right,” they chorused and sped away with their eyes on the ground.
We ourselves, I am thankful to say, returned to the village, but not before Beef had reminded his assistants that they were to meet in the hall that evening and that they were to bring all they had found.
We spent the afternoon quietly; at least I was quiet, but Beef had a sleep, which in the daytime and after his noon glass of beer is usually a thunderous process.  At tea-time Miss Shoulter looked in to see how we were getting on.  She seemed to have a childlike confidence in Beef and urged him not to spare time and expense in his investigations.
When it was time to go round to the Lady Flitch Hall I accompanied Beef, not without misgivings.  To tell a score or more of vigorous youngsters to bring in everything they found in a wood seemed to me an incautious proceeding, and as we entered the place my worst fears were realized.  I’m bound to admit that Beef did not delay in giving orders for the disposal of a dead and half-decomposed cat which was the most offensive of the articles collected, but it was long before its aftermath had left us, in spite of hastily opened windows.  Four snares attributed to the possession of Old Fletcher who was known not to be above a bit of poaching were not, as they should have been, handed over to the police, and the whitened skull of a sheep was presented to the Mongoose Patrol as a souvenir.  Three boots which might have been discarded by tramps in Queen Victoria’s reign were consigned to the dustbin, and the remains of an umbrella likewise.  A number of pieces of rusty metal were promised rather optimistically to salvage; and broken china was thrown out.  An empty bottle was also said by Beef to be of no account, which led to some argument among the Water Buffaloes.
“Might of had poison in it, mightn’t it?” one of them suggested, to be snubbed promptly by a Rattlesnake who reminded him that Shoulter had been shot.
At last Beef came to the scraps of paper which had been collected into one heap.  After a moment he seized the freshest of these and calling me to the light shewed it to me.  I must say I was impressed, and I could see that Beef was as excited as one of the Boy Scouts.  For it was an envelope addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Flipp and containing a Christmas card.  Absently I examined its still vivid design—a steaming football of Christmas pudding with a sprig of holly in it.  Inside were the printed words “Good Cheer!”  And under them were scrawled the names of the curate and his sister.
“Who found this?” asked Beef.
A bespectacled boy with thin legs was pushed forward.
“Where was it?”
“I’ve marked the spot, Sarge,” he returned cheekily.  “I’ll take you there tomorrow.  It was ten paces into the wood itself from the clearing where the body was found.”
Beef silently handed him his reward.

Case for Sergeant Beef, Chapter Nineteen

Case for Sergeant Beef

CHAPTER NINETEEN
   
NIGHT IN DEADMAN’S WOOD

“Got a torch?” asked Beef after our meal that evening.
“Yes.”
“And some nice warm clothes?”
“I’ve got a greatcoat.  Why?”
“We may be out all night.”
“What on earth for?”
“You wanted action, didn’t you?”
“Yes, but I don’t want to fool about all night for nothing.”
“I don’t think it will be for nothing.  Now look here—this case is more interesting than you think.  It’s a nasty business and we’re going to find out the truth.  It’s all very well for you to think of it as nothing but a story—I tell you that there has been some clever and some dirty thinking done and, after all, a pretty violent crime.  What we see tonight, if it happens as I think it will, is going to bring us a lot nearer the truth.  And I’m serious about it.”
“That’s fine.  By the way you’ve been clowning about with Boy Scouts—”
“Those kids are going to be useful—even if they find nothing, as I think you’ll see presently.”
“Well, since you won’t even tell me whom you suspect I can only take your word for that.”
“It’s not as easy as just suspecting someone.  There are several people involved in this business—some of them innocent, perhaps.  And as to suspecting, you know everything I know, so your suspicions are as good as mine.  Well, I’ve never let you down yet, have I?  You come along with me tonight and you may see something.”
“Very well.  Where are we going?”
“To call on Mr. Chickle, of course.”
I let the “of course” pass, and prepared to follow Beef, accepting his suggestion of warm clothes and a torch.  He himself had a woollen scarf round his neck when we set out.  It was a dark night with a thin chilly drizzle from low clouds.  We needed our torches to find the footpath across to Mr. Chickle’s house.  I trudged along, taking care not to slip on the sticky ground and not attempting to get more information from Beef, since I know from experience that it is useless to catechize him.
We found “Labour’s End” to be well lighted, and I was glad of its cheerful aspect as we approached.  But I thought there was something sinister about the gaunt figure of Mrs. Pluck when she opened the door to us.  She stared at us without speaking, and I’m sure there was fear in her big, hollow eyes.  I had the impression that she found our visit unwelcome, though half-expected, and that she was relieved when Beef asked to see Mr. Chickle.
The old gentleman was sitting beside a large fire when we entered his cosy book-lined room, and rose to greet us.  In his manner, too, I sensed something strange, though with him it certainly was not fear.
Beef spoke as respectfully and politely as I could wish.  He called Mr. Chickle “Sir”, and said that he had come to warn him that his peace would probably be disturbed on the following day by an invasion from Boy Scouts.
Mr. Chickle beamed and assured Beef that so far from disturbing him it would be a pleasure.  As he grew older, he said, he liked more and more to see young people enjoying themselves, and it would not be the first time that the Scouts had played Cowboys and Indians in the wood.
“They won’t be playing Cowboys and Indians this time,” said Beef rather harshly.  “They’ll be doing a little job for me.”
Mr. Chickle seemed amused and mildly interested, and wondered if “detectives and criminals” was a new variation of the game.
“In a way you might say so,” said Beef.  “What they’re going to do is to search every inch of Deadman’s Wood in parties.  Every inch of it.  And bring me whatever they find.”
“And what will they find?” asked Mr. Chickle blandly.
“I shouldn’t be surprised but what they might find something that will help to clear up this murder case.”
“Yes.  I see.  A clue, in fact?”
“Perhaps a clue.”
“It’s very good of you to have come up to tell me,” smiled Mr. Chickle.
“Well, we were on our way back from Copling, sir.  I thought we would just call in.”
And Beef almost literally licked his chops just as a village policeman might when he has brought back a straying dog to his owner and expects to be offered a drink.  Mr. Chickle was not slow to perceive what Beef expected of him.
“A drink, Sergeant?” he suggested.  “I have a little reserve of Scotch, I’m glad to say.”
“I don’t mind if I do, sir,” said Beef inevitably, and before long we were wishing good health to our host.  But we did not linger for more than a few moments over the drink.  Beef remembered that we had a darts match at our inn, and after cordial good nights we started towards Barnford.
But we had not gone more than fifteen yards when Beef stopped round the bend of a curve.
“Now,” he said, “we go back and wait.  If anyone comes out of the door of that house we follow him or her.  But we don’t get ourselves seen or heard until I speak out.  Got it?”
It is at moments like this that Beef is at his best.  In spite of his age and bulk—for he is close on fifty now and a heavy and powerful man at that—he can move as swiftly and silently as some great feline.  He ceases to be the ungainly overgrown boy that I sometimes think him, and becomes genuinely a man of action.  I am the first to criticize Beef, but I always admit that in an emergency his nerve and quickness of action are remarkable.
In the drizzle and darkness of that night he led the way to a point from which, while remaining concealed ourselves, we could watch both the front door and back door of “Labour’s End”.  And there we stood, sheltered a little from the cold moisture of the night, but still wet, chilled, and uncomfortable for the best part of an hour.  Beef discouraged me even from whispering, and when I signed to him that I would like to smoke a cigarette, he shook his head vigorously.  I had begun to think that he had miscalculated and that our wet vigil was to be in vain, when some lights were switched out in the house, and a few moments later we saw the small figure of Mr. Chickle in the open doorway outlined against the only light left burning within.  He had opened the front door noiselessly and was engaged in closing it in silence.
“Ready?” whispered Beef.
When the little man started up the path which led to Miss Shoulter’s home, we were behind him.  I followed Beef as he dodged behind trees in his advance, keeping us out of sight and hearing, but never losing sight of Chickle.  It was exhausting and difficult, but at least it was what I had demanded of Beef—it was action.
Presently Beef, who was ahead of me and could see our quarry, stopped.  For some minutes I had been unable to catch more than a glimpse of Mr. Chickle and had been satisfied to leave observation to Beef while I concentrated on moving in silence and remaining unseen.  It appeared now that Beef was annoyed by something that had happened on the path ahead.
“He’s dived into the wood,” he whispered to me.  “Can’t follow him there.  Just have to wait here and chance it.”
“Chance what?”
“You’ll see.”
Again there was a long uncomfortable wait.  My feet felt as though they had been pushed into a ‘Frigidaire’ for several hours, and I was longing for a smoke.  Beef, however, seemed to strain his eyes in watching the path ahead, never moving from beside me and never turning away.  Ten or fifteen minutes must have passed.
Suddenly, Beef began to walk forward, no longer dodging among the trees, and at the same time flashed his powerful torch far down the path ahead.  In its beam I could see Mr. Chickle coming towards us.  Beef was talking loudly to me.
“We shall have to hurry,” I heard him say.  “Ah, here’s Mr. Chickle.  Why, you’ve dropped your parcel, sir.  There it is just in the grass behind you.”
“So I have,” said Mr. Chickle.
Beef stooped to pick up the little bundle which had been dropped.  It consisted of something wrapped in a piece of mackintosh.  Beef handed it politely to Mr. Chickle.
“Thanks, thanks.  It really doesn’t matter.  Very much obliged to you.”
I had never seen the little man in such a state of confusion.
No one moved for a few moments.  Then Mr. Chickle seemed to pull himself together.
“Darts match cancelled?” he asked.  There was nothing openly sarcastic in his tone, but I felt that it was not quite natural.
“Yes.  The other side never turned up.”
It was funny, I thought, that it was Beef who did the explaining of our presence there, and Chickle who said nothing to justify his.
“To tell you the truth, sir,” Beef went on.  “We have just heard a bit more from the police.  We were on our way to call on Mr. Bridge.”
Mr. Chickle became animated.
“Mr. Bridge, eh?  I told you he was a violent young man.”
“Ah,” said Beef.  “You’ve been having a stroll yourself, sir?”
Mr. Chickle seemed to be deciding whether or not he should speak.
“Yes, Sergeant.  And to tell the truth, I’ve made a very curious discovery.  I was going to keep it for the police, but since you’ve come along so opportunely, I may as well tell you first.”
“Very much obliged to you.”
Mr. Chickle began to unroll the mackintosh of his parcel and revealed the largest pair of woman’s shoes I have ever seen.
“Well, I never!” said Beef.  “Miss Shoulter’s, I take it?”
“They were Miss Shoulter’s,” said Mr. Chickle, who seemed now to have recovered himself.  “They were made especially for her.  Outsize, you know.  But they have been in my possession since then.  I had to purchase them in a lot at one of our worthy curate’s auctions.  What I cannot understand is this.  Two months ago I myself put these shoes in my own dustbin, expecting, I might say hoping, never to set eyes on them again.  And tonight while I’m taking the little stroll I have for the sake of sound sleep, I find them wrapped in this piece of old mackintosh beside the footpath.  How do you account for that?”
“Funny,” was Beef’s comment.
“Do you think it has any connection with the crime?”
“Hard to say,” said Beef.  “Very hard to say.”
A few minutes later we left him, this time to go home and sleep, I hoped.  I know that when at last we reached our inn, having waited another half-hour in the cold and rain to make sure that we should not have another encounter with Chickle, I was pleased to get between the sheets.  But Beef had been chuckling to himself with pleasure all the way home.

Case for Sergeant Beef, Chapter Eighteen

Case for Sergeant Beef

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN
   
A LAWYER AND SOME BOY SCOUTS

At breakfast next morning I told Beef that I thought things were going very slowly.  He seemed to take pleasure in stumping steadily through a case, instead of shewing flashes of brilliance like his more famous confreres.  I wanted action.
“You’re going to have it today,” he said.  “We’re going on the bus to Ashley.”
“I mean real action.”
“What, another murder?  Or a chase across the country of someone who turns out to have nothing to do with the case?”
“Well, action,” I returned.
“All in good time,” chuckled Beef.  “You wait till we get these Boy Scouts on the job.  You’ll have action all right then.”
We waited outside the post office for the green single-decker bus which would take us into Ashley, and Beef seemed to enjoy being stared at by the small boys who knew him to be a detective.  When the bus drew up he took an awkward little seat beside the driver who also sold the tickets.  I could see that he meant to get into conversation with him.  But he might have used a little more originality in his approach.
“Nice day,” he commented gruffly.
“Cold,” said the driver.
“How long does it take into Ashley?”
“About half an hour.”
“How many of you are there on this run?”
The driver did not seem to resent this clumsy catechism.
“Only the two.  Me and George Rivers.”
“Did you take her in on Christmas Eve?”
“Yes.”
“Happen to notice who was on her on the seven o’clock run?”
“Not many.  They’d finished their shopping by then.  Three or four, I think.”
Beef leaned very close to the man and tried to make his voice inaudible to the rest of us.
“See.  I’m on this murder case,” he said.
“I know you are.”
“And there’s a bit of information I’d like from you.”
“You’re welcome.”
“Do you happen to remember whether Mrs. Pluck, the housekeeper of the old gentleman who lives by the wood, was on that bus?”
The driver whistled.
“So that’s it, is it?  It was her done him in, eh?  Well, she looks as though she could of.”
“Now don’t be running away with any silly ideas,” said Beef severely.  “I never said nothing about her doing anyone in.  I just wanted to know if she was on the bus on Christmas Eve.”
“Well, she wasn’t.”
“Quite sure?”
“Quite.  I’d of noticed.  Well, you couldn’t miss her, could you?”
Beef laughed.
“Bit of a fright, isn’t she?  But don’t you go talking to people as though I suspected her, see?  Never do.  I should have a case for slander on my hands before you could say knife.”
“That’s all right,” said the driver, and they began to talk of other matters.
When we arrived in Ashley, Beef inquired the way to the office of Mr. Aston, the solicitor, and we found it near the market place.  Mr. Aston had not come in yet, his clerk said, and without being invited to do so Beef sat down in the outer office to wait.  The clerk, a dim and pinched-looking man of middle age, busied himself with the morning’s mail.  Again Beef started with elephantine awkwardness to try making conversation.  But he got only a brief nod to his comments on the weather, the food shortage, and the price of liquor.
Presently, however, he got his chance.  The clerk was tying up a bundle of papers.
“Is that what you call red tape?” Beef asked.
The clerk looked up as though for the first time Beef had touched on something which could interest him.
“It is.”
“But it’s not red at all.  It’s pink.”
A faint smile crossed the clerk’s face.
“That was precisely the comment of a gentleman sitting here a few weeks ago.  ‘It’s not red,’ he said, ‘it’s pink’.”
“Ah,” said Beef.  “Great minds think alike.  Who was the other one to remark on it?”
“One of our clients.  A Mr. Chickle, from Barnford.  He seemed most interested in the subject.  He even asked, if I remember rightly, how it was sold, and I told him in spools.”
“Well now,” cried Beef.  “That is funny!  Because I was just going to ask you myself.  What do they look like?”
The clerk pulled open a drawer in which we could see a number of spools of the pink tape and handed one to Beef, who solemnly examined it.
“Mind if I keep this?” he asked.  “I want it for a bit of a lark.  Red tape, you know!”
“It’s not easy to get,” said the clerk dubiously.
“You got plenty.”
“Oh, very well,” said the clerk rather sulkily, and turned with marked concentration to his work.
Soon after that a buzzer sounded and we were shewn in to Mr. Aston.
The solicitor was a grey and portly man with horn-rimmed glasses and a very smart suit.  He affected, I thought, to be busier than he was, and quickly asked what he could do for us.
“It’s about this murder,” said Beef.
“Shoulter?”
“Ah.”
“I know nothing about it.”
“You have a client called Wellington Chickle, I believe?” said Beef solemnly.
“I have.  At least I have undertaken one matter for Mr. Chickle.”
“And the nature of that matter?” asked Beef.
The solicitor stared at him.
“On what possible grounds do you put such a question?”
“Investigating.  Representing the dead man’s sister.”
“Am I expected to see some connection between that and my client?”
“Just wanted to know what he came to see you about,” said Beef, rather abashed.
“Then I’m afraid your curiosity—I can scarcely call it anything else—will remain unsatisfied.  Mr. Chickle’s business was confidential.”
“I see.  And where were you that afternoon?”
The solicitor looked up sharply.
“I don’t think I can have heard you correctly,” he said.
“You heard.  I asked where you was on the afternoon when Shoulter was murdered.  You live out that way, I believe.”
Mr. Aston pressed his buzzer and his clerk appeared.
“Shew these men out and don’t admit them again,” he snapped.
I wondered whether to attempt some kind of explanation or apology for Beef’s gross blunder.  But he was signing to me from the door and I followed him from the room in confusion.  To my annoyance Beef had no sooner reached the street than he started laughing.
“What on earth made you put that idiotic question?” I demanded.
“I thought you’d like another suspect,” grinned Beef.  I did not reply.
Back in Barnford we went at about four o’clock to the house of Mr. and Miss Packham.  They received us in a friendly manner, which did not seem to chill even when Beef began by saying that he had come to ask a favour.
“We’re used to that,” said the curate.  “What is it this time?”
“I understand you run a troop of Boy Scouts?”
“I do.”
“I was wondering if they could do a little job for me.  Sort of good deed, you know.”
“What sort of job?”
“Well.  I want them to search a certain area.”
“Footprints?”
“No.  Not footprints.  If you would not mind I would explain to them myself what I want.  How would that be?”
Mr. Packham considered.
“Nothing against the Law, I take it?”
“Oh, no.  They would be helping the Law.”
“No danger?  None of your murderers about?”
“No danger,” promised Beef.
“Then I don’t see why not.  It’s a Scout Night tonight.  You could come along to the Lady Flitch Hall and explain just what you want.”
Suddenly both brother and sister assumed an attitude of attentive listening.  They were quite motionless, staring before them.  I tried to speak, but received a vicious “Sshh!” from Miss Packham.
“What is it?” Beef inquired.
“Tea!” shouted the curate’s sister.  “I heard the rattle of cups!”
“Stay and have some?” said the curate very tentatively.
“I think we’ll go back to our own place,” said Beef with unusual tact.  “They’ll be expecting us.  See you at the Hall at—what time?”
“Six.  Six.” Mr. Packham’s manner had become absent.
At six o’clock, therefore, I accompanied Beef to the hall, and we found ourselves surrounded as we entered by countless small boys, some of them wearing the uniform of Scouts.  I felt very self-conscious, for I knew that on such occasions Beef was apt to pose a good deal, and to talk to the boys as benevolent schoolmasters or cheerful uncles talked in the boys’ stories of half a century ago.  This is not well received by modern boys who expect a man-to-man form of address.
As we entered we found that Mr. Packham was deeply engaged with a few youngsters who seemed to know the way to his heart.  One had brought him half a dozen eggs and another a pair of stored apples with skins wrinkled from a stay in some straw-covered loft.  There were two other packages the precise contents of which were not apparent though guessable.
“Splendid.  Splendid,” he was saying.  “Good chaps.  Most grateful.  My sister will appreciate these.  Hullo, here’s Sergeant Beef.”
There was a good deal of fuss and movement in the hall before the boys could be got into the chairs facing the platform, but it was achieved eventually, and Mr. Packham rose to lecture them.  He explained that they were going to be addressed by a real London detective, a description at which I shivered.  Indeed, the whole proceedings seemed to me silly in the extreme.  Whatever Beef wanted, I could not see that a lot of little boys running about thinking that they were sleuths would help much, and I was frankly nervous when I thought how Beef would address them.  My worst fears were realized.  When Mr. Packham had finished he stood up and sticking his thumbs in the arm-holes of his waistcoat turned to the troop.
“Boys,” he said.  “Would you like to help me catch a murderer?”
He pronounced the word as though he were a comedian giving an imitation of an old-fashioned melodrama, dragging out the first syllable through a series of vowels.  To my surprise there was a murmur of eager assent.
“If you’ll do what I ask you,” he went on, “you may be the means of bringing him to the gallows.  All I need now is a little more evidence and you can help me get it.”
This clumsy approach seemed to appeal to the boys, who looked keen and eager.
“I want you to comb Deadman’s Wood,” said Beef.  “Every inch of it.”
He paused for effect.
“Split up into parties,” he said.  “Organize yourselves.  See that not a little piece of ground escapes you.  And pick up anything you find.  It’s no good looking for footprints.  They’ve all gone by now.  But anything else.  Anything else at all you may find you bring to this hall to-morrow night.  Got the idea?”
They had.  There was a rustle and chatter of expectation.
“And there’s something else,” Beef continued.  “I want you to look at the barks of the trees all round that bungalow where Mr. Chickle lives.  Say up to twenty yards from there.  See if you can find one that’s split about a bit.  You might.  I don’t say you will.  But you might.  The boy who finds that gets a reward.  And one for any boy who finds anything in the wood that’ll help me with my investigations.  Now are there any questions you would like to ask?”
One boy wanted to know what they were to look for in particular.
“Ah,” said Beef.  “I can’t tell you that for the very good reason that I don’t know myself.  You just keep your eyes skinned.”
“Who did it?” asked a thin boy with glasses.
That’s what you’re going to help to find out,” returned Beef.  “Now off you go and divide it all up into squares.  And plan out how you set about it.  We’ll meet here tomorrow night.  All right?”
There was a shout of excitement as the meeting broke up.