Case with Ropes and Rings
“Now look here, T.,” said Beef as we got into the car, “there is no need for you to provide any love interest in this case. It’s quite exciting enough as it is.”
“You may call it exciting,” I said. “To me it’s horribly dull.”
“Don’t you worry about that,” returned Beef. “Things are going to start happening very soon. We’re going down to this Spanish cafe this evening. There you never know.”
I was not prepared to discuss with Beef my feelings for Rosa, which I felt were too profound to be exposed to the Sergeant’s clumsy criticism. So I remained silent.
“Well, what about the Spanish café?” persisted Beef, pronouncing the word to rhyme with “chafe.”
“What do you say to us having a look to-night?”
“If you think it necessary, I’m perfectly willing to do so. The main thing is that you should find a solution.”
“I don’t know about necessary,” said Beef. “It wouldn’t half make a nice piece of colour, though, wouldn’t it?”
At ten o’clock that evening we set out for the address given us by Rosa. We walked up the Tottenham Court Road, and I personally had a sense of misgiving as I contemplated the task before us. I always avoid the dingier quarters of Soho, because I am convinced that there is more crime there behind those dull walls than the police ever guess.
The exterior of the Café Cadiz did nothing to reassure me. Down a dingy side street was a dingier window—once a shop-window, now covered by dirty buff curtains. The glass door of the café had been painted on the inside, so that it was impossible to glimpse any of its clientele from the street. Beef, however, walked boldly up to the door and pushed it open, to admit us into a foetid atmosphere of black tobacco smoke, coffee, and not too scrupulously washed humanity. On our left as we entered was a counter, behind which a stout man in his fifties stood somnolently contemplating the brown circles of dried coffee on the marble before him, as if wondering whether it would be worth his while to apply a damp cloth to them. I felt that he had been facing the same problem for several years without being able to make up his mind. A wall had evidently been removed, for the cafe ran back eighteen feet or more from the front door—a long, narrow room with a double row of marble-topped tables. At these were seated a number of individuals whom I can only describe as dangerous-looking. Without wishing to draw too much on my imagination, I could well believe that those of the men who did not carry revolvers had concealed on their persons most businesslike knives.
At one table four men were sitting playing cards, their brown hands clutching the soiled, limp pieces of pasteboard and their hats tilted back from their foreheads. At another a large woman, shockingly décolletée, sat with two young men. A young girl with much unskilful make-up on her face was alone with another young man, and a fourth group consisted of a circle of five or six men talking loudly and vigorously in a foreign language, which I took to be Spanish.
“Good evening,” said Beef, with the most unsuitable bonhomie, and smiled round on them, as though convinced that everybody in the place would be enchanted to see him.
This we could see at once was far from being the case. His greeting met with no response, and suspicious glances were cast at us from all directions. Beef, however, took a seat at the one remaining table, and said in a loud voice: “Anyone here know a young fellow, name of Martinez or Beecher?”
My own astonishment at this bludgeoning piece of tactlessness was instantaneous and considerable, but it was as nothing compared with the shock to the customers of the Café Cadiz. The eyes of every person present went straight to the Sergeant. Two of the men who had been in the group of talkers got up at once and left the cafe, and there was such a tense atmosphere that I had considerable fears for our safety if Beef continued in this way. A middle-aged man, also from the group which had been in conversation, rose from his place and came across to us.
“Why you ask about Martinez?” he asked.
Beef had only one method of making foreigners understand his meaning, and that was to shout at them at the top of his voice and in a strange sort of pidgin English of his own.
“Me . . . detective. Investigating death of Martinez,” and he indicated his own chest with the thumb of his right hand.
If his question had caused astonishment, it was trivial to the effect produced by his announcement. There was a buzz of discussion in every part of the café.
“What you come here for?” asked the man who was already standing over our table.
“Enquiry,” said Beef. “Martinez is known here.”
At this point the proprietor of the café himself left the counter and dropped wearily into the seat next to us. On his face was a fixed, meaningless smile, and his manner was ingratiating.
“I knew Beecher a little,” he said in good English. “These gentlemen, none of them knew Beecher at all.”
“Oh,” said Beef.
“Yes. Beecher came here once or twice. A nice young fellow, and a good boxer. I liked young Beecher very much.”
“Did he come here alone?” asked Beef.
“Yes, yes, alone.”
“Never with a Spanish gentleman?”
“No. He never went with Spanish people.”
“Did you know his father at all?”
There was complete and deathly silence in the café while the proprietor was contemplating the answer to this question.
“His father? How should I know anything about his father? I didn’t know whether he had a father alive or not. He came here alone, had a cup of coffee, and went. I don’t know anything about his father.”
“You don’t half know how to tell ’em,” said Beef admiringly.
“What do you mean? It’s the truth I’m telling you.”
“So’s my foot,” said Beef rudely. “And I suppose you’ll tell me next that nobody minds what sort of Government you’ve got in Spain. They’re all delighted that Franco won, I suppose,” and he gazed round once more at his now openly hostile audience.
“What are you talking about?” asked the proprietor. “What are you trying to make out? I sell coffee to decent people. That’s good enough, isn’t it?”
“It’s good enough till something like this crops up,” said Beef. “Then it’s not so hot. The young fellow was murdered,” he added quickly.
“Well, I don’t know anything about that,” said the proprietor. “He just had a cup of coffee here now and again. I sell the best coffee in London. Try some?”
“I shouldn’t mind,” said Beef, and the proprietor left us to extract our drinks from the machine on his counter.
Meanwhile, the other man continued to watch us from where he stood beside us.
“Why you ask about Beecher’s father?” he said suddenly.
“Did you know Beecher?” said Beef.
The man shrugged his shoulders.
“I seen him box,” he said.
“You’ve never seen him here?”
“Can’t remember him. Why you ask about his father?”
“Curiosity, perhaps,” said Beef.
“His father gone to Spain a long while ago,” said the man, but rather too tentatively to be convincing.
Beef stretched his lips in what I supposed to be a sceptical smile.
“What would your name be, I wonder?” he said, looking the man straight in the eye.
At this point I happened to look round the room, and I saw that one of the men at the card-table was pretending to sharpen a pencil with the most murderous-looking knife I have ever seen. I watched him for a few moments to convince myself that it was not his need to write with sharp-pointed lead that had caused him to pull out this weapon, for all the time that its blade was shaving the soft cedar-wood of the pencil his eyes were on us. I nudged the Sergeant.
“Come on, Beef. Let’s get out of this,” I said.
“Why?” said Beef. “I like it here. Nice and restful,” he added.
I tried to indicate to him by signs what was happening behind us, but he either could not or would not understand.
“So you’ve made up your minds to tell me nothing about Beecher?” he asked.
There was no reply to this, of course, except from the proprietor, who brought us our coffee over.
“Nothing to tell,” he said, with another smile.
“Well, that’s a pity,” announced Beef heavily, “because it means I shall have to get nasty soon.”
I leaned across and whispered as low as I could:
“Do be careful, Beef,” I said, but he ignored me.
“Nasty?” said the proprietor. “What do you mean, nasty?”
“Well, first of all, everybody’s papers will have to be looked into by the police, and we’ll see who has a right to be here and who hasn’t. Then we shall have to go into everything that goes on in this cafe. I shouldn’t be surprised if it hasn’t to be shut up for good. You see what I mean? Just nasty,” Beef explained.
I thought that at this point they would make a concerted rush at us and try to force us out of the cafe, if not worse, but Beef seemed unaware of any danger. You might call it courage or, more accurately, I should say, lack of imagination. At all events, he did not move from his seat.
A number of the men seemed to me to be watching the middle-aged one who had first detached himself in order to come and speak to us, and still stood over our table. I began to think that Beef was right in the guess at which he had hinted, and that this man might well be the father of Beecher.
“What do you expect us to tell?” asked the proprietor. “We don’t know anything about him.”
“No more do I either,” said Beef. “It doesn’t matter. I go about it in my own way. I can soon find out from Beecher’s mother what his father looked like.”
“If she’s sober enough to tell you,” put in the proprietor with a sneer.
Beef stared at him for a moment as though he was about to make an observation, but finally said nothing, except to ask briskly what he owed for the coffee. Before he had taken the money, the proprietor had recovered his presence of mind sufficiently to smile again. Beef stood up.
“Thank you,” he said. “We shall be meeting each other once again, I dare say.”
Then, as though he had forgotten my presence, he marched towards the door of the cafe without a glance behind to see that I was safely following.
Just before he went out, however, a thought seemed to occur to him.
“Got a piece of paper?” he asked the proprietor.
He was handed a little scribbling block. On this, in his boyish handwriting, he wrote the words which we had found on the scrap of paper in the gymnasium.
“What’s all that about?” he asked the proprietor.
“That’s not quite correct, but it means ‘Life’s a dream’.”
“Life’s a dream, eh?” repeated Beef. “Well, how does it come into this business about young Beecher?”
The proprietor’s face remained perfectly blank.
“I don’t understand. Wait a minute, though. Young Sanchez will know. Sanchez!” he called to the young man who was sitting with the large woman. “You read a lot. What does this mean?”
The young man glanced at the paper.
“That,” he said “is the title of a play by Calderón de la Barca, Life’s a Dream.”
“All right,” said Beef. “Life’s a dream, eh?” he repeated thoughtfully. “Well, I call that very peculiar.”