Case without a Corpse
At this point I began to be infected with some of Beef’s excitement. It did seem so very odd that little Mr. Rogers should have suddenly deserted his wife and his business just when the Sergeant wanted to question him again. It would have been odd at any time, but just this evening, with Beef making straight for his shop, it was uncanny.
And the Sergeant’s own movements now became eccentric, to say the least of it. He almost ran down the few yards of the High Street that separated us from the chief garage of the town, and dived into its office. In a few moments the proprietor’s son had driven out the old Morris Oxford that he used for taxi work, and we climbed into it.
“Drive down to the station,” said Beef, “and right up close to the goods entrance. Quick as you can.”
The old car moved off, and Beef sat puffing impatiently and staring out of the window, till we approached the station yard.
“Now then, Mr. Townsend,” he said, “duck down. Right out of sight, please.”
I obeyed, not without feeling somewhat ridiculous to find myself crouching down in the taxi with Beef on all fours beside me.
“’Arry!” he called to our driver, when the car was at a standstill. “Anyone about?”
“Not at the minute,” said Harry.
“No one looking out of the waiting-room?”
“No. And they couldn’t see here if they was.”
“All right. We’ll make a dash for it.” And suddenly, with quite unbelievable agility, old Beef had leapt from the taxi, and into the luggage office. As swiftly as possible I followed him.
Once inside he turned to the clerk there. “Sorry,” he said, “only it’s important, see.”
The clerk grinned. “Whatever are you up to, Sarge?” he asked, “jumping in ’ere like that?”
“No larfing matter,” said Beef, and seeing Charlie Meadows, the porter who had already given evidence, he called across to him. Meadows approached.
“’Ere, Charlie,” Beef said, in an exaggerated undertone, “I’m on to somethink.”
His whole demeanour was that of a music-hall comedian doing a comic detective act.
“Oh yes,” said Charlie Meadows laconically. He couldn’t forget how his evidence had been treated before.
“I want you to do somethink for me. ’Ave a look on the platform and see if old Rogers is going on this train.”
“I don’t need to look. I know he is. I saw him just now.”
“You did, did you? What did I tell you? Now look ’ere, Charlie. You go, and when the train comes in speak to ’im civil and put ’im in the front part of the train, see?”
“Never mind why. It’s a matter of life and death. Will you do it?”
“I don’t mind,” admitted Charlie.
“Well, the train’ll be in in a minute. You better go out there ready. ’Ere, Jack!” This was to the clerk. “Slip through and get us a couple of tickets to London, will you? I don’t want me and Mr. Townsend to be seen.”
Jack good-naturedly agreed, not without telling Beef that he was becoming a regular Sherlock Holmes. Personally I felt thoroughly ashamed of Beef. All this exaggerated secrecy, these loudly whispered instructions and surreptitious behaviour, struck me as ridiculous. I did not blame the clerk for being amused at him. However, I had thrown in my lot with the investigation, however crude its methods, and I felt I had to remain.
When the train was audible (it was the 6.0 fast train for London) Beef sent the clerk to the door which led out on to the platform.
“’As ’e got ’im?” he asked anxiously, hovering about behind the clerk, as the train came in.
“Yes. He’s leading him off now.”
“This is our chance then,” said Beef, and as though he were a soldier advancing under fire he rushed across the platform into a third-class carriage. I could do nothing but follow. An uncomfortable moment ensued. The carriage Beef had entered, the one nearest to the luggage-office, happened to be one of the few on the train which was more or less crowded and the people in it showed their displeasure at having to make room for Beef when they thought it would have been easy for him to choose an emptier carriage. But he seemed oblivious of the irritated noises with which they squeezed together. He was flushed now, and his eyes had none of the glassy and sleepy look they so often showed in the morning.
Seeing the clerk lounging in the doorway, Beef stood up and let the window down, indifferent to the mumbled protests of the other passengers. Without putting his head out he beckoned Jack across.
“All right. All right,” he said, when the young clerk approached, “don’t look as though you was watching and telling anyone what you can see. Did the old boy turn round as we ’opped across?”
“No. He was following Charlie.”
“Any sign of ’im now?”
“Yes. He’s got his head stuck out of a carriage window, watching the entrance to the platform.”
“I thought so,” chuckled Beef. “Smart bit of work that was. ’E’ll never know ’e’s being followed now. Thank you, Jack. See you soon, I ’ope.”
And not until the train was actually in motion did he consent to close the window and sit down.
That was one of the most uncomfortable journeys I have ever made. It is never pleasant to be surrounded by hostility, least of all when you feel that it is merited. And the self-satisfied smile which seemed to be fixed Beef’s face made things no easier.
Besides, I was puzzled. What reason could old Rogers have for this departure? It seemed likely that the old boy knew something, and perhaps had known it all along, which was to his adopted nephew’s discredit. He had been determined, I supposed, not to reveal it, and something in Beef’s actions to-day—his visit to Claydon, probably—had told Rogers that enough was coming to light to make it hard for him to deny his knowledge—whatever it was.
Or else, and this seemed more sinister, perhaps, whatever forces lay behind all this, the real head of the drug-smuggling gang (if such a person existed), or someone else powerful and dangerous, had some reason for not wishing old Rogers to be questioned, and had frightened him out of Braxham.
Or—yet another possibility—it might be that ’old Rogers knew from Beef’s visit to Claydon that he was no longer the only one to know his secret. In that case he was determined to reveal it voluntarily to Scotland Yard itself, and Beef’s hurry was to prevent his doing so.
In any of these cases, why had Beef insisted on the old man’s being put in the front of the train? Did some danger threaten the bootmaker? And what had the £100 in £1 notes to do with it?
I would have given a very great deal to have put some of these questions to Beef but it was clearly impossible now. He would either have answered conspiratorially, in his absurdly audible stage whisper, or would pompously have reminded me that these were official secrets and not to be discussed in public. Altogether I was greatly relieved when the train steamed in to the London station.
Beef’s next action really shocked me, and I was impelled to apologize for it. The train had scarcely stopped when he pushed in front of the other passengers, including two ladies, and started off down the platform. I murmured what I could to excuse him, and secretly hoped I should never set eyes on any of those people again.
“There ’e goes,” said Beef exultantly, when I reached his side.
I began to remonstrate with him for his manner of leaving the carriage but he didn’t seem to hear me.
“Keep well back,” he said. “Don’t let ’im get ’is peepers on you, but don’t lose sight of ’im neither.”
Old Rogers, looking unfamiliar in a “Sunday Best” suit and bowler hat, was ahead of us, making for the barrier. I did as Beef told me, and watched his progress, without taking any risk of being observed. Right out into the hall of the station he walked, carrying his own suit-case, then seemed to hesitate for a moment and look about him. At last we saw him go into a telephone booth.
“Now’s our chance!” said Beef.
I was rather tired of that phrase of his.
“Whatever for?” I asked.
“Why, to ’ave a drink, of course. We can see from the bar when he comes out of there.”
“Suppose he comes to the bar?” Beef laughed outright. “Wot, ole Rogers?” he said. “Strick teetotaller.”
So I followed Beef to the bar, smiling at his peculiar way of walking. It was almost as though he crossed that station hall on tiptoe.
He was right though. From my position near the door I saw old Rogers emerge from his phone-box and make for the tea-room on the other side of the platform. But we could not trust to his delaying in there for it was just possible that he was working to elude us. We kept an eye on the entrance while we swallowed our drinks, and were greatly relieved when he eventually emerged.
Once again Beef started walking as though he were barefoot and the floor of the station was hot.
“You’re not stalking a rabbit,” I reminded him. “And I wish you’d explain what we’re up to anyway.”
“It won’t be long before you see for yourself.”
But it was five minutes before anything happened at all. The old bootmaker stood on the curb outside the station apparently watching the street, and we stood near the booking office watching him.
Suddenly Beef clutched my arm.
“There you are,” he said. “Wot did I tell you?”
“What did you tell me?” I asked for I had seen nothing.
Then I realized what he meant. A long blue saloon car of royal proportions, of a make that can be hired with a chauffeur for the evening by those who can afford it, had drawn up by the curb, and old Rogers was speaking to the driver.
“Good Lord!” I exclaimed. It was the most surprising thing that had yet happened.
But Beef had no time to express his astonishment. No sooner had the car moved on than he had rushed for a taxi.
“Follow that blue car,” he said.
“What, the big ——?” asked the driver naming the make.
“That’s ’im. Don’t go an’ lose ’im now. I’ll see you’re all right out of it.”
We had been fortunate enough to get a new taxi with a competent driver, and by the time we had reached the first set of traffic lights we were right on the other car’s tail.