Case without a Corpse
The big Car was going Southwards.
“Do you know,” I said after a quarter of an hour, “I shouldn’t be surprised if he’s making for Croydon.”
“No more shouldn’t I,” agreed Beef. “’E’d be off in an aeroplane if I wasn’t going to stop ’im.”
“But why?” I asked impatiently. “Why is he so anxious to get away?”
I could not reconcile myself to the incongruity of that mild little bootmaker dashing towards the air-port in a great hired car, dressed up in his Sunday suit, and with a battered suitcase in his hand.
“Is he so frightened of being questioned?” I went on, since there was no answer.
“I shouldn’t say frightened, exactly,” said Beef.
“Or is it . . .” I began more excitedly as a sudden thought struck me, “that he wants to see Fairfax? Does he know something against Fairfax? Does he want to find out something from Fairfax?”
“Now, Mr. Townsend,” said Beef, “you know very well I can’t go telling you everythink. You’ve ’ad as much chance as wot I ave to get at the truth until this morning. I’m not going to tell you no more. It wouldn’t be etiquette.
“At least you can tell me how you’re going to stop him leaving,” I returned. “If he really is making for Croydon he’s certain to have his passport in order. How do you think you’re going to prevent his crossing?”
“Ah,” said Beef, “that’s where you come in “
“Yes. You’ll ’ave to charge ’im.”
“Charge him? What with?”
“For pinching a ’undred pounds off of you, all in one pound notes, wot ’e ’as secreted on ’is person at this minute.”
I exploded. “Don’t be a fool, Beef!” I said. “D’you think I’m going to pay out thousands of pounds, when he proves that he was wrongfully arrested.”
Beef gave a self-satisfied chuckle. “’E won’t do that,” he said, “you trust to me.”
“I shouldn’t consider it,” I said. “To charge a man with stealing! You ought to be ashamed of yourself as a policeman suggesting such a thing.”
Beef coughed. “If I could tell you every think I’m blowed if I wouldn’t, but I can’t, not at this point. But I’ll tell you two things, Mr. Townsend. That ole gent in the car in front knows ’oo was murdered, and ’as done all along. And life or death depends very likely on ’is not getting away from England to-night. Now, you’ve got to ’elp me. I wouldn’t take no chances of you losing a lot of money. You won’t lose nothink. On’y you’ve got to charge ’im, see? It’s the way to ’old ’im back. You. wouldn’t like to feel that when a man’s life or death depended on it you was found wanting would you?”
Frankly I was bewildered. I had some idea of the seriousness of a step such as Beef wanted me to take. But on the other hand he seemed so sure of himself.
“Are you absolutely certain you’re right about this?”
“Have you got proof?”
“Certainly I ’ave.”
“And you say old Rogers has known all along?”
“And there is no chance whatever of my getting into trouble for doing what you ask?”
“No there isn’t.”
“Well, I suppose I shall have to do it.”
“Thank you, Mr. Townsend. That’ll be a real ’elp.”
I didn’t like the implication of his emphasis, but I let that pass. There was now little doubt that we were making for Croydon. The traffic was not so thick here, and Beef had leaned forward to tell our taxi-driver to keep some distance between ourselves and the big blue car in front, lest we should be observed. However, the blind had been pulled down at the back of the saloon car so that there was little chance of this.
There is always something stirring about pursuit—even when it is no more than the pursuit of so meagre a quarry as our little bootmaker. It may be, as Stute had indicated when he arranged for the formation of a search party, some primitive hunter’s instinct which takes hold of us. But I am sure that old Beef and I sitting side by side in our taxi, felt the thrill of it when at last we reached the air-port and saw the big car turn in to it.
“Now then,” said Beef, “you ’ad that ’undred quid in your room at the ’otel to-day. You saw old Rogers coming out with some excuse about looking for you. When you got in you found ’em gone. You went after ’im but ’is wife said ’e’d left for Croydon. See?”
“I see,” I replied dubiously. “But it sounds pretty weak.”
“It’ll do for the minute,” said Beef, ’“specially when they find the notes on ’im.”
The little man was paying the smart and gentlemanly driver of his large car.
“’Old on a minute,” said Beef to our taxi-man, “We’ll wait till ’e goes inside. There’s police standing there.”
We did. As soon as old Rogers had entered our taxi drew up, and we followed him.
The next few minutes are very vivid to me. I may have over-acted a trifle. I think perhaps now that in my excitement I did so. But I was anxious to be convincing. It is not altogether easy to make an accusation sound credible when you are charging an elderly and well-established bootmaker with having stolen £100 from you, when you know perfectly well that you had never carried this sum in notes. I dashed across the station, and, as I afterwards realized, forgot even my grammar in the urgency of the moment.
“That’s him!” I shouted.
Several passengers turned towards me, and I was thankful to see that two policemen who had been chatting in the discreet manner of the police, with their eyes on the people about them had turned to watch me.
“Stop him!” I went on, at the top of my voice.
One of the policemen now slowly came across.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
I pointed at the narrow back of old Rogers, who had remained apparently oblivious of the shouts behind him.
“That man!” I said. “He’s a thief. I want to charge him!”
And now, for the first time, the bootmaker turned. He saw that I was indicating him and stopped. But he was ten yards away, and when I dropped my voice to address the policeman, he could not hear me.
“He stole a hundred pounds from me this afternoon, in one pound notes. I heard he was coming to Croydon and I’ve followed him here.”
“Ah!” said the policeman non-commitally.
We started walking towards old Rogers who stood looking rather pathetic and dumb-founded, with his suit-case still in his hand. When we came up to him he was the first to speak.
“Why, Mr. Townsend, whatever’s the matter?” he asked, staring at me wide-eyed.
I felt rather wretched as I turned to the policeman.
“My name is Stuart Townsend,” I said, “I’ve been staying at Braxham where this man has a shop. . . .”
The constable broke in. “Before we go any further,” he said to old Rogers, “I’d like to know your name.”
“Rogers,” said the old chap.
“Mr. Rogers, what money have you on you?”
“I can’t see what concern that can be of yours,” said old Rogers. He spoke not indignantly but in a puzzled voice, as though he really would have liked to know.
“Well, there’s a mix-up here,” was all the explanation he got, “and it would simplify things if you’d tell me.”
“I have . . . some treasury notes. I really don’t know how many.”
“Any objection to my seeing them?” For a moment I thought that he was going to refuse. He glanced first at me, then at the policeman.
“You may look,” he said, and plunging his hand into an inside pocket he drew out a thick bundle.
The policeman turned to me. “Are these yours?” he asked.
“They look like it,” I was wise enough to say. “I had a packet of a hundred in my bedroom at the hotel to-day. At three o’clock I went upstairs and found this man coming out of the room. I looked in the drawer where I kept them, and found them gone. I am sure enough to charge him.”
“Very well.” He turned to old Rogers. “I shall have to arrest you,” he said.
The old man hadn’t spoken a word since I had made my preposterous accusation. And to my surprise he said nothing now. He stared at me with an expression which I find hard to describe. It was not of surprise so much as of wonder. It was as though he were trying in his mind to settle some question about me.
The policeman turned to his colleague for a moment and I contrived to draw near to the old boy. I could not bear to let him feel as he must do about me.
“It’s all right,” I whispered, “Beef says it’s all right. He says it’s a matter of a human life.”
He stared at me no longer but with a shrill and angry voice began to address the police. It seemed that my brief sentence, which had been meant to calm him, had had the opposite effect. He stormed at us. It was a trumped-up accusation, he said. I was an impostor. He was a respectable tradesman of many years standing who was going for a well-merited holiday. It was scandalous that he should be delayed in this way. The policeman and I would answer for it.
I have never had more respect and gratitude for the laconic obstinacy of the police. The constable had decided to arrest old Rogers, and arrest him he did. In fact, it seemed that if he needed any more to convince him of the validity of the charge the old man’s indignation provided it.
“Come along,” he said unsympathetically and I saw old Rogers led briskly away.
Beef was waiting for me in a great state of pleasure and excitement.
“You wasn’t ’arf good!” he said, slapping me too heavily on the back. “You ort to’ve been an actor! The way you ran arfter ’im! I shall never forget it.” He chuckled. “And charged ’im prop’ly you did. I was larfing fit to bust myself when I saw them take ’im orf!”
This praise from Sergeant Beef would have been more pleasant if he had been a dramatic critic instead of a policeman. As it was I was conscious of having done a very dubious thing, and one which might land me into all sorts of trouble.
“Thank you,” I said coldly. “And now I think you owe me some explanation.”
“All right. All right. You shall ’ave all the explanation you want. And your part in this shan’t be forgotten, Mr. Townsend.”
“I should much prefer that it were,” I said feelingly.
“No you wouldn’t—not when you know the ’ole truth. And you shan’t be kep’ waiting much longer for that. We’re orf to Scotland Yard now. I’m going to make my report. I just rung up Inspector Stute and ’e’ll be waiting for us.”
“That’s good,” I said, but without any enthusiasm, as we got into our waiting taxi. We were soon humming back towards town.