Case without a Corpse
In the High Street a boy was selling evening papers. He had only two of the three which reached this town, but I purchased these. A glance at the front page was sufficient to shew me that the case was going to be a much-advertised one.
Who was it that invented that ancient tag, supposed to be the Editor’s advice to the new reporter? Dog bites man—not news. Man bites dog—news. Here was a case of it. These papers, tired, no doubt, of cases in which the task of the police was to find out who had killed So-and-So, were enjoying themselves with this strange reversal of the common case. Coming straight from the tragic household of the Rogers, I found their facetiousness in rather bad taste.
PUZZLE—FIND THE MURDER
was one heading, in the heavy type reserved for major sensations, and
MURDER—BUT NO CORPSE
Beef, glancing at these over my shoulder, snorted with disgust. Perhaps he too felt, after our visit to the Rogers’, that there wasn’t much room for humour in the case. But he did not pause as we took our way to the police station.
Here a surprise awaited him. The young constable whom I had met last night handed him a telegram. While Beef was reading it I glanced at the two men who were under his authority, and thought I discerned an exchange of smiles which seemed to say that they tolerated the Sergeant amiably. It certainly took Beef a long time to study the telegram, but I hoped that these smarter, and probably better-educated young men, were not smirking at his slowness. However, I made no remark.
“They’re coming down,” said Beef at last. “Who, Sergeant, the Yard?” asked one of the constables.
“Detective-Inspector Stute,” said Beef. “Good Lord! He’s the big noise just now. They must think a lot of this case. It’s all the newspaper publicity, I suppose.”
Beef turned to me. “It’s a funny thing,” he said, “they wouldn’t ’ear of it when I arst them this morning. I was all at sea then. And now, just as I begin to get a bit of an idea of the case, down they come. Oh, well. They’ll soon puzzle it out.”
“Think they will?” I asked. My knowledge of Scotland Yard has been gained from detective novels, and was not flattering to the Force.
“’Course they will. This ’ere Stute’s a wonder. ’E gets at the truf of anythink before you can say knife. They ’ave all the latest methods, too. I shan’t be able to do nothink now, except shew ’em round. It’s a pity—just when I was beginning to sort it out.”
I realized, very plainly, the truth of what my old friend Beef had said. Hitherto his slow if certain wits had only been in competition with the amateur detectives, in a case which Scotland Yard had not thought worth investigating. This time he would be confronted with the keen and practised intelligence of the professional. Glancing at his red and rustic face, I realized that he could not hope to do more than shew the big man about, as he suggested, and perhaps here and there put in a word, the result of his muddled cogitations, which would help. I felt that in contrast to Detective-Inspector Stute, whose name I had already heard, Sergeant Beef would present a figure that would justify the smiles of his two young constables. However, having nothing to do for a few days, I decided to stay on, and see how he progressed.
“There’s one more call I’d like to make,” said Sergeant Beef to me, when we had left the station, “before the Detective gets down. That’s the Riverside Private Hotel, where this Mist’r an’ Misses Fairfax was staying.”
“Very well,” I said, and we set off together.
Braxham is built beside the River Jade, and at one time must have relied on the water as a means of transport. Near the railway station there are a number of old warehouses, some of them empty, the foundations of which are lapped by the water, while between them are cuts running to the river’s edge. We had to pass these on our way out to the Riverside Private Hotel, which was also on the river, but with lawns running down to a landing-stage. Beyond the warehouses, beyond the station, we went, into a more pretentious district where large, redbrick houses had been built during the last seventy years.
In the summer, one felt, this region would be pleasant, with its flowering trees and gardens, and beneath it the river, or even an occasional small yacht. But on this February evening it was damp and cheerless.
Riverside Private Hotel turned out to consist of one of the largest of these houses, a pseudo-gothic affair in dull red brick, built towards the beginning of this century. There was a long drive running between dripping laurel bushes, and a flight of steps up to the front door.
Beef explained his business to a neat servant, and we were shewn into a small room which was furnished rather like an office, and told that Mrs. Murdoch would be with us in a moment. When she appeared, I thought her rather formidable. She was tall, raw-boned, severe, and almost certainly of Scotch origin. She looked at Beef disapprovingly, but told us to sit down, and appeared to be resigned to the necessity of giving us what information she could.
“Go’s these Fairfaxes?” began Beef abruptly.
“Mr. and Mrs. Fairfax are clients of mine of two years’ standing.”
“What are they, though?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I mean, wot’s ’e do for a living?”
“I really couldn’t say. His profession is no possible concern of mine.”
“Doesn’t ’e fill in the usual form then?” asked Beef aggressively.
Mrs. Murdoch rose with dignity to her feet, and pulled an ornamental bell-cord. On the appearance of the maid who had opened the door to us, she said, “The Visitors’ Book, Wilkins.”
Beef decided to be pleasant. “That’s right,” he said, “I thought you must ’ave some record.”
But Mr. Fairfax’s record, when found, said only that he was British, coming from London, and by profession “Company Promoter,” a vague term.
“Is ’e still ’ere?” asked Beef.
“No. Weren’t you aware that he left yesterday?”
“Yesterday? Wot time?”
“He left the hotel with young Rogers at approximately two o’clock.”
“With young Rogers? ’Ere, this sounds interesting. Wot was ’e doing with young Rogers?”
“They had lunched together, here.”
“Wot about ’is wife?”
“She had left for London that morning.”
“So she ’ad. I’d forgotten that. So young Rogers was ’ere yesterday. Wot time did ’e get ’ere?”
“At one o’clock or so. Not later. Mr. Fairfax probably stressed the necessity for punctuality in this house.”
“Did ’e come on his motor-bike?”
“I believe so. There was a lot of noise in the drive.”
“You didn’t see, then?”
“No. The motor-bicycle, if it was a motor-bicycle, was left round the bend of the drive.”
“You ’ad a look then, did you?” Beef sounded almost roguish.
Mrs. Murdoch spoke loftily. “I glanced from a window to see what all the noise was. I saw young Rogers walking up, having left his motorbike near the gate. Once before I had asked him not to make a fiendish noise under the windows with it. We have elderly persons and invalids here, who like to sleep during the afternoon.”
“Then ’e came in and ’ad ’is dinner with this ’ere Fairfax?”
“And when did ’e go?”
“Mr. Fairfax accompanied him at about 2 o’clock.”
“Did ’e take ’is bike then?”
“No. Not then. He came for it, I believe, about three-quarters of an hour later.”
“You ’eard ’im start it up?”
“One couldn’t help it.”
“Mr. Fairfax has not returned.”
“Well, I’m blowed. Wot about ’is luggage?”
“It remains in his room. Quite untouched, of course.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I mean it’s funny ’is not shewing up again.”
“I thought it somewhat curious myself. And, of course, his account is unpaid.”
“Come ’ere often did ’e?”
“About every two months or so.”
Mrs. Murdoch squared her shoulders. “Most of my clients repeat their visits. And there was the fishing.”
“I know. But it’s only a bit of coarse fishing. Perch, and roach and that.”
“Still, Mr. Fairfax was very fond of it.”
“And ’e gave no ’int that ’e might be leaving yesterday?”
“On the contrary, I had understood that he required his room for three or four days at least.”
“Wot about ’is wife? Did she know?”
“I think not. She has gone back to town expecting him after the week-end.”
“She was fed up wiv it down ’ere, I suppose?”
Mrs. Murdoch answered with dignity. “Mrs. Fairfax did not fish,” she said.
Sergeant Beef looked up from his notebook. “And there isn’t nothink else as you could tell me?”
Mrs. Murdoch coughed. “I have Mr. Fairfax’s London address,” she said.
“That might come in useful,” said Beef. “I’ll note it down.” And with great care he did so.
That appeared to be all the information that Beef wanted or could get from Mrs. Murdoch.
“I tell you wot though,” he said, “I should like a word wiv the girl wot giv’ ’em their dinner yesterday. She might ’ave ’eard somethink.”
“The waiter who served Mr. Fairfax at lunch yesterday can come and speak to you,” said Mrs. Murdoch. “But the servants are not encouraged to listen to private conversation among the guests. And now I will ask you to excuse me. I trust that the name of the Riverside Private Hotel will be used as little as possible in connection with this unpleasant case.”
The way in which she enunciated the word “unpleasant” suggested that Beef himself was involved in the general nausea of the business.
“That’s not for me to say, Ma’am. You better get on to the newspapers about that. They’d say anythink.”
Mrs. Murdoch rose. “It’s all very unsavoury,” she said. “I’ll send the waiter to you. Good evening.” She marched from the room resolutely.
Beef blew violently through his lips, so that, his moustache wavered outwards. “’Ow ’ud you like to work for ’er?” he whispered. “An’ she never suggested us ’aving a drop of nothink, either. Still that’s interesting wot she said about young Rogers being ’ere with that Fairfax, isn’t it?”
The waiter, an elderly man correctly dressed, came in.
“Did you give Mr. Fairfax ’is . . . lunch yesterday?” asked Beef.
“Yes. I served the gentlemen.”
“Didn’t ’ear nothink did you?”
“I don’t quite understand,” said the waiter haughtily.
“All right, my lad,” said Beef. “The old girl’s not ’ere now. You needn’t be up in the air. Wot was they talking about?”
“I never listen. . . . .”
“Come off of it. Come off of it. Wot did they say?”
“I did happen to gather that the gist of their talk referred to the younger gentleman’s occupation Mr. Fairfax was emphatic in his advice to him to leave the sea, and settle down ashore.”
“Is that all?
“That is all I heard.
“Was they talking secret at all?”
“Oh no. Quite openly.”
“Didn’t say nothink about that afternoon?”
“I heard nothing beyond what I’ve told you.”
“All right. That’ll do.”
Out in the damp evening, Beef pondered. “Funny, ’is not ’aving told ’is uncle and aunt ’e was going to ’ave dinner wiv Fairfax.”
“Unless it was because old Rogers didn’t like Fairfax, you remember what Mrs. Rogers said.”
“Yes. So she did,” said Beef.