Case without a Corpse
While we still stood over the dead man the door was pushed open again. Previously there had been no gush of wind, for everyone who had entered had closed the door from the passage into the street before entering the bar. But this time a cold, wet blast came with the new arrival.
It was a girl. I saw her face, and though I could not be certain (for her cheeks were wet with rain), I thought that she was crying already before she saw young Rogers on the floor. She was a handsome girl, slim, blonde, delicate. She wore a wet mackintosh and gloves, and a small, rain-soaked hat.
“Alan!” she cried, and dropped to her knees beside the young man. Then—“Is he dead?” she whispered, looking up to us who stood about her.
Sergeant Beef nodded. And now there was no doubt about the girl’s tears. She pressed her wet face to his and sobbed, quite unconscious of our embarrassment.
Even in the stress of those moments I was aware of a strong sense of curiosity. Would the apparently phlegmatic Sergeant rise to the occasion? How would my village policeman deal with a man who had confessed to murder and poisoned himself, and a girl sobbing over his dead body? Personally I should have been completely at a loss. But then I am anything but a man of action.
Sergeant Beef stood straight up, sucked his moustache, cleared his throat and began. “’Arold,” he said to the publican’s son, “would you be kind enough to go and fetch Dr. Little?” At any other time, there would have been no ‘would you be kind enough’ but on these occasions the Sergeant’s verbiage grew weighty. “And Mr. Simmons, I’ll ask you to close this bar till the doctor arrives. If you gentlemen would be good enough. . . .” And he began to clear the room.
I was staying in the house, and felt privileged to remain behind. The Sergeant now turned to the sobbing girl.
“Now, Miss Cutler,” he said, “come along. Mrs. Watt will take you home. This isn’t the place for you. You can’t do nothink for ’im.”
At first she took no notice, but when Sergeant Beef touched her arm and insisted again, she looked up.
“How did it happen?” she murmured.
“You’ll hear all about it in good time. Now come along, Miss. Mrs. Watt is waiting to take you home.”
Quite kindly, but forcefully, he helped the girl to her feet, and led her to Mrs. Watt who was waiting in the passage. Then, alone in the bar with me, he stared down at the dead man.
“Nasty turn-out,” he remarked.
“Yes. If only we could have been a bit quicker. . . .”
But Sergeant Beef was on his knees again.
“Gor, look at this,” he said, and held up the dead man’s right arm. “If that’s not ’uman blood, I’m a Dutchman.”
There was a stain which I could see now in spite of the wetness of the jacket, while the cuff of the shirt was red, too. Sergeant Beef touched it, looked at his finger, and whistled.
“And it is blood, this time,” he murmured.
After a few moments’ pause he began groping in the side pocket of the dead man’s jacket. He had some difficulty in extricating what he found there, but he managed it at last, and showed me a short, ugly-looking knife of the type that sailors carry. This, too, was stained with blood.
“That’s wot ’e done it with, I suppose,” said Sergeant Beef, and laid it on the wooden bench beside him.
He began to empty the man’s pockets. There was a pocket-case containing seventeen one-pound notes, and—a photograph of the girl who had just left us. This was signed, “To dearest Alan from Molly,” in thin, plain, girlish handwriting. There was some silver, a packet of cigarettes, a box of matches, and a key-ring. That was all.
“Well,” said the Sergeant, “I can’t do nothink more till the doctor’s had a look at him. I don’t know whether you’d mind, sir, giving me an ’and to get ’im off of the floor?”
I nodded, rather unwillingly.
“Mr. Simmons,” called Sergeant Beef, “where’d you like ’im put?” He spoke as calmly as if he were delivering a cask of beer.
Mr. Simmons appeared behind the bar. “I don’t want him in the house at all,” he grumbled.
“Well, of course you don’t,” said the Sergeant. “And I don’t want him in my district at all. But there’s some things we can’t help, and a corpse is one of them. Now, where’ll you ’ave ’im?”
“Better put him along that bench,” said the publican, and we at once lifted the corpse, and placed it along the wooden bench indicated.
“I don’t know ’ow you feel,” said Sergeant Beef to me, “but after that job I could do with somethink short. Then I must go and find out ’oo that dam’ young fool’s done in. Mr. Simmons, I’ll ’ave a double Scotch.”
I watched him swallow it, and heard him suck his moustache. “Like me to come with you?” I asked.
“No. You better stay here in the warm. I don’t suppose I shall be long.”
So I settled down beside the fire again. Mr. Simmons, leaning across the counter, grew philosophical after the Sergeant had gone out.
“I knew he was a rackety young chap,” he said, “but I never thought it would come to this. Fancy doing anyone in! And then coming here to poison himself. It won’t do the house any good, will it? I mean people won’t like coming to a place where anyone’s likely to be poisoned every five minutes. But still there’s the publicity and that. I suppose it’ll get into the papers. I mean, you never know what’s going to do you harm and what isn’t nowadays, do you?”
I said you didn’t, noting cynically how the man turned to his own interests.
“I tell you what, though,” went on Mr. Simmons, “I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if it was that foreigner that he’s murdered. You know, the one that came in here to-day.”
I had forgotten that. “Why? What makes you think so?” I asked.
His answer was disappointing. “Well, it seems funny, doesn’t it? A foreigner we’ve never seen before asking about him at twenty past two, and at half-past eight he pops up to say he’s murdered someone.”
“Funny” was not the word I should have chosen, but I nodded. “You may be right,” I said, for my interest in crime had already taught me never to jump to conclusions.
Just then the doctor came in, followed by Harold. He was a young, rather good-looking man, this Doctor Little, and he moved confidently, with his hands thrust deep in the pockets of a green ulster.
“Good evening,” he said. “Ah, here he is. I’ll just have a look at him.” He sniffed the air as he approached the dead man.
I’m afraid I was too squeamish to watch the examination, though the publican and his son did so avidly. To tell the truth, I can honestly say that at this point I was not very excited by these events. I liked problems, not a sordid and open case of murder and suicide. I had often wondered whether Sergeant Beef would ever have another opportunity of using his slow but certain wits to solve a crime. It had seemed scarcely likely. Only by an amazing coincidence could more than one murder investigation fall to the lot of a provincial policeman. And now that there had been a murder in his district it was a plain and unpleasant case, in which the murderer had already confessed.
The doctor reported at last. “Cyanide of potassium,” he said shortly. “Death must have been almost instantaneous. I’ll send up a full report in the morning.”
“Doctor, may I introduce myself?” I began. “My name’s Townsend.”
“How d’you do? Have a drink?”
“I was just going to ask you. Unpleasant business, this.”
He shrugged. I had the impression that he was trying to appear a more practised and blase person than he was. “I had a dinner-party,” he said, “and was playing bridge when the boy came for me.”
I refrained from retaliating with my interrupted game of darts. “Did you know young Rogers?” I asked instead.
“I’ve seen him about,” said the doctor. “Crazy young fellow. He nearly knocked me down this morning on that motor-bike of his. Well, I must be getting back to my guests.”
“You’ll probably be wanted again presently,” I said, for his pretence at indifference annoyed me.
“Why? You thinking of doing the same thing?”
“No. But you evidently don’t know why young Rogers took poison. He had committed a murder.
I was pleased to see that I had made an impression at last. “Yes. And Sergeant Beef is finding out whom he has murdered. As soon as he’s done so, I suppose they’ll call on you again.”
“Yes. Blast them. I suppose they will. Unless by any luck it wasn’t in Braxham.”
“But . . .”
“He was on that motor-bike to-day, remember.”
I had not thought of that. The doctor smiled, nodded, and went out.
“Seems to know his way about,” I remarked to Mr. Simmons.
“Yes. He thinks a bit of himself. But he’s a fine doctor. He saved young Harold’s life last year. Treats everyone the same — panel or not. And he always comes when you need him.”
Mr. Simmons left me, for it was ten o’clock, and he had to close his doors. Murder or no murder, that was a matter which could not be neglected. If half the inhabitants of Braxham had taken cyanide of potassium it would have made no difference. Closing hour was the most respected rite in all England. So I reflected somewhat bitterly as I heard his bolts go home.
I was conscious of feeling very tired. The events of the last hour had been startling and gruesome enough to take all the life out of me. I wanted to get to bed, and forget the white face of young Rogers as he had stood in front of us, waiting to make an end of himself before our very eyes. I wanted to get the recollection of that knife out of my brain. I decided that to-morrow I would leave Braxham and return to London, where, if such things happened, one was not made aware of them.
I went into the sitting-room of the inn, where Mrs. Simmons brought my supper. But the sight of the underdone beef was revolting to me, and I could not eat. I lit a cigarette, and waited. I felt that I could not very well go to bed till Sergeant Beef returned. But I did not encourage Mrs. Simmons, a short, trim, respectable person with glasses, to discuss the matter with me as she cleared away.
At last, about eleven o’clock, there was a knocking on the side-door, and Sergeant Beef was with us.
“Most extraordinary thing,” he said. “No one’s missing, that I can hear of. I’ve telephoned everywhere. Sent round to every house he’s known at. Not a sign of nothink. The police all round think I’m barmy, ringing up and arsking for a corpse.”
He was out of breath and out of temper.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I always supposed a murder case started with a corpse, and then you had to find out ’oo done it. This time we know oo’s done it, but we can’t find the corpse. Wot d’you say to that?”
“I think it’s early to say anything, Sergeant. The corpse may be out in the woods, or anywhere.”
“But no one’s been missed,” grumbled the Sergeant.
“Nor was there in the Brighton Trunk Murder, till they found the body, then there were hundreds. You wait till the morning. You’ll soon find out whom he killed.”
“D’you know,” returned Sergeant Beef, unexpectedly. “This ’ere’s too much for me. This ’ere’s a case for Scotland Yard. And what’s more I’m going to ring ’em up.”