Neck and Neck, Chapter Twelve

Neck and Neck

CHAPTER TWELVE
   
I had arranged to meet Beef and Michael Thorogood at one o’clock in the Café Royal.  It seemed the right sort of place for them to meet each other for the first time, but I need not have worried about the setting.
I had known Michael Thorogood since we were thirteen.  We had been new boys together at our public school and, since our names both began with the letter T, we had friendship more or less thrust upon us.  Curiously enough it had flourished on this forced incubation and had lasted for nearly twenty years.  It had been really due to him that I had turned what had been a chance encounter with Sergeant Beef in his first big case, a murder case which he had successfully solved, into my first story.  I had been having dinner with Michael, I remember, and telling him of that curious case when he turned to me and said, “Put it on paper, Lionel.  I’ll get you a publisher if it’s any good.”  I was looking round for a job at the time and was glad of something to do.  Michael had given me a few hints—what to avoid in the telling of it, the rough length, and lots of other useful advice, but, even so, I found it was no easy task, however simply one attempted to tell a straight-forward story.  It was finished at last and Michael approved.  He found a publisher, and Beef duly had the gratification of seeing himself in print.
As I have said, I need not have worried about where or how Michael and Beef met.
“I’m delighted to meet you, Beef,” Michael Thorogood said as I introduced them.  “Knowing your character from our friend Townsend’s books, I suppose I should really get you a tankard of beer, but somehow I think you’d like to join me in a whisky and soda.”
After that they were off.  Michael had a pretty good knowledge of my books about Beef—I suspect he had spent the evening before glancing through them.  He did not, like so many people, under-rate the ex-policeman or suppose that his rubicund exterior hid a plethoric intelligence.  He had arranged for us to have a table well on its own, and after I had ordered I let Michael talk.
“You want to know something about Ridley’s firm, Thomas Thayer.  Well, before I start I must say that it will be highly slanderous, so don’t quote me, Lionel, in your book.  Personally I would never have any dealings with them at all.  It’s a wicked blood-sucking business.  They advertise all over the place for new writers, and such is the vanity of the human race that hundreds fall for it.  In would come the manuscripts, novels, short stories, poems, family histories, accounts of sport, books on shooting, hunting and fishing, belles lettres.  The whole lot.  The wonderful line in their advertisement that scored a bull every time was, ‘Every man or woman has the material for at least one book.  Why don’t you write yours?’  And they did.  In thousands.  Then there were those who had had manuscripts turned down by agents or publishers for years.  To each of these aspiring authors went the same sort of letter, praising the work, saying that it shewed every sign of promise of future success, and varying the bait according to the writer and his particular form of literary pretension.  They were clever letters.  I’ve seen some of them.”
I interrupted Michael to tell him of our interview with Ridley’s brother.  “Oh, that’s interesting,” he said.  “Edwin Ridley got caught the same way himself, did he?  That’s what started him off.  I often wondered.  Well, all I can say is that the firm in the old days did the thing fairly respectably.  It wasn’t until Ridley himself took a hand that the ramp really began in earnest.
“He found that many of his victims would come a second and third time.  Then he branched out into songs and music.  It was a lovely racket.  He couldn’t lose.  He had hundreds out of some of them.  You see, once he’d got in touch with a would-be author, in nine cases out of ten he landed him and his money.  The next letter would say that, good though the work was, and though success seemed assured, the demand from an illiterate public with no real taste for this particular book, essays or poems, or whatever it was, might be limited and the publishers would have to ask the writer to share in the risk of publication.  A figure would be quoted, enough in prewar days to shew a handsome profit for printing a few hundred copies.  Only a dozen or so were ever bound up.  The writer would hesitate, but only for a second.  The lure of having his name on the cover of a printed book proved in almost every case too strong.  The wretched writer would think of the glowing tributes from some fictitious reader to whom Ridley had supposedly submitted the manuscript for criticism.  ‘The beauty of the prose’ or ‘this writer has the rare and happy knack of telling a story’, tingled in his ears as he wrote out a cheque.  In due course the volume would appear cheaply printed and badly bound, a few copies would be bought by an admiring family and a small circle of friends, and that was the end.”
Michael paused while the waiter produced another course.  “Wonderful ramp, don’t you think so, Beef?” Michael asked.
“I can well understand it,” he replied.  “I’m never surprised, after some of my cases, at anything that human beings can get up to.”
“It was harmless enough in most cases,” Michael went on.  “It didn’t really matter whether a young man or woman spent eighty pounds in having a small booklet of poems printed for their own benefit.  The trouble arose when the writer was not quite normal.  Most of them had some sort of kink.  Ridley had some nasty rows with some of his authors.  There were threats of suing him for obtaining money under false pretences.  There were one or two violent scenes in his office, I believe, when it almost came to a set battle.  Ridley managed to keep most of them quiet.  No one likes to admit being the victim of a confidence trick, especially after having boasted to their friends about their writing.”
Michael sat back and sipped his coffee and brandy.
“Did you ever hear anything about that young fellow who tried to commit suicide in Ridley’s grounds?  Chap called Greenleaf?” Beef asked.
“Yes,” Michael replied.  “As a matter of fact, though a bit cranky, the fellow can write.  Fortunately, after that business someone got hold of him, read some of his stuff, found it was good and brought him along to me.  He told me the whole story after I’d given him a meal.  The wretched chap was literally starving.  Have another brandy, Beef,” Michael said, calling the waiter, “and I’ll tell you about him.  Lionel’s paying.  I’ve no conscience now that he’s come into a fortune.  That is, unless you’re waiting to pinch him for murdering his aunt.  I wouldn’t put it past him.  I remember at school once he lost his temper and nearly killed a science master with a retort.  A glass one.  Verbal cleverness was always a bit beyond him.”
I managed to smile at these reminiscent sallies, and we all had another brandy and Michael continued about Greenleaf.
“Ridley had had nearly two hundred quid from Greenleaf.  Most of it a widowed mother’s savings, I understood.  They were absolutely broke when he went down to Ridley’s house in Gloucestershire to try and recover something.  Ridley had him thrown out, but what was worse, laughed at his writing.
Now Greenleaf was an absolute fool, but one thing he did believe and that was that he could write.  That laughter was one of Ridley’s worst crimes, a much more serious one than doing him out of his money.  He nearly killed a damned good writer.  I’m looking after his affairs now.  I’ve managed to get him the promise of a fairly decent contract on his second novel.  Trouble is he’s still tied to Ridley’s firm for his next two books.  I tried to get Ridley to tear up the old agreement, but he wouldn’t.  By Jove, I suppose the silly fool didn’t. . . .”
“Didn’t what, Mr. Thorogood?” Beef asked.
“Oh, nothing . . . only where Ridley was concerned, friend Greenleaf was not normal,” Michael replied, but we all knew what he was going to say.  “Ridley was like a red rag to a bull to him, I’m afraid.  I thought Greenleaf was going to throw a fit or something when I last mentioned Ridley’s name to him.”
“When I tell you, then,” said Beef, sinking his whole glass of brandy in one gulp, “that Greenleaf is thought to have been seen near Ridley’s house in the Cotswolds the very night the murder was committed, you would include him among your suspects.”
“My dear Beef,” Michael answered, “whoever murdered Ridley did the world a good turn.  Personally, I’d like to shake his hand.  I don’t particularly care who did it, but if you want my serious opinion I would say that Greenleaf certainly has a curious complex about Ridley.  I don’t think he would plot a cold-blooded murder, but he may have gone down there to try and get some of his money back from Ridley.  He may even only have wanted Ridley to release him from his contract.  But I’d be afraid of the consequences if he once got into Ridley’s company.  He’d be bound to go off the deep end.  What would happen after that, who can say?  Greenleaf crazy with fury.  A scuffle.  Then perhaps”—Michael shrugged his shoulders— “a little too much pressure on the windpipe.  Et voilà.”
Michael lit a cigarette.
“Personally, I should be very sorry.  I think I shall earn a lot of money out of Greenleaf before I’ve done.  So don’t arrest him right away, Beef.  Give the chap the benefit of the doubt.  I don’t care much about him personally, but I tell you he can write.”
I asked for the bill arid began to thank Michael for his help.  Beef joined in.  “Very interesting indeed.  As I said to Townsend here, I’m trying to find the real motive and you’ve helped me a lot.  I think we might have one more brandy,” Beef said, and I noticed that face was slightly more rubicund than usual.  “I must live up to my character in front of Townsend’s literary pals.”  He winked broadly at Michael, who had never refused a drink in his life.
“If only people who write would trust their stuff to reputable publishers—preferably through my agency!—blood suckers like Ridley and Go wouldn’t have a chance,” Michael said, preparing to go.
“Just one more thing,” Beef said, as we came out into Regent Street.  “Could you let me have that fellow Greenleaf’s address?”
Michael thought for a moment.  “I can’t remember it.  I know it’s Bayswater way somewhere.  If you ring my office, Lionel, they’ll give it to you.”
“By the way, Michael,” I asked, “you say you found Greenleaf more or less starving.  What’s he been living on?  He can’t have got an advance on his second novel till he’s free of Ridley’s contract.”
Michael laughed, and in rather a shamefaced way admitted that he had lent Greenleaf enough to get on with.  “I’ll get it back, all right,” he said.  “Besides, since then I’ve sold a few short stories of his.  He’ll be a good investment, you see.”
“Not if he were to hang,” I replied.
“Think of the publicity,” Michael said, and turned to leave.
“Just one moment, Mr. Thorogood,” Beef said.  “When was it you first lent him some money?”
Michael paused thoughtfully.  “Let me see.  Oh, yes, I remember.  He came in to see me one afternoon.  He looked very down and out.  In fact he looked so starved that I asked him to dine with me that night.  Over dinner I got him to accept a cheque.  I may have the date here.”
He flicked back the counterfoils of his cheque-book.
“Here we are.  Greenleaf, 11th September.  Twenty pounds.  That was the first money I ever lent him.”
Beef made a note, and Michael disappeared into the crowd.
Three o’clock found us ringing the bell of a drab house in an equally drab street in Bayswater.  A tall, gaunt rather formidable woman answered the bell.
“Mrs. Greenleaf?” I asked.
She nodded.
“I’m a friend of Mr. Thorogood, your son’s literary agent.  I wonder if I could see him for a few minutes.”
“I’ll see if he’s in,” she replied tonelessly.  I was a little ashamed of the subterfuge, but, from what I had heard, I felt this was the only possible way of getting an interview with Greenleaf.
In a few moments she returned and shewed us into an untidy room at the back of the house.  A young man of about twenty-eight was sitting at a table strewn with papers.  There were a number of books around on shelves, on the table, on the floor, anywhere, but they were for the most part cheap editions or very much second-hand.  He rose as we came in, and I saw an obvious younger edition of the mother.  He was equally tall, with a strong face and a powerful body.  His clothes were old and shoddy, and no attempt had been made to make the best of them.  His collar was dirty and his suit unbrushed and unpressed.  His hair was wild, and a dark stubble shewed that he had not shaved for a couple of days.  Only something about the forehead and the intense look in his eyes under the shaggy eyebrows upheld in any way Michael’s belief that the fellow might have something unusual in him.
I introduced Beef without disclosing who he was, and chatted for some minutes about Michael Thorogood.  I asked him about the second novel Michael had mentioned and made a few general remarks about publishers.  He answered politely enough, but was obviously so accustomed to bottle everything up in himself that he found it difficult to speak to anyone about his work.  I could see he was puzzled about my reason for coming to see him, and he kept casting suspicious glances at Beef, who, I must say, did look more like a policeman in those surroundings than I had ever noticed before.  I decided I must take the plunge.
“Talking of publishers, what I really came to see you about is the death of Edwin Ridley.”  Even as I mentioned the name I could see his muscles tauten and his face grow pale and set in a hard mask.  “I know it’s a painful subject for you.  He treated you very badly in the past, I believe, but Beef here is trying to solve the mystery of his death and we felt you might be able to help us.”
“The only thing I know about his death was that it was the best thing that could happen.  The man ought never to have been allowed to live.”
His voice, as he spoke, was cold and hard, and behind it such an intensity of hate that I was almost frightened.
“Do you object to answering a few questions, Mr. Greenleaf?  You know it’s every citizen’s duty to help uncover a crime, however much we may dislike the victim.”
“I don’t know who you are or why you’ve come here interrupting my work.  You’re not the police?”
I explained that Beef was acting for Ridley’s family.  “Well, I don’t want anything to do with the matter at all.  I thought you came here about my writing, or I’d never have seen you; I think you’d better go.”
“One thing I’d like to know before we go,” Beef said.  “Did you leave a parcel of books when you were down at Ridley’s house on the night he was murdered?”
“Get out!” he shouted.  “Get out, both of you, or I’ll throw you out!”  The door burst open at that moment and his mother entered.
“Arthur, you mustn’t get so excited.  You know what the doctor said.  He never knows what he’s saying when he’s like this,” she said, turning to us.  “You’d better leave him,” she went on.  “I don’t know how you’ve upset him, but I wish you’d all leave him in peace after what he’s been through.”
We took up our hats and left.  She stood for some moments, a motionless figure at the front door, watching us as we walked down that ugly street towards the lights of the main road.
I did not return to my flat until about seven o’clock.  Beef had agreed to dine with me there.  I had asked him because I wanted to know what he was really after.  I was worried that he seemed to have left my aunt’s murder completely in the air, which was unlike him.  Even though he was engaged on the Cotswold crime before I had asked for his help, I felt that the time had come for him to return to investigation at Hastings.  Instead he appeared to be quite taken up by this other murder.
A good service flat I had found the best method of living for one like myself who was always being called away unexpectedly and who never knew when he would return or for how long.  I was pleased to see a bright fire burning in the grate.  It was cold these September nights, and a fire gave to this modern flat a more permanent and lived-in appearance.  There was a letter with an Essex postmark that I knew was from my brother Vincent.
“My dear Lionel,” it ran,
Edith and I are now fairly comfortably settled in the new House.  The boys seem a pleasant lot and my assistant master very manageable.  Edith and matron don’t seem to get on very well yet.  There was quite a row over a case of suspected measles, but I hope it will all blow over.  To tell you the truth, I’m very worried about Edith.  She is still very pale and nervy—not at all like her, as you know.  I’m afraid she has taken Aunt Aurora’s death very much to heart.  To cap it all that fellow Arnold, the Hastings Inspector, was up here the other day.  He had a long interview with Edith.  She seemed very upset after it, so I didn’t question her.  He also asked me a lot of questions and brought up the old question of the medicine cupboard.
What is your friend Beef doing?  I wish they’d let the whole matter drop.  After all, they can’t bring Aunt Aurora back to life now.  If she died of poison, it must all have been some awful mistake.  No one would murder poor Aunt Aurora in cold blood—it’s unthinkable.
Do write and tell me the latest news and what Beef is doing and what his views are.  Any assurance I can give Edith at the moment would be most welcome.
Fortunately no gossip about Aunt Aurora’s death has spread here among the boys, though one or two of the other masters and their wives seem to have heard about the inquest.  Matron, too, I believe, made an unpleasant innuendo to Edith when they had a row about the measles.  Something about bowing before her superior knowledge of patent medicines.  Quite upset her.
Well, I must go round the House now.  It’s nearly lights-out time, and Simpson, a new prefect, is on duty.  I don’t quite know whether I’ve made a mistake there.  He’s perhaps a little too friendly with some of the juniors.
Your affectionate brother,
Vincent.
Beef arrived just as I had finished reading the letter and, thinking it might be a good way to open the subject of what he was up to, I handed him the letter to read while I got out something to drink.  He finished reading.
“Your brother seems very keen to know what I think,” he said, handing back the letter.
“It’s only natural, isn’t it?” I replied.  “I’m pretty anxious to know myself.  You’ve kept everything to yourself, and, after all, she was our aunt.”
“Yes,” Beef said, “I realise you’re both upset about her death.  Then, of course, there’s the money.  I expect you’d both like to get your hands on a bit of that . . .”
“Really, Beef,” I said rather crossly, “you don’t seem to realise that Vincent and I were both very fond of our aunt.  We’ve known for a long time that we should come into something on her death, arid we’re very grateful that she felt like leaving it to us.  But we would have happily waited for many years for that.”
“Well,” Beef replied, “all I can say is that the money has come in very handy for both of you just now.  Your brother has been able to spend what he wanted in doing up his new House and in getting married, and you . . .”
“Yes,” I said rather coldly, “what about me?”
“Well, there’s the young lady who lives on the Thames near Wargrave.  The one you visited the day your aunt was murdered.  You had dinner with her, too, that time you drove me up to town from Hastings.  I suppose you’re thinking of getting married too, now.  I mean, you couldn’t before on what you made out of writing about me, could you now?  As I’ve said before, hardly anybody seems to have heard the name Beef.  Now take Hercule Poirot . . .”
I had been too taken aback by what Beef had said to stop him running on.
“Look here, Beef, my brother and I are not paying you to spy on us.  We hired you to find our aunt’s murderer . . .”
“That’s what I’m going to do.  Make no mistake,” Beef replied.  “That’s why I have to look into everything.  As a matter of fact, Inspector Arnold gave me all the information about your visiting Miss Rutherford.  Clever fellow Arnold, as I’ve always said.”
“Well, I wish you’d concentrate on my aunt’s murder and leave this other business down in the Cotswolds,” I said.  I was still angry with Beef.
“Now look here,” Beef answered in a more conciliatory manner.  “Just pour me a little drink.  You’d better have one yourself, too, and I’ll tell you something.” He paused while I poured a whisky for him and a sherry for myself.
“Do you think I’d leave a case like the Cotswold one after being on it only a day or two to come all the way to Hastings unless I had a very good reason?  I know.  You’d say that it was enough that you and your brother wanted a bit of help.  Well, I agree that was partly it, but there was something else.  You remember that newspaper that the books were wrapped in—The Sussex Gazette—I told you to look at it carefully.  You didn’t notice, I suppose, the pencil mark which the newsagent had made.  It was ‘Camber.  Highfield’.  That paper was obviously delivered to your aunt’s house Camber Lodge, Highfield Road, on the sixteenth of August.  When I got your letter saying about the death of your aunt, Miss Fielding, and with the address at the top, Camber Lodge, Highfield Road, I thought it was time I had a look at Hastings.  Bit of luck, I must say.  Not that I wouldn’t have found out in a day or two anyhow about the other murder, and anyone could have traced the address.  Another funny coincidence was the two murders taking place the same day.”
“But, Beef,” I replied, “I don’t see how there can be any connection.  Anyhow, the paper was nearly a month old.  My aunt didn’t die till September.”
“I know,” Beef replied.  “But you must admit it would be a very funny coincidence.  Two rich old people bumped off at the same time and a paper from one house found in the other.”
Dinner was brought in at this point, and it was not until we had finished and were sitting smoking in front of the fire that it was possible to reopen the subject.  Beef, however, seemed singularly unwilling to discuss the case further.
“I’m going to have a look at that niece of Edwin Ridley’s.  What’s her name.  Estelle something. . . .” He took out his notebook and found her name and address in Cheltenham that Rev. Alfred Ridley had given him.  “Ah yes, Estelle Pinkerton.  She’s the one who gets the dead man’s money.”
“But she was staying with the dean of Fulham in London the night her uncle was murdered,” I said.  “Anyway, a woman couldn’t have done it.”
“I’d like to have a look at her just the same,” Beef replied.  “As I’ve said before, I owe a lot to the old routine I learnt in the police.  Besides, there’s that stepson Roger Howard.  She may be able to tell us something of him.  But don’t think, after what I’ve told you, that I’m neglecting your aunt’s death altogether.”
“You still seriously think, Beef,” I asked, “that there may be some kind of link between the two?”
“I don’t put a lot of trust in funny coincidences, but we’ll see.  You’ll call for me in the morning, then?  It’s not as if Cheltenham is very far out of our way.  We’ll be able to make Cold Slaughter in time for a game of darts.”