Neck and Neck
We had just finished breakfast the next morning when the Superintendent arrived.
“Good morning, Beef,” he said cheerily. “I’ve just got a line on that car that was seen parked near Bampton Court on the night of the murder. I was very grateful to you for the tip, and of course at once circulated the description of it to all the constabulary around. I’ve just had an answer from Oxford and I’m going over this morning to have a look at it. It belongs to a garage there that does a hire service. They’ve been notified, so the car will be held for me to see today.”
Beef thanked him and accepted, and we were soon in the police car on the way to Oxford.
On the way over neither Beef nor the Superintendent mentioned the murder but chatted agreeably about conditions in the Force, pay and promotion, and exchanged reminiscences happily about the old days. They both agreed that the young chaps of today were not a patch on the recruits of their time, and how slack and easy in comparison was the life of the newcomers, and they both had a few hard words about university chaps from Hendon.
The car drew up presently in front of a large garage near the station. The Superintendent led the way and we were soon ushered into the office of the manager.
After greeting the Superintendent and being introduced to Beef and myself he sat us down and offered his cigarette-case.
“Yes,” he said, “I know what you want to see. We had one of your chaps round here yesterday. We’ve got several cars we let out on a drive-yourself hire system. The one that the constable yesterday was interested in was a little blue Austin saloon. I’ll show it to you. It’s only just at the back.”
He led the way into a large open space at the back of the garage where a number of cars were parked.
“This is the one,” he said. Beef and the Superintendent walked round to the back and examined the rear window. The glass, which was of the unbreakable type, had at some time been badly splintered by some hard object. The Superintendent took out his notebook.
“Yes,” he said to Beef, “this corresponds with what that young chauffeur told us. A crack like a star on the left of the rear window.”
Beef agreed and turned to the manager. “I wonder if you’ve got a lock-up garage with no windows?” he asked.
The manager looked a little taken aback. “It will be quite safe locked up here, I assure you,” he said. “We’re open all night, and there are always several men on duty.”
When Beef explained that he wanted to make a test in the dark and told the story of a car similar to this being seen parked at night near the scene of an important crime, the manager entered at once into the spirit of the thing. He soon had the car put into a long dark building that had a complete black-out left over from the days of the war. As soon as we got the car parked as nearly as possible as it was that night the manager switched on the headlights of a motor cycle from the other end of the long building. He focused them on the car, and at once the crack in the glass became visible. As it reflected the light of the headlamp it certainly shone in the shape of a star.
“Thank you,” the Superintendent said to the manager. “That’s all we need. Perhaps we could come into your office a minute and have a look at your records.”
We went back to the room we had come from and the manager produced a large folio.
“Here are the details of the various hirings we’ve had. Let me see. The car you’re interested in is Austin Saloon XYZ 56789. What dates do you want to know about?”
“The tenth of this month,” the Superintendent replied. “And perhaps a day or so each side,” Beef put in.
The manager turned over the pages till he came to the entry.
“Ah yes, here we are,” he said. “That car was hired for three days from 9 a.m. on the ninth of September. Hired in the name of William Hawker. Fee and deposit paid in advance. Hawker gave his address as R.A.G. Club, Pall Mall. Gar was returned early on the evening of the eleventh of September. Yes, I remember the case now. As the fellow could not give a local address, he was brought into my office. I asked to see his driving licence, but he said he had left it at his club in town. He seemed all right and offered to pay in advance. So I let it go.”
“Would you know him again?” the Superintendent queried. “What was he like?”
“Nothing special, I remember. Perhaps I’d recognize him if I saw him again. I don’t know. I didn’t pay much attention to his appearance. All I remember was that he was a biggish chap. Oh yes, there was something else. This chap Hawker was a bit tight when he brought the car back. I’ll call Charlie. He told me about it.”
Charlie, a middle-aged man in a greasy mechanic’s overall, came in, and the manager explained what we wanted to know.
“Yes, I remember,” Charlie said. “Struck me funny at the time. This chap drives the car straight into our yard and parks it right the other side.”
“ ‘Hi, sir,’ I shouted, ‘will you bring it over here?’ He turns out all the lights of the car and walks over. I could see that he could hardly stand. I remembered then that I had seen the car parked outside the Randolph just after six that evening. If you’re in this business, you get used to noticing your own cars anywhere. I’d had to go out on the Banbury road to a breakdown.
“ ‘Are you handing the car back for good?’ I asked him. He mumbled that he’d finished with the car, but when I tried to get him to come to the office to get his deposit back, he asked me to go and fetch it, saying he wasn’t feeling too good. All the time he kept away from any light. I thought that was because of the drink. Well, I gave him his money and he made a kind of signature on our form and lurched off. Tell you the truth I thought we were lucky to have the car back without a crash, the way he was.”
“Can you be sure it was the same chap as the one who hired it?” Beef asked.
“Oh yes,” Charlie replied. “Even in the dark I could see that.”
The Superintendent asked Beef if there was anything more he wanted to know, and then, thanking the manager and Charlie for their information and assuring them that it would prove useful, we left.
“Must be the one, don’t you think, Beef?” the Superintendent asked as soon as we were back in the police car.
“Yes, but I suppose you’ll just check up with that young chauffeur to make certain,” Beef answered. “I’ve one or two things to do here,” Beef went on. “What about you, Super?”
“I’d like to join in what I think you’re going to do,” the Superintendent replied with a smile. “I can’t, though, you see. I’m on duty in uniform. I must get back, but I tell you what I’ll do. I’ll send the car back for you this afternoon.”
Beef thanked him and we fixed to be picked up at the main station at four o’clock.
As soon as the Superintendent had gone we boarded a bus. “Didn’t want him hanging around,” Beef said, as we took our seats. “Where’s this place the Randolph?” he asked.
Presently I led Beef up the Turl, past Balliol and into St. Giles.
“That’s it,” I said, pointing out the Randolph. “Ugly great place, isn’t it?” Beef said. “Now one or two of these buildings are all right. I’d like to have a look round if we’ve time.”
Beef walked straight in and asked to see the manager. When he appeared, Beef produced his card and told some story about investigating a divorce case.
“I don’t think they stayed here,” Beef went on, “but I’d just like to look at your register.”
“I trust not. We’re very particular,” the manager replied, and told the receptionist to give Beef any information.
Beef opened the register and looked at the entries in the early part of the month.
“See,” he said to me, “that’s what I’m looking for. Remember Gupp said he was staying here at the time your aunt was murdered. I thought I’d check it up. ‘H. Gupp,’ it ran, ‘British. East Indian Club. Room 42’. I say, look here. There was another friend of ours staying here at that time, though he seems to have arrived well before Gupp. ‘Roger Howard (Maj.) British. 10th Loamshires. Aldershot. Room 50.’ So Ridley’s stepson was here, too. You know the one. That niece of his told us about him. I didn’t think to find his name here. That complicates things a bit. Hm . . . m, Miss,” Beef said, addressing the girl at the reception desk. “Could you tell how long these two stayed?” and he pointed at the two entries. “Gupp. Oh yes,” she replied. “Here we are. He came on the eighth of September and left on the twelfth. Major Howard. I remember him well. Such a nice man. He was going to stay for a week, but he had such a good day at Abingford races that he rushed back to London on the tenth. He was full of his good luck, and tipped all the staff. Most handsomely, I believe. Everyone was sorry to see him go.”
“He never said anything about having relations nearby, did he?” Beef asked. “Didn’t ask about hiring a car for instance?”
“No,” the girl answered in a long slow thoughtful voice. “He never asked me about hiring a car, but he did keep saying he must go and try and borrow some money from someone. Uncle or something. Quite a joke it was between us. He kept joking about not having enough to settle his bill. I noticed he used to book everything he could. That’s why we were all so glad when he had a good day at the races.”
“You’re sure it was on the tenth of September that he won the money?” Beef asked.
“Oh yes,” the girl replied. “Positive. He left in the early evening. Said he was going to have a night in town.”
Beef tried then to steer the conversation back to Hilton Gupp, but he apparently left no impression.
Beef was silent and thoughtful as we walked from the hotel. It was only half-past two, and as the car was not returning until four I suggested to Beef that, unless we had any other calls to make, we should stroll round one of the colleges. My brother Vincent had been up at St. John’s, and as it lay in St. Giles, where we were, I took him there. It was September still, so term had not yet begun.
“What,” Beef said as we walked towards the lodge, “still on their summer holidays? How long do they get, then?”
I told him the summer vacation was four months and that undergraduates spent more time on vacation than they did term time at Oxford.
“Nice job these professors have got,” he said. “I thought your brother did pretty well schoolmastering at Penshurst, but this is a picnic compared with that.”
The head porter was standing in the lodge and I pointed him out to Beef.
“Not a patch on the porter at Penshurst,” Beef commented. “Why, he hasn’t even got a uniform, let alone a top hat.” Beef’s thoughts were back on a previous case when for a glorious week he deputised for the school porter at Penshurst, the public school where my brother Vincent had become a housemaster, dressed up in the traditional garb. For that week he had appeared with a silk hat with gold braid on it, a yellow and black waistcoat and a coat with gilt buttons.
I showed him the gardens and pointed out the rooms that my brother had been lucky enough to occupy. They were the only undergraduate rooms that looked out on the gardens, but Beef’s thoughts seemed to be elsewhere. We walked back across the great expanse of lawn in silence. I recalled that my last sight of all this was one summer when Vincent was up and the Archery Club was having a luncheon. I remembered the targets on the lawn and Vincent and those other figures looking so much in tune with the setting with their green blazers with gilt buttons and white trousers. All at once Beef broke the silence.
“It’s no good. I can’t ignore it, try as I will. I’ll have to go and see him.”
“Who? Gupp?” I asked.
“No, of course not,” Beef replied rather impatiently. “We know Gupp was staying at the Randolph. He said so in his first statement to the police down at Hastings. That was all enquired into. Try as they would the police couldn’t break his alibi. We know that he wasn’t down at Hastings the day your aunt died. No, not him. It’s that stepson of Ridley’s. Major Howard. Well, we’ve got his address without any trouble. Looks as if we’ll have to drive to Aldershot tomorrow.”
“Do you think Major Howard was the one who hired that car?” I asked.
“Or it could be Gupp, couldn’t it?” Beef answered. “He’s a big chap.”
“That’s nothing. So is Greenleaf,” I said. “We know he was supposed to be down this way at that time. After all, he had some sort of motive. Gupp wasn’t even connected with Ridley. He had no possible motive.”
Beef continued to puff at his pipe but made no reply.
“Beef,” I went on, “you can’t imagine that Gupp had anything to do with Ridley’s death? It was from Aunt Aurora that he thought he was going to get some money. He couldn’t even have known Ridley. After all, he’d been abroad those years and he’d only just come back. He hardly left London. Just because he happened to be staying in Oxford. Why, it’s ridiculous.”
Beef looked at his watch.
“Time we were getting down to the station to meet that car,” he said. “Shouldn’t care to have to walk all that way for the baths and lavatories on a cold morning,” he remarked, as we left the college. “Why, it’s not sanitary. No running water in the rooms. Even the secondary schools do better than that!”
I was glad that we were out of earshot of two dons who had just passed us on their way into the college, and before he could say any more about the life of an undergraduate I steered him towards a bus stop.
We arrived next morning about half-past eleven outside Balaclava Barracks in Aldershot. A sentry on the gate directed us to a company office where he told us Major Howard could be found. We soon found ourselves being shown by a sergeant into a private office, on which was printed, “Major R. Howard. O.C. B. Coy. 10th Loamshires”.
A cheerful, good-looking man of about thirty-eight was seated at a desk. With his fair hair and moustache, both meticulously brushed and clipped, he looked a typical regular officer of the better type. He had an open expression on his unlined face, and at the sight of Beef, who had sent in in advance his professional card, he rose with a smile.
“Private investigator, eh?” he said. “That’s a new one here. Get the police often enough, but you’re the first private detective we’ve had. Which of our brutal and licentious soldiery are you enquiring about? Not that old case of Private Dunn, surely. I thought we’d killed that. After all, he only married three women.”
“No, sir,” Beef replied, “I’m afraid it’s not one of your soldiers. I’ve come to ask you a few questions.”
“Me?” the Major said. “Whatever do you want to ask me about?”
The light bantering tone had gone. He seemed quite taken aback.
“Well, go on. Don’t say one of my cheques has bounced?”
“No, it’s not that, sir,” Beef answered. “It’s about the death of your stepfather. The verdict at the inquest was murder by person or persons unknown. I have learnt that around the time he was murdered you were staying at the Randolph Hotel in Oxford. Is that correct?”
“Yes, I was staying at the Randolph about that time. Took some leave and went there for the Abingford race meeting.” Major Howard paused. “Before we go any further you’d better tell me, Mr. Beef, who you are. I see by your card that you call yourself a private investigator. What are you doing in this case? Who’s paying you?”
Beef explained about Ridley’s clergyman brother and how he had been engaged to look into the matter.
“Sounds all right,” Major Howard said, lighting a cigarette. “But why come to me? I’ve not seen the old skinflint for close on twenty years. Anyway, I don’t get any of his money. All I get out of it is what my mother left to come to me after his death. It’s only about three thousand.”
“Major Howard,” Beef said quietly, “you went to Oxford, saying you were going to stay for a week. You tell me now that you went there to attend the Abingford race meeting. You were very hard up when you went there. You told someone in the hotel that you were hoping to borrow some money from a relation who lived nearby. On the day your stepfather was murdered you came back to the hotel, obviously flush again, saying that you’d won a lot of money at the races. That evening, the evening of the tenth of September you left the hotel, not waiting to complete your week. That was the night Edwin Ridley was murdered. Would you like to tell me what you did that night? You needn’t, of course, but if you refuse to tell me it will be my duty to inform the police about all this. Then you’ll have to give them your story. Think it over. I want the truth, though.”
Major Howard was silent for some moments. He seemed worried and thoughtful. Then suddenly he looked up at Beef.
“I suppose I’ll have to tell you everything,” he began. “One thing I must ask you. What I’m going to tell you has nothing to do with Ridley’s death. If you’re satisfied about that, will you keep it to yourself?”
“I’ll do all I can,” Beef replied. “Until I hear your story, I cannot say more.”
“I’ll lose my commission if this comes out,” he said. “Well, it’s quite true that I had another reason for going to stay that week in Oxford. But it was because of the Abingford races that I chose that particular week. The truth was that I was devilishly hard up. I’m always that, but this time it was more serious than usual. I hadn’t even the money to pay my mess-bill. I’m pretty extravagant myself, but, between ourselves, my wife is a hundred times worse. I don’t mind telling you that because it’s common knowledge in the regiment. What wasn’t known was how much we owed, and there was nothing left to pay with.”
I remembered what Estelle Pinkerton, Ridley’s niece, had said about Howard’s wife’s extravagance.
“You see, she was always used to a lot of money,” he went on. “Her father crashed financially just after we were married and she can’t get used to living on a major’s pay. I knew there was a few thousand still to come from my mother’s estate, but that Ridley, my stepfather, had the use of it till he died. I hated the thought of asking him, but it was a case of absolute necessity. Either that or I should be cashiered. You’ve probably heard of how I quarrelled with him when I was twenty-one. I hadn’t seen or heard from him since, but, curiously enough, about a week before I went to Oxford I had a letter from Ridley’s niece, a funny, arty-crafty spinster called Miss Pinkerton . . .”
He saw that Beef and I were smiling.
“Oh, you’ve met L’Estrella, have you?” he went on. “Well, she and I were distantly related by marriage, but, being about the same age, we had known one another quite well in the old days. I had vaguely kept up with her after her parents’ death. You know the way one does with relations. Christmas cards and a letter every other year. As I was saying, I had a letter from her the week before I went to Oxford, forwarded from my club. I think she really put the idea into my head. I was surprised to hear from her at all. I’m afraid I hadn’t answered her last letter, which I received over a year ago. I did get a card at Christmas, all snow and robins, but that was the last I had heard from her. It was her usual sentimental stuff, but this time she seemed very keen that I should make it up with my stepfather. So sad, she said, I remember, if he were to pass away without a reconciliation. Couldn’t I sink my pride and all that? She was sure he was lonely and would welcome the prodigal son. He. would be deeply touched if I wrote or went to see him. I thought if I could ’touch’ him deeply, it would be the first time it had ever been done. Anyway, it was a case of needs must. My wife was away, staying with her sister, so I fixed a week’s leave and went to the Randolph. As I said, I was also keen to attend Abingford meeting and thought I might pull off something there. Beef, do smoke if you want to. And you too,” he said, turning to me and offering a thin gold Asprey cigarette-case. “Just out of pawn,” he said, smiling, when he noticed my gaze. “But we’re coming to that. I arrived in Oxford on the seventh and the meeting was on the eighth, ninth and tenth. In for a penny in for a pound, I thought. I’ll have a fling here first. If I win, all’s well. If I lose., I’ll be forced to go and see my stepfather in order to pay my hotel bill. My credit was good with the bookies, so I only needed entrance fees. The first two days nothing much happened. I was a quid or two down, but on the last day I couldn’t go wrong. For the first time in my life, and I expect the last, I literally went through the card. What’s more, of course, I pulled off the tote double. It was a corker, too, because the second horse was a complete outsider, but one I had been watching for a long time. Backing only in fivers and tenners, I was six hundred and forty quid up. The tote alone brought me in over four hundred. Well, you can imagine how I felt. Devil take stepfather Ridley, I said to myself. I don’t need any favours from anyone. I went back to the hotel. Paid my cheque. I’d told the girl behind the desk she’d be lucky if she saw the colour of my money, but she only laughed. Little did she know how nearly it came true. Oh, I suppose you got onto me through her. Anyway, I couldn’t stand Oxford any more. I felt like a celebration. So I beetled up to town and was back here for dinner in mess the next night. That’s the lot.” He breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank heavens that’s off my chest. Come and have a drink in the mess.”
“Just a minute, Major,” Beef said. “I’m very grateful to you for telling me all that. If you could just tell me where you stayed or where you went, I don’t think I need trouble you further.”
Major Howard paused and looked carefully at Beef.
“Can’t do that, I’m afraid,” he said, a little uneasily. “It’s not my secret, you see. I told you my wife was away. Come and have a drink. Even if I’m a murderer, it won’t hurt you. I shan’t put arsenic in your glass.”
“I think we ought to get back, Major. Thank you very much, all the same,” I said hurriedly. I had visions of Beef hobnobbing with the Colonel.
“You’d like a drink, Beef, I’m sure,” Major Howard pressed.
“I think I should,” Beef replied, rising impatiently.
I ought by now to have known better. When we reached the mess, Beef became at once a centre of attraction. His highly coloured accounts of the seamy side of his job went down so well, and so did his drinks, that I had difficulty in dragging him away.
The only conversation I had was with a rather elderly captain. “You in the Services?” he asked.
“No,” I replied.
“Oh,” he said, and moved away.
We left soon after, though the Colonel eagerly pressed Beef to stay to lunch.