Neck and Neck, Chapter Sixteen

Neck and Neck

CHAPTER SIXTEEN
   
It was late in the afternoon when we arrived back at the Shaven Crown in Cold Slaughter.  Beef had insisted on a number of stops on the way back.  His reception in the officers’ mess seemed to have gone rather to his head.
As I went up to my room, I felt how pleasant it was to be back here again.  Soon, I thought, as I turned on a bath in the bare clean bathroom, I would go down and join Beef in the bar for a beer or two, then we would sit down to one of these excellent meals of steak or chops and home-grown vegetables, and after that a quiet evening in the big public bar.  Then to bed.  But I did not know then how long it would be before I saw my comfortable bed again.
I had become accustomed to these stone Cotswold houses that had at first seemed to me so bare, so drained of colour and warmth after the rich red brick of the south.  Now I felt a kind of comfort in the thick solidity of the walls and began to feel something of the beauty of this bit of England—a beauty that seemed to have guided man’s hand for centuries unconsciously and without apparent effort into shaping every building so that it conformed in simplicity of line and in the subdued hue of the stone with these very hills themselves.
Again I congratulated myself on the lucky chance of my accidental meeting with Beef that in turn had led me to this way of life.  The freedom and variety of the job of being Beef’s biographer never failed to please me.  We never knew where the next case would take us nor what strange collection of human beings we should meet.  The worst I had to look forward to was a long period in my flat recording the case.  Even then there was always the chance of a few days’ excitement on some new venture.
Beef was alone in the bar when I got down, and I joined him in a beer.  We were just thinking of throwing a few darts before our meal when a young fellow entered and came up to us.
“Got some news for you,” he said rather excitedly.  “I’ve just seen that fellow Greenleaf.”
I recognised the speaker as the young chauffeur who had told us about the car standing in the lane near Bampton Court on the night Ridley was murdered.  Dressed in his dark-blue uniform, he looked a handsome young rascal.  Chapman, Bob Chapman, that was the name, I remembered.  The older men in the bar had told us quite a lot about him after they had seen him talking to us.  He had been, apparently, pretty wild in his early days—he was only twenty-two or three now—and though he seemed to have settled down to a steady job as chauffeur to the local M.P.  he was still counted as rather an irresponsible character.  No local dance or cricket dinner, apparently, was complete unless he was there.  They spoke of him, however, with a kind of indulgent affection and I could tell that, with his open laughing face and neat figure, he was a favourite in these parts.
Just then two or three strangers entered the bar.  Beckoning us to follow him, Beef picked up his tankard and led the way into the room where we used to have our meals.
“Now, young fellow, what’s all this excitement?  You say you’ve seen Greenleaf?  Where?”
Chapman blew a couple of rings from the smoke of his cigarette.
“I thought you might be interested so I came in here special, just to tell you.  I’ve just come back from Long Alton station.  I had to take my boss and his wife down to catch the five-forty.  They’re off to London for a day or two.  I don’t expect you know, but the evening up-train and the down-train arrive about the same time at Long Alton.  Well, I’d got Sir Henry and his missus nicely settled in an empty first-class carriage and I was just off, when she suddenly said, ‘Oh, Bob, I completely forgot.  There’s a parcel for me from Fortnum and Mason at the station.  It came by passenger train this morning.  They phoned about it.  Collect it before you go, will you, and take it back to the house.’  So, instead of going straight back to the car I go into the office at the back of the booking-window.  They do everything there.  The first thing I notice as I go in is that there’s a chap there whose face is familiar.  Yet, I thought, he’s not a local.  Gracious, I said to myself, I know who that is.  That’s that chap Greenleaf who tried to do himself in.”
He had recognized Greenleaf so easily, it appeared, because he had attended the court when Greenleaf was up for attempted suicide.  “The boss had to go,” he said, “and as I had to drive him there I thought I might as well look in.  Never know when you’re going to be up in court yourself, do you?  Not that I’d ever try that game.  I felt like it once when I was seventeen and a skirt turned me down, but I’ve learnt a bit since then, see.  Always more fish in the sea, eh?”
“You aren’t half spinning this yarn out, young Bob,” Beef said.
He paused for another cigarette, lighting the match negligently with a finger-nail, and then continued his story.
“As soon as I see him, I think of you two and what I told you about some folks saying they’d seen him in the neighbourhood around the time old Ridley was done in.  I said to myself, ‘Bob, this is where you do a bit of Sherlock Holmes.’  You wouldn’t know, but at Long Alton station there isn’t any public telephone.  If you want to phone you use the one in the office.  As I come in, this fellow Greenleaf goes up to old Jim, the clerk there, and asks if he can ’phone.  I stay well in the background, but, anyway, he wouldn’t know me.  ‘Certainly,’ Jim says.  ‘Is it local?’  Greenleaf says yes, and Jim says, ‘Well, put tuppence in and dial.  You know the number, I suppose.’  Greenleaf says yes again and turns towards the phone.  It was a bit dark in the office, but as he goes towards the phone I can see his face properly for the first time.  Gosh, he looked terrible!  Ten times worse than when he was in the dock.”
“Piling it on a bit, aren’t you?” Beef said, but I could see he was smiling.  “I bet you don’t half think you’re a Dick Barton . . .”
“No, honest, he did.  Real wild he looked.  First I thought I’d try and get near enough to see what number he was phoning, but then I thought that might make him suspicious of me so I stayed in the background, but near enough to hear what he was saying.  I heard him say ‘This is Greenleaf here,’ and then poor old Jim the clerk has to turn round and see me there, and of course he must go and interrupt.  He asks me what I want and I tell him about the parcel.  Thank God it took a little while to find, but he keeps chattering all the time.  However, I got the most important part.  I heard him say, ‘I don’t know anywhere else round here,’ and then he suddenly said, ‘What about the Druids’ Stones?  I know them.  I could find them any time, day or night’, and then just as he rang off I heard the real bit I wanted.  ‘Very well, I’ll see you by the stones some time after eleven.  Yes, I realise you may be late.  I’ll wait, and mind you turn up.’  He slammed down the receiver and stalked out without even a glance at me.  He seemed really worked up.  I collect my parcel and hurry out to the car, but it was dark then and he’d vanished.  This is a job for Beef and me, I say to myself. . . .”
“What d’you mean by ‘Beef and me’, eh?”
“Let’s come with you,” he pleaded.  “You’ll go out tonight, won’t you, and see who he’s meeting at the Druids’ Stones?  I know the place well.  Quite a landmark round here.  On the hill nearly a mile from Cold Slaughter.  Let me come along.  I know every inch of the country.  I used to play among those stones as a kid.  I promise not to say a word.”
Beef rubbed his chin.  “What about your job?”
Bob laughed.  “Didn’t I tell you the boss and his wife have gone away.  I’m free as air.  I’ll just take the car back and drop her ladyship’s parcel.  Bet there’s a nice large pot or two of caviar in that.  I’ll have to get round the cook again, I can see.  I must pass the word to Doris—she’s my latest—that I can’t meet her tonight.  She’ll be wild.  Can’t be helped.  I’ll come back here on my motor-bike.  How’s that?”
Beef nodded.  “All right, Bob me lad, but don’t you go saying anything to nobody about this.  It might be dangerous.”
“I say, do you think so?” Bob said, his voice full of excitement.  “Shall I borrow the old man’s revolver?”
“None of that, now,” Beef said ponderously.  “This is not a kid’s game nor one of your Hollywood crook films.  I’m just a hard-working detective.”
“Bet you’re good, though.”
“What are these stones you keep talking about?” Beef asked.
“Haven’t you heard of the Druids’ Stones?” Bob replied.  “They’re about a mile away.  Up on a hill.  They’re like Stonehenge only much smaller.  I don’t think many people know about them except folk round here.  A few old chaps, professors and so on, come and look occasionally, but mostly they’re allowed to become overgrown.  You’ll see ’em tonight.  Supposed to be haunted, so you’d better look out, Beef.  Well, cheerio.”
“Nice young fellow that,” Beef said, when he had gone.
“He certainly knows how to manage you, Beef,” I said.  “A heavy dose of flattery. . . .”
“He can see I’m good,” Beef replied, making for the bar.  “Pity a few others don’t realise it.”