Neck and Neck
The church bell was striking the quarter hour after ten as we stepped out of the Shaven Crown. We had purposely waited until after closing time so that our going out at that time would arouse no comment among the few who had just left the bars. We had arranged to pick up Bob Chapman at the far end of the village. It seemed very dark at first, until our eyes became accustomed to the September night. There was a heavy wind blowing and dark clouds hid the moon for the most part, but every now and then a shaft of light would appear as a rift appeared in the scudding bank of cloud. When we had passed beyond the last house of the village and had come into the open country, I soon became aware of a dark shadow motionless against the stone wall. As we approached]the shadow became recognizable as the slim figure of Bob Chapman. I had found an old history of Gloucestershire in the inn parlour, and while waiting for our evening meal I had looked up the Druids’ Stones. I could only find one short paragraph about them. A curious irregular circle of stones, the book said, near Cold Slaughter. They are thought to date back to prehistoric times and probably belong to the same period as Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain. There was a comparison between the two, quite a bit about the early customs of that period and a steel engraving of the stones themselves. Then followed a typically Victorian sentence. “Many strange beliefs are still held concerning these stones in the villages around and it would be difficult to persuade any of the local inhabitants to go near them after nightfall.”
Very comforting, I thought, as we walked forward in silence, with Bob leading, and I was glad of the company of these two. The warmth and confidence that I had felt earlier in the evening as I drank a few pints of beer before the bar fire seemed to vanish when the wind went whistling across the open fields and the rare gleams of moonlight lit now and then the desolate landscape and revealed for a moment or two the strange twisted shape of a tree or barn.
Presently we came to an old five-barred gate and I could see beyond the darker shadows of a wood. Bob climbed over and tried to open it, but it was covered with lichen and overgrown and would not budge. It had obviously not been used for a long time. Beef followed, climbing over the gate. With all his bulk, he shewed an agility that surprised me. When we had advanced some twenty yards up what had been a ride through the wood, but was now only wide enough to allow us to walk in single file, Bob stopped in a small clearing.
“This is not the usual way up to the stones,” he said, as Beef and I came close. “I’m taking you up a back way. It’s a bit further round, but I thought it would be better. We might have run into Greenleaf the other way in the dark, but we’re quite safe here. He can’t possibly know this path through the wood.”
“What about the person he’s meeting?” Beef asked. “He must be a local.”
“Even if he lives round here, I don’t suppose he could find his way through this wood in the dark. Anyway, there’d be no point in going a long way round.”
“How much farther is it?” I asked. It was a stiff climb through the wood and I was not in training.
“Oh, not far,” Bob replied. “We’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
Beef looked at his watch.
“We should be there just after a quarter to eleven. That should be all right. Can we get pretty close without being seen?” he asked.
“I’ve got all that worked out,” Bob replied, and I could tell from his voice that he was thoroughly enjoying himself. There was a note of confident pride arising, I suspected, from the fact that he was acting as leader to a real detective. Without him, he felt, we should be lost among these trees. “On this side, you see, the wood stretches right up to the stones.” He went on, “The moon will be on our left so we should be able to see what we want if these clouds break at all. Noise is the only danger. We’ll have to go carefully later when we get close. Greenleaf may be there already. Twigs make a hell of a noise at night. Luckily, there’s a wind which will cover a lot. We’d better get on now. I’ll tell you when we’re getting close.”
We followed on up the steep path. It was heavy going, for the ground underfoot was wet and soggy and every now and then our clothes would be caught by thorns, or we would trip on a half-hidden log, or a branch would block the way. The old police training seemed to stand Beef in good stead and he again surprised me. I was beginning to pant and blow, but Beef moved silently forward and seemed to avoid instinctively the twigs that continually slapped my face or the coil of a blackberry bush that would wind round my legs.
It seemed a long and wearisome climb before I came upon Beef and Bob Chapman standing motionless under a large beech tree. The path seemed for some time to have become more level and I imagined that we must be reaching the crown of the hill on which Bob had told us the Druids’ Stones lay.
“That’s the end of the wood,” Bob said, in a low voice, pointing to a patch ahead that was lighter than the surrounding shadows. The wood was so thick that it was impossible to see far in any direction.
“I think,” Bob went on in a whisper, “it would be best if I went on alone and had a look round. If I’m not back in five minutes you follow with Mr. Townsend.”
“It’s quite easy. There’s a well-worn path from here to the edge of the wood. Don’t make a noise, though, or we may put them on their guard. If there’s nobody there yet it will be easy. Anyone coming to the stones any other way has to approach them across an open field, and we should easily see them in good time. I’ll come straight back if anyone’s there.”
For a time we could see his figure moving among the trees, but it soon disappeared. Apart from the wind in the treetops I could not hear a sound, and I thought that it would be fairly easy for us to follow undetected anyone outside the wood. I could see Beef looking occasionally at the luminous dial of his watch, and I too began to feel some of the excitement of the chase. I wondered whom Greenleaf had arranged to meet and why it had been necessary to choose this outlandish spot. A sudden rather unpleasant thought came to me. Had he chosen this place purposely because it was so far from anywhere? Beef interrupted my thoughts by nudging me and pointing to his watch. Then he, too, disappeared down the pathway towards the edge of the wood. I could not help feeling very much alone and defenceless once he had gone. Every sound made me start and every dark shadow assumed human shape. I waited for some moments, perhaps a minute, and then took the path down which the other two had gone. I advanced slowly and as silently as I could. Suddenly I felt a hand on my arm. Stifling a cry I turned and saw Bob at my side. He led me forward a few paces and then lay on his stomach, motioning me to do the same. As I lay down, I became aware of Beef a little way ahead, also prone on the ground. Bob plucked my sleeve and pointed ahead. My eyes had become accustomed to the darkness now and through a thin curtain of branches I could see the open grassland and the dark shapes that must be the Druids’ Stones. They were not tall, like those at Stonehenge, but formed a more complete circle. Bob was still attracting my attention, and as I followed his pointing finger I saw advancing across the grass towards the circle of stones the tall figure of a man. Beef was gazing motionless ahead. I looked round at Bob and saw a look of thrill and triumph lighting up his broad open features. He nodded to me gaily, as if to say, “What did I tell you?”
As the figure approached it was not difficult to recognize it as the tall ungainly shape of Greenleaf. When he reached the circle he looked carefully around and gave a low whistle. It was an eerie sound in the dark emptiness of the night. He paced up and down and then sat down on one of the stones that lay horizontal on the ground. I looked at my watch and was surprised to find it was only just before eleven. Only three quarters of an hour since we had left the homely warmth of the inn fire, I thought. Out here we seemed to have passed into a different life, something more primitive and nearer to nature itself.
Apart from the intermittent soughing of the wind, there was complete silence, broken only by the hooting of an owl, the distant barking of a fox and every now and then a rustle somewhere near us in the wood, which I took for a stoat or weasel or some other animal on a predatory prowl. Greenleaf himself was sitting quite still, though every now and then he would turn his head and look around. Though I knew we were completely invisible, it was a curious sensation to watch his head turned towards where we lay and know that his eyes were fixed on the wood.
Just then Beef turned round towards us and beckoned. Bob motioned me to stay still while he crept silently forward. I could just hear a faint whisper and then I saw Bob disappear into the open in the direction opposite to that in which Greenleaf was facing. I watched him slip forward, a black streak against the faint light, and fade into the protecting shadow of one of the biggest of the stones which stood near to where Greenleaf was sitting.
He had no sooner got there than I heard a sharp click, and looking up I saw Greenleaf raise his right hand. The moon shone for a moment and I could see the silhouette of his hand, which seemed strangely distorted. Something glinted in the faint light, and with a shock I realized that he was holding a revolver in his hand. He was pointing it towards the moon and looking down the barrel. I could see that Beef had noticed this and I hoped Bob had too. I felt we were responsible for his safety, anyhow.
Then a new noise broke the silence, and for a paralysing moment I realized that it was coming from within the wood quite close to where we lay. There was a cracking of boughs and a heavy tramp of feet. I looked over my shoulder and saw away to our left a torch shining. Someone else was using the woods that night. I watched as Greenleaf looked up, but was relieved to see that he remained seated. Then not twenty yards to our left a second figure broke out from the woods and made its way towards the stones. Greenleaf made no movement as the newcomer came towards him.
“What a place to choose,” the newcomer said, and I was surprised that we were near enough to hear what was said. Beef obviously had been afraid that we might not and had sent Bob nearer. I was just thinking that there was something familiar about the new-comer, his voice and movement, when I heard Greenleaf reply.
“You know very well, Fagg, I couldn’t risk coming to Bampton Court. Someone was sure to have seen me. This was the only place around here I knew. Anyhow, have you got it?”
“Not so much of your hurry and bluster, Mr. Greenleaf,” Fagg replied, and now I could clearly recognize the unpleasing features of the manservant of Bampton Court. “This is going to cost you a lot of money. I’ve taken a big risk in getting it. If that blasted private dick gets on to it, it’ll be me who’ll suffer. A hundred quid is what I want for this bit of paper. I know you can’t produce that much now. What I want to know is how much you have brought. Let’s not waste time. Here’s the papers you want. Where’s the dough?”
Greenleaf put his hand in his breast pocket. “Here’s thirty pounds,” he said. “I’ll let you have the rest in a month when I get that money I told you about.”
Fagg handed over what looked like an envelope, and for a few minutes they were both silent, while Fagg seemed to be counting the notes, and Greenleaf, producing a small torch from his pocket, was intent on the papers Fagg had given him.
“Only just right,” Fagg said unpleasantly. “And I’m not worried about the other seventy. You’ll pay that all right. And before a month’s out, because you know very well if you don’t what’ll happen. I’ll have to go to the police and tell them about your little visit to Bampton Court on the tenth of September.”
“It would only be your word against mine,” Greenleaf said.
“That’s where you’re wrong, Mr. Greenleaf. You don’t think I’d trust you with those papers and you still owing me seventy quid if I hadn’t something else up my sleeve, do you?”
Greenleaf stared, without replying.
“Do you?” Fagg repeated, in an even nastier tone. “Well, I’ll just tell you in case you get any ideas about clearing off and not paying. I’ve got a newspaper at home,” he went on, in a jeering tone. “It’s the Daily Telegraph. The London edition. It’s dated the tenth of September. You bought that paper in London and carelessly left it in the hall at Bampton Court when you called on Ridley that night.”
“That paper proves nothing,” I heard Greenleaf reply, but his voice was strained and uneasy.
“Doesn’t it?” Fagg repeated. “Doesn’t it prove anything when it’s got a nice little crossword neatly filled? I bet that detective could soon prove it was yours. It’s beautifully done in ink with a fountain-pen. Black ink, too. I bet your pen is filled with some now.”
“Your dirty blackmailing rascal,” Greenleaf shouted as he rose. “I’ll shew you why I chose this place. See what I’ve got in my hand. . . .”
At this moment several things happened. Beef leapt to his feet and I saw a figure slide swiftly out of the shadows. There was a sharp cry, a loud report, and on the ground all that could be seen was a dark swirling human mass.
Beef covered the distance that separated us from the mêlée like a born athlete, and when I came up the struggle was over. Greenleaf was on his feet, but I noticed Beef held him in a firm grip. Bob was nursing his hand, from which blood was pouring rather freely, but of Fagg there was no sign.
I had a look at Bob’s hand and found it was only a flesh wound. The bullet had fortunately caught the fleshy part of his palm and there was dark discolouration caused by the revolver being fired at such close range. I bound a clean handkerchief tightly round the wound and told him to keep it up. Beef was holding the revolver in his right hand, while he gripped Greenleaf with his left.
“You’re coming with me, Mr. Greenleaf,” Beef was saying. “I’m not a policeman now, but it’s my duty as a citizen to keep you under my eye until we’ve had a word with the local Superintendent. You can tell your story to him.”
This time we took the main pathway back to Cold Slaughter.
“Bob, you go and get your hand seen to by the doctor,” Beef said, as we came into the village. “Tell him you’ve been out rabbiting. I’ll see him in the morning and explain. We don’t want a lot of gossip. Come and see us at the pub tomorrow. In the meantime keep your mouth shut.”
“O.K., Beef,” Bob replied, as he entered the gate of the doctor’s house. “I told you I ought to have brought the old man’s gun,” and we heard him whistling cheerfully as he walked up the drive.
“I’m taking you along to the pub we’re staying at,” he said to Greenleaf. “Then I’m going to ’phone the Superintendent.”
Greenleaf just mumbled a reply. He looked utterly dead beat. He certainly shewed no sign of resistance and seemed almost glad that all decisions “were being made for him.
Beef roused the landlord, when we got back to the inn, and asked for some hot water, a bowl of sugar and a bottle of rum.
“Nice rum punch,” Beef said. “That’s what we all need,” and he went to ’phone the Superintendent. Half an hour later the latter arrived. Greenleaf had recovered somewhat by now. Beef told the Superintendent how he had come to witness the scene at the Druids’ Stones and all that had happened there, and handed over the revolver.
“I think you ought to have informed me about this, Beef,” the Superintendent said rather curtly. He was obviously annoyed at being roused in the middle of the night and, in addition, felt probably that Beef had stolen a march on him.
“Now, Mr. Greenleaf, I think we want some explanation from you. Would you like to make a statement?” he asked. “Of course, if you would I shall have to give you the usual warning.”
Greenleaf at first became truculent saying that no one could hold him without making a charge, but eventually agreed to explain.
“It’s really quite simple,” he said. “All I wanted was to get my contract back from that blood-sucking swine Ridley. I admit I called there the night he was murdered, but he was alive when I left him. I’ll admit, too, we had words, and I lost my temper. I tried to get hold of the papers I wanted by force. That crook Fagg had told me where to look, but the desk was locked. I couldn’t get hold of them. I told Ridley I was going to publish and be damned with another firm. He’d have to sue me and I’d shew him up. I left him just before midnight.”
“How did you get to Bampton Court?” the Superintendent asked.
“I walked from the station,” Greenleaf answered.
“You didn’t see a car when you left the house that night?” the Superintendent went on.
Greenleaf seemed uncertain what to reply. “No,” he answered at last, “I don’t remember one. Well, I’d better just finish my story. Fagg, when I told him I had been unsuccessful in finding the papers I wanted, offered to get hold of them for me if I paid him a hundred quid.”
“Wait a minute,” the Superintendent said. “When did all this happen? You seem to have been on pretty familiar terms with Fagg.”
“We’d exchanged a few letters after my last visit,” Greenleaf replied rather sheepishly. “I admit I was a fool. I knew Fagg was crooked, but I was determined to get the better of Ridley by fair means or foul. Fagg wrote to me two days ago and said that he had managed to get hold of the papers I wanted while the police were going through them.”
I saw the Superintendent frown, but Greenleaf went on without noticing.
“I came down here tonight, or rather yesterday,” he went on, for it was already well past midnight. “I ’phoned Fagg from the station, I didn’t want to be seen in the village so I arranged to meet him at the only other landmark I knew. You heard the rest,” he ended, turning to Beef.
“Why did you bring a revolver?” the Superintendent asked.
“I knew Fagg. I thought I might have to frighten him a bit if he tried any funny business. As you heard, he was as good as threatening blackmail. I never meant to fire the gun. It just went off when that chap of yours sprung out on me from behind.”
“I’m afraid I shall have to ask you to come along with me.”
When they had gone, I felt very sleepy, and, much as I wanted to question Beef, I could hardly keep my eyes open and felt it would be better to leave that until the morning. It had been a long day. Our drive to Aldershot and back, then the long climb up to the Druids’ Stones and our vigil there, then Beef’s strong rum punches, all seemed to weigh down my eyelids. I had never been so glad to slide into bed, and as I dropped off to sleep I remembered my thoughts of a peaceful evening in the inn and how differently the night had turned out. It was difficult to believe that the scene by the Druids’ Stones had really taken place. Like the stones themselves, such passion as Greenleaf had shewn seemed to belong to a more primordial state of nature.