Neck and Neck
I was woken the next morning by the sound of bells from the village church. I glanced at my watch and found it was nearly eleven o’clock. I was making an effort to rise when there was a knock at the door and the wife of the landlord appeared with breakfast on a tray.
“Thought I’d let you sleep on, sir,” she said, “after all your adventures last night. It’s the talk of the village, you know. But you wouldn’t have heard the latest, I suppose. They’ve arrested that Greenleaf fellow. I said to my husband from the first, I said, it’s not a local person who did it, you mark my words. Mr. Beef said for you not to hurry. He’s not going out this morning, but he wants to drive to London this afternoon. I’m afraid you’ll both be leaving us. He’s got a private challenge match against George this morning. George is the postman, you know. He doesn’t want to leave without playing that off. We shall miss Mr. Beef when he goes. Quite a character he’s become in the public bar in these few days. It usually takes our customers a long time before they take to a new customer, but Mr. Beef certainly’s got a way with him. He throws quite a good dart, too. Well, I mustn’t let your breakfast get cold.”
She put the tray on the table beside the bed and departed, leaving, I was pleased to see, the Sunday papers I had ordered.
I can do without papers on a weekday, but a Sunday without my favourite papers would be hell. I can never quite make up my mind whether I prefer the Observer to the Sunday Times, so I always come back to having them both. About the necessity for taking the News of the World I have never had a moment’s doubt. The Sunday Express completes the quartette, but that, I am afraid, remains rather as a tribute to the Nat Gubbins of the war years.
I love to read them leisurely, as I could that morning, sipping tea, eating a mouthful of bacon and egg or a finger of toast, entirely on my own. It’s selfish, perhaps, but I like to have them crisp and unopened and not have to share them with anyone else. For there is an art, I find, in consuming this Sunday fare. One begins with the light hors d’œuvres, Sayings of the Week in the Observer, The Stars and You in the News of the World, Nat Gubbins in the Express and Henry Longhurst in the Sunday Times, and works one’s way through the whole menu, the book reviews, Atticus, Scrutator, the savouries in the centre pages of the News of the World—always a flavoursome tit-bit and with such endearing titles—and until not a dish remains to which full justice has not been done.
It was, therefore, nearly half-past twelve when I eventually came downstairs. I found Beef enjoying his Sunday morning ritual at the bar, a ritual which he would be equally unwilling to forgo. “Have you heard about them arresting Greenleaf?” he asked.
I nodded. “For the murder?” I asked.
“Yes,” Beef replied. “I thought they might hold him. He got a pretty good grilling last night, I expect. Well, it simplifies everything. We’ll leave here this afternoon. I’ve learnt all I want in the Cotswolds. The arrest can’t be out till Monday’s papers, but I want to be in London early this evening, just to be on the safe side. I shall miss this place, you know. Don’t always get a decent crowd like the one that comes in here. There’s some good players, too. That reminds me. I must play that final challenge against old George. He’s over there. Hasn’t got his uniform on today. Two All, it is. It’ll be anyone’s game.”
Beef went over to the board, and when I glanced across a few minutes later it was clear that the great match had begun.
Quite a crowd had gathered, and Beef, I knew, would be in his element. There was something of the actor in him that brought out the best in his playing when there was a crowd. Young Bob Chapman was among the spectators, his damaged hand heavily bandaged. He was, I noticed, rooting loudly for Beef.
We did not have our Sunday roast beef until after the pub closed at two, so that it was nearly three before we set out.
Beef was silent all the way up, which was unusual with him. I thought at first he might have gone to sleep after the heavy midday lunch, but whenever I looked across at him his eyes were fixed ahead. He looked thoughtful and rather formidable.
It was not until we drew up at his house that he spoke. “I must see that fellow Gupp again. It’s more urgent than ever, now they’ve arrested Greenleaf,” he said, as he lifted his bag from the car. “I can’t get the police to do it. They won’t have any more to do with him. They say they’ve questioned him till they’re blue in the face and can’t break his alibi, so we’ll have to do it unofficially. It’s most important that I see him tomorrow at the latest. I’ve two questions I must ask him. Will you help me to get hold of him?”
I said I would, but I did not relish the idea. What Beef had in mind I did not know, but I was reluctant to act the pawn if Gupp should be the king Beef was trying to corner.
“I’ve got his address here. Inspector Arnold gave it to me in Hastings. It’s Buckingham Gate. That’s where he lives. I want you to go along there now and try and see him. Ask him out for a drink or a meal. If you can’t fix anything for tonight, it will have to be tomorrow. But it would be better tonight. When you’ve got something fixed, ’phone me and I’ll come along casual like. I expect he’ll see through it, but he can’t avoid me very well if you’re there.”
“Supposing he’s out?” I said.
“Leave a message asking him to ’phone you tomorrow morning. Say it’s very important. You’ll have to think up something between now and then to discuss with him till I come along. I tell you, it’s really urgent. I shall be waiting to get your call. I shan’t even go out to the local tonight, that’s how serious I think it is. I’ll spend an evening with the old woman. She’s very good, seeing how little I’m there. Don’t forget, ring me as soon as you can.”
Ever since Beef had heard of Greenleaf’s arrest I had noticed a change in him. I knew him so well by now that I would see a difference when it would not be apparent to outsiders. Since then he had seemed almost anxious and worried, which he rarely was, and the long silence he had kept all the way up to London struck me as not at all like Beef.
I drove the car through the park and found that the address which Beef had given me as Gupp’s was that of a small expensive-looking private hotel. When I enquired for Gupp, they told me that he was away. I asked when he left and was told Friday night.
“Rather unexpected, wasn’t it?” I asked casually. “I had arranged to dine with him tonight. He didn’t leave a message or his address or anything, did he? I’m his cousin.”
The porter said he would make quite sure and rang through to the office, but Gupp had left no address or message.
There was nothing further I could do there so I went to the nearest ’phone box and rang Beef. He did not say much when I told him, except that he wanted me to get in touch with Gupp at the Asiatic Bank where he worked.
Next morning I telephoned the St. James’s branch of the Asiatic Bank, and after being put through to various departments I got into an assistant manager who told me that Mr. Gupp was not in. When I began to ask questions he became very brusque. “Please ’phone his home address, if you must speak to him. We don’t encourage private calls here.”
I thought that I had better see Beef, so I drove round to his house. He called me in.
“Seen the papers?” he asked, and put in front of me the midday specials.
I had seen a small paragraph in my morning paper just giving the details of Greenleaf’s arrest in what they called the Cotswold murder, but I was not prepared for the publicity that the midday papers gave to the news. There were photos of the Druids’ Stones and of Bob Chapman with a bandaged hand and a highly coloured account of our midnight adventures. Beef was termed as “that well-known private investigator, Mr. William Beef’. There was no mention of me, but Bob had quite a write-up, and had given an interview which made good reading. I rather thought that the landlord of the Shaven Crown must have had a record Sunday night attendance.
Beef listened rather impatiently to my news about Gupp.
“Well, if we can’t get in touch with him, we’ll have to do a bit of routine work ourselves. It’s office work, so I’d like your help. We must get on to that right away. I must find out on what boat Gupp came back from the East Indies. That’s what I wanted to ask him. It says in my notebook that he told us he landed early August. We’ll go to all the shipping companies this afternoon and look through their passenger lists till we find it. It must be about that time because he called on your aunt the middle of August.”
Just as he finished speaking there was a ring at his front door. A few minutes later Mrs. Beef opened the door.
“Rev. Alfred Ridley,” she said, ushering in a figure in a clerical collar, whom we recognised at once.
“Ah, Beef, I see the police have got my brother’s murderer. The morning papers state they’ve arrested a fellow called Greenleaf. I don’t like all these headlines in the midday papers. I see you were involved in this rather melodramatic business.”
Beef was making some noncommittal reply when the vicar began to speak again.
“I came this morning about an extraordinary coincidence. A rather curious thing has happened. I don’t suppose it has any connection with the case but I felt I’d better tell you. You’ve met my elder sister’s daughter, Estelle Pinkerton, I think? You called on her in Cheltenham she told me. Well, I always have a talk with her on Sunday evenings over the ’phone. She loves to hear about the children, you know. She’s godmother to two of them. She has no ’phone of her own so her neighbours, a retired colonel and his wife, allow her to use theirs.”
He paused to light a cigarette. “I got through as usual on Sunday and she was most mysterious. She said she was going away in a few days. She told me she didn’t know when she’d be back, but I wasn’t to worry about her. I tried to get her to tell me more, but she wouldn’t and rang off. Knowing that now an arrest had been made she’d probably be able to draw on her uncle’s money, I was worried. You know what she’s like—most unworldly. I’d met her neighbours, Colonel Fordyce and his wife, when I’d visited her a few years back. Somehow I felt I wasn’t quite satisfied so I put another call through and spoke to Mrs. Fordyce. She made the matter seem even worse, hinting that there was a man in the case. Well, when a woman, a spinster at that, close on forty comes into a large sum of money one must be prepared for fortune hunters, but I didn’t anticipate anything like that so soon. I wonder if you could look into the matter for me? It’s very awkward, you know. I can’t interfere with her. She’s of age, of course. But all that money . . .” He shook his head. Then he added, almost in a whisper, “It should all come to my children when she dies, but if a man gets hold of her, goodness knows what may happen.” Beef agreed.
“Going away without telling me where or for how long. It’s so unlike Estelle. She’s always consulted me. I don’t like it. I should feel much happier if you could find time to go and see her and reassure me that everything is all right. You know, she’s a wealthy woman now and that colonel’s wife seemed quite perturbed about her.”
Beef promised to do what he could, and the vicar left.
“Come on, quick,” Beef said, as soon as the front door had closed behind the Reverend Alfred Ridley. “We’ll get down to those shipping companies. We must work fast now.”
It was not until after one o’clock, when the clerks in the Dutch East Indian Line, where we had come in desperation after meeting with no success among the English shipping companies, were shewing impatience that I at last came on Gupp’s name in a passenger list. The boat, the Appeldorn, on which he had travelled, was a slow one, apparently, and seemed to have called everywhere on its way back. Even after Marseilles I noticed that it had put in at Barcelona, Gibraltar, Lisbon and Cherbourg, before it eventually berthed at Tilbury on 6th August. It was a cheap fare, I could not help noticing, and I thought that that was probably the reason Gupp had been forced to choose that particular line.
I had done most of the checking of the lists while Beef occupied himself in being pleasant to the various officials in these offices and enlisting their help. When I found Gupp’s name, Beef got out the glasses which he only used on very special occasions.
“Let me have a look,” he said, and I could detect a quiver of excitement in his voice as he eagerly scanned the list.
“It’s there all right,” I replied. “There’s no need to check it.”
I was impatient to get away now that we had found Gupp’s name, but Beef was in his most irritating mood. He had got out his huge notebook and was busy making copious notes. When he had finished, he thanked the clerk who had helped us and we walked out into Haymarket.
“I must get down to Hastings right away,” he said, as we walked towards the Carlton. “There’s not a moment to be lost.”
“I’m glad now the police have arrested someone for the Cotswold murder,” I could not help saying. “Now you can get back to my aunt’s case. I suppose you’d like me to drive you down?”
“There isn’t time for that,” he answered, “but drive me as far as Victoria. I’m only going straight down and back again as quick as I can. I’ve just got to get two answers. Then I think my case is complete.”
When we were in the car he went on: “I want to ask Raikes, the cook’s husband, the fellow we saw at Lewes races, you know, just one thing. I want to know what he saw exactly that morning when he was outside your aunt’s room, cleaning the window. That’s the first one. Then I want that dressmaker woman, Miss Pinhole, to tell me who she thought she recognised that same morning as she was going in to see your aunt. You remember she told us she could fix the day of the murder, because just as she was coming to your aunt’s house she thought she saw someone she knew. I know Raikes is there because I ’phoned Camber Lodge this morning. I’ll have to risk catching Miss Pinhole. She’s not the sort to be far away.”
I drove into the station yard at Victoria and Beef got out. “I’ll catch the first train back I can,” he said, as we left the car. “Wait in at your flat until you hear from me, will you? Have the car filled, too. We may have a long run to do before night.”
As I waited that evening for Beef in my flat I could not help feeling something of the tenseness, the suppressed excitement that I had detected in his voice and manner during the last two days, and I was glad to have something to keep me occupied until Beef came. I cut some excellent sandwiches, put out a half-dozen bottles of beer and, as an afterthought, added a bottle of whisky, which I had been keeping for just such an expedition as this.
Just before six the bell of my flat rang, and I found Beef on the doorstep.
He nodded approvingly at the sandwiches and the beer. “Just what we need,” he said, picking up the whisky bottle: “we’ve a long cold drive to do tonight,” and quarter-filled two large tumblers.
“Nice drop of Scotch,” he said, sucking his lips, and began to empty his overcoat pockets. First came his favourite torch. Then I was surprised to see him bring out a pair of handcuffs. I had never known him use them before.
“I slipped round to tell the old woman,” he said. “I collected these while I was there. Got that heavy sword-stick of yours. Bring that along, too. We may see a bit of action before the night’s out. We’ve got to take a chance. I can’t get the police to act, not in the time, but I know I’m right this time.” His last words were spoken, I thought, more to assure himself than me.
I could see he was anxious to be away, so I put everything together and led the way to the car.
“Keep her going,” Beef said, lying back in his seat and lighting his pipe. “It may be a close thing. We must try and get there in time.”
“In time for what?” I could not help asking. Beef was being purposely mysterious, I felt.
“That’s what I want to know, but I shouldn’t like to have another murder on my hands.”
It was a cold dark night, but dry, and ideal for driving. At last we were on the last lap to Cheltenham. The road began to fall away down to the valley and I could see the lights of Andoversford below.
“Ahh . . .” said Beef, but whether with anticipation or relief I couldn’t decide.