Neck and Neck
Estelle Pinketon’s house showed no lights as we looked towards it from the garden gate. The blinds were drawn, certainly, but not even a faint glow showed anywhere. The chimney was smokeless, though it was late September. The whole place had a cold and deserted look.
“Doesn’t look as if anyone was at home,” I said to Beef, as we looked across the little lawn whose ornaments were mercifully hidden by the dark.
“I’m not taking any chances from now on. We’ll have a scout round after we’ve tried the bell,” Beef replied, and went forward to the front door. I followed. The house was still and silent and I had quite a shock when the silence was broken by the shrill tinkle of a bell until I realised that it was Beef who had rung. Not a sound came from within. Beef then beat a loud tattoo on the knocker, but this was equally without result, though the sounds echoed through the house.
“Enough to wake the dead,” I said, and then, suddenly realising the significance of what I had said, I felt a cold shiver run through me.
“We’ll go right round the house and see if we can find a way in. Look out for an unlatched window,” Beef said. The back of the house was as deserted as the front, but I did notice an open window on the floor above, which I pointed out to Beef. As we came to the front again, we saw the light of a torch at the front gate. I felt Beef’s hand on my arm. It was impossible to see who it was, but a few seconds later the beam of the torch was focused on us as we stood by the porch.
“Were you looking for Miss Pinkerton?” we heard a woman’s voice saying. Beef said that we were, and for a minute the light of the torch moved over us, up and down.
“You must excuse me,” the voice continued, “but I’m terrified of burglars. I’m Miss Pinkerton’s next-door neighbour. I heard someone knocking at her door so I thought I’d better come and see who it was. I’m afraid you won’t find her in. She’s gone away, I think.”
“Are you Mrs. Fordyce, madam?” Beef asked.
“Yes. How did you know?” she replied. Beef then told her of the vicar’s visit that morning. She seemed amply reassured about us after that.
“You’d better come along to my house. It’s only just a few yards,” she said leading the way.
We were introduced to a rather ancient representative of the Army, who sat motionless in a leather armchair. The only contribution he made to the whole scene was to lower his Blackwood’s for a moment when Mrs. Fordyce said, “My husband, Colonel Fordyce.”
No encouragement was necessary, however, to make Mrs. Fordyce speak. She was obviously dying to tell us her story.
“I’m really very worried about Estelle Pinkerton,” she began. “It’s all so strange and so unlike her. If I hadn’t known her all these years, I should be tempted to put the very worst construction on the whole thing.”
“Perhaps you’d tell us everything from the beginning, Mrs. Fordyce?” Beef said.
“Yes, that would be best,” she said, “or else I shall go running on and you won’t know what I’m talking about, will you?”
She beamed across at Beef. “It all really began on Friday. I’d just gone in to ask her about a recipe of hers. We were having some people to dinner that night and Estelle was so clever with her souffles. It was after lunch, I remember, and she was just seeing me off at the front gate when a telegraph boy came up and gave her a telegram. ’Oh dear,’ she exclaimed when she’d read it, ’now I’ll have to go back to the town and do some more shopping.’ But all the same she seemed pleased and excited. There was no answer to send so the boy cycled off, but I waited expecting that Estelle would tell me her news. She had always confided in me. Well, that is until recently, but that’s another story. I asked if she’d had bad news, trying to win her confidence, but she wouldn’t say any more.”
“You say that recently, Mrs. Fordyce, you’ve noticed some change in Miss Pinkerton. She didn’t confide in you as she used to. Did she behave at all differently with other people? Did you think there was anything on her mind?”
Mrs. Fordyce thought for a moment.
“Yes, I think there was a difference,” she replied slowly, weighing her words. “I’ve noticed it for over a month now, ever since her holidays. She seemed—oh, how shall I put it? I know it sounds silly, but she seemed to have grown up. Before she would be round here asking our advice on every tiny little thing. Recently she seems to have taken her own decisions. Why, when she heard she had inherited all that money by her uncle’s death, she took it so calmly. Not a bit as I expected. Well, I must get on with my story. Friday evening a taxi drew up outside her house, but I was cooking dinner and only just had time to see someone going towards, her front door with a suitcase. Believe it or not, I wouldn’t like to swear it in a court of law, but I’m convinced it was a man. A youngish man at that. Next morning I saw nothing of Estelle or her visitor, though I was in the garden for an hour or two. After lunch I thought I’d just drop in and see her.”
I saw a look of understanding pass between Beef and Mrs. Fordyce.
“Yes,” she went on with a smile, “I just had to try and satisfy my curiosity, but, I’m sorry to say, I had no luck.
When I rang, Estelle came to the door, but for the first time since we’ve known each other she didn’t ask me in. I knew something funny was going on then. We chatted for a few minutes and then Estelle said she had something in the oven and asked me to excuse her. Well, all that Saturday I kept my eyes open, but it wasn’t until the evening, just after the news, that I saw anything. Even then I only managed just to catch a glimpse of Estelle going out of her gate. She went hurriedly down the road the other way. All I could see was that she wasn’t alone and her companion was a man. You know about the telephone call on Sunday, and how her other uncle, the vicar, called me again. Well, after he’d called I was so worried I thought I’d try and have a talk with Estelle. I went round to the house, but, though I rang and knocked as you did just now, I couldn’t get any answer, and that’s the last I’ve heard or seen of Estelle Pinkerton. I tried again this morning, but there was still no answer. That’s why I ran out when I heard a noise at her door tonight. It’s such a relief to confide in someone. It hardly seemed a case for the police. If she wants to go away and not tell us where she’s going, that’s her business, but I must say I felt hurt after being such friends all these years.”
Beef handled her beautifully, and assured her she could safely leave everything to him.
“I feel better already,” she said, and I could see that Beef had made another conquest. “Mr. Beef, do let me get you something. I’m afraid I can’t ask you to a meal. We only picnic on Sunday night. Perhaps a glass of sherry or a whisky?”
“Well, madam, it’s very kind of you,” Beef said, smiling and rising to his feet. “Perhaps a whisky would go down nicely, but I mustn’t be long. I’m going to have a look at that house next door, if I have to break in. I don’t like the sound of your story.”
Whether it was Beef rising to his feet or the word whisky, I do not know, but the silent figure of Colonel Fordyce came suddenly to life. With a swiftness and dexterity surprising for his years, he whipped out a decanter of whisky and some glasses. I noticed, however, that it was Mrs. Fordyce who had unlocked the corner cupboard where the whisky was kept.
“Excuse me for a few minutes,” she said. “Henry, look after them, but remember what the doctor told you.”
“Jolly glad you chaps came along tonight,” he said, looking carefully at the closed door. “My wife, excellent woman, keeps me very short on rations. I can’t get out on Sunday nights. Come on, put that down and we’ll have another.”
When we had finished our drinks we said good night to the Colonel and his wife and made our way back to the house next door. It was very dark now and we were glad of Beef’s torch. There was no change. No light had appeared anywhere in Miss Pinkerton’s house, and no sound could be heard. Beef rang again. The sound of the bell ringing in that empty house gave me the shivers. There was something eerie about it.
“Well,” said Beef, “there’s only one thing for it. You’ll have to climb in that open window. I’m too big. We’re breaking the law, I know, but I must get in that house somehow. It’s a matter of life and death.”
Something about that empty house filled me with apprehension, and as I looked at the darkened windows I felt a strange reluctance to face the task of penetrating the inside alone in the darkness, but, as Beef had said, there was nothing else for it. We found a small ladder in a toolshed and I climbed up slowly, rung by rung. I came level with the window and peered in rather nervously, shining Beef’s torch around inside. The window was only on a landing and I clambered in. As I made my way to an electric-light switch, which I had located with the torch, I tried to overcome my nervousness by saying to myself that there could not be anyone inside, but I was glad when I turned the switch and the light came on. I hurried down the stairs and quickly opened the front door and let Beef in.
Slowly and methodically Beef went from room to room, examining cupboards and even looking under the beds and in trunks.
“Well,” he said, as we finished investigating a small attic, “there doesn’t appear to be anything here.”
I had by this time fully expected to find a corpse, and I felt sure that Beef himself was slightly relieved that our search had revealed nothing so gruesome.
Everything in the house was in perfect order. Every plate and dish was neatly arranged. Saucepans hung from their hooks clean and polished and the beds were made and covered with coloured counterpanes. The only sign of recent habitation was the ashes of the fire. Beef bent down and felt the fire-bricks.
“That’s not been out many hours,” he said. “It looks as if we’re just too late. I must go through this place and see if I can find anything that’ll tell us where she’s gone. Go and get that grub from the car. We may as well make ourselves comfortable. You can get a meal ready while I’m looking round.”
He went towards a rather nice-looking bureau, which was unlocked and full of papers. “This may give some clue,” he said, as he began to go through the various pigeon-holes. I left him to it and, after collecting the food and drink from the car, went into Estelle Pinkerton’s neat little kitchen.
When I brought the meal I had prepared into the living-room, Beef was still busy at the desk. “Shan’t be long,” he said. “She keeps everything nice and tidy.”
In a few minutes he closed the last drawer and came and sat down.
“Nothing much to go on here,” he said, as he helped himself to a sandwich. “I can’t find her cheque book, but if she’s gone away that would explain it. Her paying-in book’s there. There’s an entry there I don’t much like. She paid in a cheque today, Monday, for two thousand pounds. An advance from the solicitor, I expect. If she paid that in today, it looks as if she’s been to the bank and probably drawn something out. After this I’m going through the house from top to bottom and then we’ll have another word with Mrs. Fordyce. I bet she’d know, if she came over here, whether any of Miss Pinkerton’s clothes are gone, or whether any suit-cases are missing. Women living as close as they did would be able to tell you down to the last nylon what the other had. That would help. Anyhow it’ll tell us for certain whether she’s gone away or not.”
When he had finished his meal and lit his pipe, Beef wandered out of the room. Presently I heard his footsteps overhead.
When he finally came back, he had a copy of Dalton’s Advertiser in his hand, which he added to the few papers he had taken from the bureau.
“We’ll go and see Mrs. Fordyce again,” he announced, and led the way out of the house.
Mrs. Fordyce seemed pleased to see us again and agreed at once to coming across to the empty house and seeing if she could tell us what was missing.
“I expect she’s wearing her green tweeds,” Mrs. Fordyce said as we entered Fairy Glen. “She would this cold weather. Especially if she were going by train.”
We left her to examine Estelle Pinkerton’s bedroom and the small box-room, and I could tell from her manner the task was not altogether unwelcome.
“She’s taken the two big adjustable suitcases that she bought this summer for her trip,” Mrs. Fordyce said, as she rejoined us.
“I can tell you that for certain. The little brown one she used to use for her London visits is not there, but she did talk of giving that away. Her tweeds are not there either, as I suspected, and her new evening dress isn’t hanging in the wardrobe, but it might be at the cleaners. There’s another coat and skirt I can’t find. It looks as if she’s taken quite a bit. There are practically no stockings or handkerchiefs left and all the brushes and things from her dressing-table are gone.”
Beef thanked her.
“Gone for quite a time, I should say,” Mrs. Fordyce went on. “I do think it strange of her not to come and tell me.”
“Madam, you can’t think of anything that would help us to trace where she’s gone, can you? Any little thing she’s said or done.”
Mrs. Fordyce looked across thoughtfully at Beef.
“Well, there is just one curious thing I forgot to mention. While she was waiting on Sunday night for a call from her uncle—she always comes in and has coffee with us you know on Sunday evenings—she asked if she might put a call through herself. Our phone, you know, is in the morning-room. While she was there, I strolled through to the library. Quite by chance, you know,” she added with an innocent smile. Beef smiled too. They knew. “Well, there’s only a thin partition between the morning-room and the library, but you don’t notice it. The morning-room has been papered over and the books cover the library wall. I did just manage to hear her say. ‘Thank you, Mrs. White, I’ll sign the agreement and pay a month in advance when I see you.’ I didn’t catch any more, because she seemed to be finishing her conversation and I thought I’d better hurry back. I was quite surprised when she came in a few minutes later and opened her purse. ‘I owe you this for a trunk call,’ she said, and handed me some silver. ‘I checked with the exchange. It’s quite correct.’ I had naturally thought she was just making a local call. Apart from calling her uncles, I’ve hardly ever known Estelle make a long-distance call, especially on a Sunday.” Beef listened patiently to this new episode. “I’ll have that call traced in the morning,” he said. “We can’t do much more tonight. We’ll see you back to your house, madam, and thank you very much for your help.”
At her invitation, I ran my car into Mrs. Fordyce’s drive and Beef and I returned to spend a cheerless night at Fairy Glen.
Somehow I could not rid myself of the strange feeling I had had earlier in the evening when Beef asked me to climb into the house.
“I suppose she has gone away, Beef?” I asked uneasily.
“Well, she’s not here, is she?” he answered.
“I believe you half expected to find her corpse here, didn’t you?” I said.
“When people have done one premeditated murder,” Beef replied, “they seem to think nothing of doing another. I don’t say I expected a body here necessarily, but I thought it was on the cards. I must say, it does seem as if Miss Pinker-ton got away from here.” He looked around the room as if expecting to find some answer to her disappearance.
“I’d give a lot to know what’s happening to her now,” he added.