Neck and Neck
My flat was was chosen as the place in which Beef would make his long-awaited statement, and unfold the history of Estelle Pinkerton and Hilton Gupp. Two days only had gone by since Estelle Pinkerton’s arrest at Seahaven, and so far she had only been charged with the murder of Hilton Gupp.
London was chosen because Inspector Arnold had to come up from Hastings, and the jovial Superintendent and the Scotland Yard detective who was in charge of the Cotswold murder case had to make the journey from Gloucestershire. Inspector Arnold was chiefly responsible for their being present. He had become quite a Beef enthusiast after we had spent the evening with him on the night of the arrest. Curiously, neither Beef nor I had met the man who had been sent down from Scotland Yard to take over the inquiry into Ridley’s murder when the Chief Constable had applied for help, and, as I looked at the tall spare figure whom the Superintendent introduced to us as Chief Inspector Foster, I could see that he was not altogether pleased at the turn of events.
“I hope this is not all a mare’s nest, Sergeant,” he said to Beef, his thin hatchet face showing no expression except perhaps a slight distaste for everything. “If it hadn’t been for Inspector Arnold’s pressure I should never have come. We’ve got a lot of work to get through to complete the prosecution’s case against Greenleaf. It’s mostly routine stuff, I know, but it takes time. All that Boy Scout business of yours, Mr. Beef, trailing after Greenleaf in the dark and letting him fire a revolver that night by the Druids’ Stones didn’t help. We had him taped all right. It was only a matter of time. Our methods have to be slightly less spectacular than yours, but we have to be more sure. Well, let’s get this over as quickly as possible. I want to be away early. I can’t imagine what help we can possibly hope to get from a meeting of this sort.”
He glanced round my room rather superciliously. I had taken quite a lot of trouble over their reception and I disliked the way his eyes rested disapprovingly on a side table where I had arranged a number of bottles and glasses and some very pleasant sandwiches. His disapproving glance seemed to embrace the rest of us. The rotund Superintendent, looking even more benign than usual, was sprawled comfortably in one of my big armchairs, a pint tankard in one hand and a large sandwich in the other. Beef and Arnold were equally at ease and obviously enjoying themselves standing in front of the fire and chatting happily.
“Well, Beef,” said Arnold, who seemed a little embarrassed by the Chief Inspector’s rudeness, for it was he, after all, who had called the meeting. “Would you like to begin now? I’m sure we’re all eager to hear your theory of these murders. I know I am, even after the little that you told me the other night.”
“Theory! ” the Chief Inspector echoed. “Do you mean to say you’ve called me up all this way, Inspector, to listen to Beef’s theories? I don’t wish to be rude, but really the whole thing seems to me most extraordinary. I don’t know who this gentleman is”—he indicated me—“or why he is at this meeting, apart from the fact that this seems to be his flat and we’re apparently enjoying his hospitality. Beef, I’m sure, was an excellent sergeant in the Force, before he resigned, and I dare say he does a useful business as a private detective, when he’s not playing darts. I’m surprised at you, really, Inspector. I’m a busy man, you know. If Beef has any fresh facts, I’m sure he knows what he ought to do. It’s his duty as a citizen to report them to the police. Scotland Yard, if he prefers. But this. . . .”
He looked round the room as if unable to express what he felt.
The Inspector began to look disappointed and a little peeved at the Scotland Yard man’s behaviour. Beef came at once to his rescue. He was at his best, good-humoured with just a hint of conciliation in his voice, that probably only I could tell was assumed with an inward chuckle.
“I know how you feel, sir,” Beef began, “but I think it might be worth your while to wait and hear what I have to say. It won’t take long. What about a nice bit of cold chicken and a drink? Then we can all settle down comfortably and I’ll tell you my story.”
“Well, I suppose now I’m here, I’d better wait and listen to what it is you have to say,” he replied rather ungraciously, though he accepted a leg of chicken and a glass of wine. “Any new facts that you’ve discovered I must, of course, be informed of. Be as brief as possible, please. The Superintendent and I are eager to get back on our case.”
“I’m afraid I haven’t had the education of some of you,” Beef began, “so I’ll have to tell the story my own way.
“It all began when I was called in by the Rev. Alfred Ridley to look into his brother’s death. His brother, of course, was Edwin Ridley, who had been found hanging from a beam in his house in Gloucestershire. The only thing the vicar was really worried about was whether Edwin Ridley had committed suicide, as in that case his kids would lose the very large life insurance which was due to them on their uncle’s death. As you know, there was really no need for this because within twenty-four hours of his body being found the doctors all agreed that he had been strangled manually first and then strung up in an attempt to pass the murder off as suicide. I should probably have been satisfied with having done what I had been asked to do, accepted a small fee from the vicar and left the police to find the murderers. It looked a fairly ordinary sort of crime, and not particularly interesting. However, just two days after I went down to Gold Slaughter I received your letter.” He looked across at me. “This was a letter written by Mr. Townsend here from Hastings to me in London, and forwarded on, saying that there was strong suspicion that his aunt had been poisoned the day before and asking me to come down and act for him and his brother as they both benefited under their aunt’s Will. Two things struck me as curious after I’d read this letter, so much so that after a playful telegram to Mr. Townsend I decided to go down to Hastings.
“I noticed that both murders had taken place on the same day, the tenth of September. Nothing in itself, of course, but, taken in conjunction with the other fact which I’ll tell you about later, there seemed to be some odd coincidence at work, and one thing I’ve learnt is to distrust coincidences. You can forget one sometimes but never two.
“However, when I got to Camber Lodge—that was Miss Fielding’s house, the lady who was poisoned—I didn’t for a time think much more about Ridley’s murder. The whole atmosphere was so different. Ridley, by all accounts, was a mean, unpleasant, quarrelsome character, who might have been bumped off by anyone. Blackmail, theft, revenge, there could have been a dozen good reasons and no one was really sorry to see him go. Mr. Townsend’s aunt, Miss Aurora Fielding, on the other hand, must have been a really good lady of the old school. You could tell that from her house, her servants and all her friends. It was difficult to think of anyone wanting to harm her, but the evidence was quite clear. Someone had poisoned her. Inspector Arnold here was quite right, of course, when he advised me to concentrate on motive. In nearly every murder the motive is either money or love. There are, of course, a hundred variations of each, but it usually boils down in the end to one or the other. In this case it clearly wasn’t love and everything pointed to money. She was a wealthy old girl. Most of her money had been originally left—and this was common knowledge—in equal shares to Mr. Townsend, his brother Vincent and to a cousin, Hilton Gupp. There were other bequests I’ll come to later, but the bulk went to them. At first sight these three would be the most likely suspects. Mr. Lionel Townsend, whose flat this is, I dismissed pretty well right away. I knew him too well. For one thing he hasn’t the right temperament, and for another he’d have made a muck of it somewhere, I felt sure, if he’d tried. His brother Vincent was a possibility, but the most obvious suspect was their cousin Hilton Gupp. He was almost the perfect suspect. He was badly in debt and his whole future was threatened if he didn’t get hold of some cash quick. His appearance was against him, too, with his dissipated good looks. Anyone could see he was a bad lot. One thing, however, seemed to clear him completely, and that was that he was nearly a hundred miles away when the murder was committed. His alibi was put to every test by the police, but they couldn’t break it.
“He had recently returned with a bad record from the East Indies and had tried to borrow some money from his aunt. He had on that visit broken into her desk and had a look at her Will to make sure he was still included. She happened to see him doing it and cut him right out the next day. He didn’t know that. If she’d have told him, she’d be alive today.”
“You mean that after all this you’re going to tell us that Hilton Gupp murdered Aurora Fielding?” gasped Chief Inspector Foster. “We know that he was nowhere near Hastings.”
Beef held up his huge hand.
“Hold on a minute,” he said. “I’ll come to everything in time. I was just going to say that I settled down to routine enquiries as prescribed, questioning the witnesses and examining what evidence there was. Just at this time I could not help wondering what was behind the behaviour of Mr. Townsend’s brother Vincent and a distant relation Miss Payne, who was Miss Fielding’s companion. They were obviously afraid of some discovery connected with a medicine chest, the key of which had been lost and was found on the top of Mr. Vincent Townsend’s wardrobe. However, I soon got to the bottom of that. Miss Payne was an addict to sleeping tablets. The maid mentioned that Miss Fielding occasionally took a sleeping tablet, but that the last lot had disappeared unexpectedly quickly. I found an old bottle and had a word with the chemist. There was no morphia in these tablets, but he was surprised at the number which Miss Fielding’s companion used to order. Mr. Vincent Townsend had discovered her weakness. They were in love with one another before the murder but didn’t realize it—and he’d tried to stop Miss Payne taking them by purposely losing the key. When, just about this time, Miss Fielding was found to have been poisoned, each one feared for the other and they even began to suspect one another of the crime. That was when they hardly exchanged a word and tried to avoid each other’s company. Gupp heard about the key of the medicine chest being found on Vincent Townsend’s wardrobe from the cook’s husband, Raikes, and when he failed one night to get a fairly large sum of money out of the Townsend brothers by threats, he went and put the wind up Miss Payne properly. He led her to believe that Vincent Townsend was about to be arrested and she, too, probably. That was when she tried to drown herself.
“I then examined the possibility that it was someone outside who had done the poisoning. The most likely opportunity for this was for someone to put the morphia in the sherry which Miss Fielding and her visitors had drunk on the morning of her death. Inspector Arnold told me that no trace of poison could be found either in the used glasses or in the decanter, but I discovered that there had been a goldfish bowl in the room—but more about that later. I then tried to question all the people who had visited Miss Fielding on the morning of her death. Three of them had fairly strong motives, one had every reason to keep Miss Fielding alive, and one could not be traced. Those who had a motive were the vicar and Miss Fielding’s two great friends, the Misses Graves. Miss Fielding had left five hundred pounds to the church’s restoration fund, and the vicar was crazy about restoring some old pictures on the wall. In fact later he overworked himself on this job and is still in a mental home. The Misses Graves were as poor as church mice, and very slowly coming to the time when they would be ‘talked about’. There would be rumours of them ‘owing tradesmen money’. For people like them this was probably the worst tragedy that could happen. Worse than death. They’d even had a summons or two which must have seemed like the end of the world. Even so I didn’t really consider either them or the vicar as likely to have done a murder, but I had to keep them still in mind. Of the other two visitors, as I said before, one had every reason to keep Miss Fielding alive. Rich ladies who still employed a dressmaker like Amelia Pinhole were quickly dying out, and I bet Miss Fielding was worth quite a lot to her every year. The visitor, the lady who came collecting for missionaries, was never traced, though Townsend here found the receipt which was given that morning to Miss Fielding.
“Somehow, as I looked over my lists of suspects, I always came back to Hilton Gupp. It was you, Inspector, who first put the idea of an accomplice into my head. You remember when we were chatting after the inquest. I said something about the person who’d done it, and you put in a remark that started me on the right track. ‘Person or persons,’ you said. I always in my bones felt that Gupp was at the back of the murder, somehow. His story was so pat and his alibi so well-founded. He seemed almost anxious to tell us where he was when the murder was committed, didn’t he? Well, I thought, he still could be involved if he had an accomplice, and there, ready-made, was one for him. I mean Raikes, of course, the cook’s husband. I hadn’t met him, but from all accounts he seemed to have sailed pretty close to the wind all his life. Also he was cleaning windows that morning at Camber Lodge.
“I had already guessed from that business of young Charlie, the cook’s son, selling his motor-bike and the money reappearing, that Raikes had stolen the twenty quid from Miss Fielding’s purse. It was only when I met him at Lewes races that I realized that he wasn’t the type for murder. Too weak a character altogether. A cheap crook, a petty thief, lazy, idle, good-for-nothing, yes, but not a chap to get mixed up in murder. Even the small threat I bluffed him with sent him off in a blue funk. Afterwards I guessed a bit more why he was so frightened, but that comes in my story later. I must tell you about my win at those races sometime.
“I began then to think back about other murders, and it struck me that you don’t often find a murderer with an accomplice. A murderer daren’t trust another human soul with his secret. It only occurs when the two of them are involved together, when both their necks are in danger of the noose. You, Inspector Arnold, had another pair in mind, I think—Mr. Vincent Townsend and the companion, Miss Payne. I shouldn’t be surprised if their getting married didn’t encourage you in that theory.”
Inspector Arnold nodded, and Beef went on.
“I think it was about this time that I began to realize there was a curious similarity about the crimes, apart from their being committed on the same day. Both victims were rich and all likely suspects had unimpeachable alibis. I also noted in my mind that Miss Fielding was poisoned, which was more often a woman’s crime, whereas Ridley was strangled and then strung up, which could only have been done by a man. These ideas of mine were only floating about in the back of my mind then.
“I said earlier that there was another curious fact I discovered in the Cotswolds that sent me hurrying down to Hastings when I got Mr. Townsend’s letter. In the room where Ridley was murdered were shelves and shelves of books. On a table was a small parcel of books still wrapped loosely in newspaper, with brown paper outside. The books didn’t mean much to me and the brown paper was blank, but the newspaper was the Sussex Gazette, dated the sixteenth of August. But the really interesting thing that really struck me after I had received Mr. Townsend’s letter was the pencil mark that newsagents so often make on the top right-hand corner for the delivery boy. It was roughly scribbled but I could still make out ‘Camber Highfield’. Now Miss Fielding’s notepaper, which Mr. Townsend had used for his letter, was headed ‘Camber Lodge, Highfield Road, Hastings’. The date worried me a little. It seemed a long way back till I remembered that Gupp had paid a visit to Camber Lodge on the twentieth of August. He had left in a hurry and might easily have used the Sussex Gazette to pack with. Could the books have come from him? I remembered he was staying in Oxford at the time, as his alibi proved. I recalled then how, when I questioned him about anything to do with his alibi for Miss Fielding’s murder, he was full of bounce, but when I touched on where he was on the night of Miss Fielding’s murder, he seemed nervous. That was, of course, the night when Ridley was strangled.
“Naturally, at that time it was all vague suspicion, but my theory was forming. It seemed far-fetched, almost fantastic. What connection could there possibly be between Hilton Gupp and Edwin Ridley? Gupp had been abroad for two or three years and had no link with Gloucestershire, and Ridley hadn’t been away from the Cots wolds for several months. I couldn’t find anything in common between the two of them. Yet there was the Sussex Gazette with Miss Fielding’s address on it in Ridley’s house, and both these two rich elderly persons were murdered on the same day. It certainly was a problem. You, gentlemen, must be getting tired of listening to my voice, and I could do with a drink.”
I quickly suggested a break while we had a drink and snack. I had looked across nervously at Chief Inspector Foster once or twice while Beef had been talking, half expecting an interruption, but I was amused, though not surprised, to see that he was as taken up by Beef’s account as the rest of us. His eyes never left Beef throughout this long speech.
“Beef certainly seems to have stolen a march on you, Inspector,” the Chief Inspector was saying to Arnold.
Arnold smiled. “He certainly did,” he replied. “He’s not finished his story yet, though, not by a long chalk.”