Neck and Neck
They all in their different ways seemed anxious for Beef to get on with his story, and it was not long before we were all seated again and Beef continued.
“It was, then, with all this rather jumbled in my mind that I came back to the Cotswolds. We went back to the pub I had stayed at before. Nice little place. Good grub, decent beer, and some of the chaps were pretty hot on the board. I’d like to go back there some time.”
He saw me looking at him meaningly and went on with his story.
“Here again I followed the normal routine I had learnt in the Force and interviewed all the possible suspects and went into every point that came up. Although the dead man was most unpopular in the district, after I had met the neighbouring Master of the Hunt I was convinced that it wasn’t just a local crime. I was sure that if there was any chance of that, you’d have known or heard something, Superintendent, and not handed the case over at once to Scotland Yard. Lovelace, the secretary, I didn’t care for much, but if he did a murder it wouldn’t be by strangling anyone and then tying them up to a beam when they’re dead. That was a man’s job. There was all that business about those books. I suppose he’d been pinching ’em, hadn’t he?” Beef said, turning to the Superintendent.
“Oh yes, we’ve traced all that, but it may not come to a prosecution. He’s confessed everything and we’ve got some of them back.”
“I thought that was about it, but I felt it hadn’t anything to do with the murder. As you know, I was more interested in that other little pile. They may not have been first editions, and that Oxford bookseller sniffed at them, but they were certainly more valuable to me. Especially the packing, as I said.
“Then of course there was Greenleaf. Well, I must say he was a red herring to me for a long time. He could so easily have been the type to have murdered Ridley in a fit of temper. After I’d met him, I could see he was unbalanced about Ridley and, I must say, he caused me a lot of thought. Fortunately, Superintendent, you traced that car that I was lucky enough to hear had been seen after midnight parked in a lane near Ridley’s house on the night of the murder. We were lucky, too, that that young fellow, Bob Chapman, noticed the star-shaped crack in the rear window. He confirmed that it was the same car, I suppose,” Beef said, addressing the Superintendent.
“He couldn’t swear to it absolutely,” the Superintendent replied. “But, as he said, it wasn’t likely that there were two cars like that.”
“It seemed to me that, like the rope that was used to string Ridley up, that car was part of a premeditated murder. That was more or less confirmed when we found that the man who hired the car had given a false name and address. If the car was used for the murder, and I was convinced it was, Greenleaf was cleared. The same man who hired the car, if you remember, did not return it until the next evening, the evening of the eleventh of September. Greenleaf was dining with his literary agent, Mr. Thorogood, in London at that time. I may as well just finish with Greenleaf while on the subject. The Chief Inspector here talked of my behaving like a Boy Scout. I admit it. Young Bob Chapman had done us two good turns and I thought he’d like me to act up to his picture of a detective. I also wanted to know what game Greenleaf was up to. I never thought he’d be armed or I’d have tipped you the wink, Superintendent. I still think he was only putting the wind up that rascal Fagg. As it was, no harm was done and it won’t do Greenleaf any harm to kick his heels in jail for a few days.”
I looked across quickly at the Chief Inspector and saw him frown and lean forward as if to say something, but he evidently thought better of it and sat back again.
“Anyway,” Beef said, rather defiantly, “I enjoyed myself that night. There’s not much adventure about these days and the papers certainly made a good story out of it. It was about this time that I went to see Miss Estelle Pinkerton. Apart from the fact that she inherited nearly all Ridley’s money, I had nothing against her up till then. One or two things, however, did come out in our talk. It seemed curious that, like Gupp, she should have an absolutely cast-iron alibi for the time of the actual murder of the person from whom she was the chief legatee. Like Gupp, too, she seemed eager to tell her story about staying with the dean of Fulham at that time. Another thing, this visit of hers was not in accordance with her usual custom. It was an extra visit to London and she was the one who had fixed to be away at that time. In other words, it was by her choice that she happened to be spending a few days with the dean of Fulham just at the time when her uncle was murdered. Again nothing much in itself. Another small thing, she purposely stayed out all day alone while she was there. Not usual, I thought. I left with the impression that she was a foolish vain creature and crazy for a man.
“One person I’ve missed out so far is Ridley’s stepson, Major Howard. Hard up though he was for money, he certainly did not strike me as a type that would go in for premeditated murder, but there was the chance that whoever had murdered Ridley had done it almost accidentally. Ridley seemed to have been the sort of cold snake-like creature that anyone might have lost their temper with.
“I was glad, therefore, to learn, when I went to see Major Howard, that he was back in his mess for dinner at Aldershot at the time when the car, which I was sure the murderer had used, was returned to the garage.
“There was one point that attracted my attention in Major Howard’s story. He said that it was a letter from Estelle Pinkerton that had first put into his mind the idea of appealing for financial help to his stepfather, Edwin Ridley. Miss Pinkerton appeared anxious that Major Howard should re-establish friendly relations with Ridley after all those years. There might be nothing in it, but it seemed strange that her letter should arrive at that particular time. Fortunately for him, though he intended to visit Ridley, he never went.
“It looked, then, very much as if Gupp was the man who hired the car in Oxford. He was there at the time, he answered more or less to the description, the car was seen outside the hotel at which he was staying, and he had no alibi for the period when Ridley was strangled. But it was all circumstantial evidence.
“Meantime another train of thought had started at the back of my mind. It must have begun after my visit to Estelle Pinkerton, but I can’t remember when I really became fully aware of it. It was the word Cheltenham, I think, that first rang a bell. I couldn’t at first trace any connection with the town until I suddenly remembered that Amelia Pinhole, Miss Fielding’s dressmaker, had said she had once lived in Cheltenham. Straight away another thing she told us came back to me. It was that she remembered the day Miss Fielding was poisoned, because as she was going up to the gate she saw someone she thought she recognised. Estelle Pinkerton lived in Cheltenham. Could they have known one another in the old days? Was it Estelle Pinkerton that Amelia Pinhole recognised?
“I believe it was then that I began to have a glimmering of a new idea. A pact. A pact between Hilton Gupp and Estelle Pinkerton. Supposing, I thought, they each had murdered the person from whom the other was going to inherit money? That would do away with the one great bugbear of every murderer—palpable motive. It’s agreed that any of us, the Superintendent here or the Chief Inspector, could go out of this room and commit one murder and get away with it, provided the murder was of someone unknown, and completely without motive. Well, perhaps this was how they planned to get away with it. There was only one big snag. How did a spinster in Cheltenham come to meet a ne’er-do-well like Gupp, just back from the East? Then I remembered what she said about her holidays, and how she loved to meet strangers in trains. Had they met at some foreign hotel? That seemed impossible. Then it came to me. Her holiday this summer at Estoril! I remembered seeing an advertisement about Estoril and I knew from that that it was in Portugal, somewhere near Lisbon. They’d met not at an hotel, of course, but on a boat. They must have travelled back on the same boat.
“This idea came to me about the same time as the arrest of Greenleaf. If I’m right, I thought, things’ll move quickly. Gupp will think that he’s clear for the moment and that now is the time for him to act.
“I went that morning and looked back through all the passenger lists of boats from the East which had arrived about the beginning of August. At last I ran him to earth. He had come on a slow Dutch boat, the S.S. Appeldorn, which had put in, among other places, at Lisbon. I could hardly control myself as I looked eagerly for the name of Estelle Pinkerton among the other passengers. It was there. That meant I was right. Townsend here was fidgeting and impatient while I made the discovery, thinking that having found the name Gupp we had done enough. He little knew that this was the piece of evidence that would, so far as we knew then, put both their necks in nooses! Just to make doubly sure I took a train straight to Hastings and went to see Amelia Pinhole, the dressmaker, and asked her who she thought she’d seen that morning near Miss Fielding’s house. She replied that she had at first thought it was someone she had known years before in Cheltenham, a Miss Pinkerton. It could not have been her, she added, because when she addressed Estelle, the lady, Miss Pinhole said, had said there must be some mistake and hurried away. This was only further confirmation.
“My next call was on Raikes. He was staying at Camber Lodge with his wife. I soon got his secret by pretending to know everything. I guessed he had seen something through the window that morning and told Gupp, who had somehow frightened him out of informing the police. What he’d seen did not amount to evidence, but to me it was another bit of proof of my theory. He had seen a woman whom he took to be Miss Payne—her back was towards him—doing something with a glass in the goldfish bowl. I thought for a moment and then asked him if the woman was wearing a hat. I knew neither Miss Fielding nor Miss Payne would be wearing one in the house and the Misses Graves, he had told me, hadn’t arrived. When he said yes, I knew it was Estelle Pinkerton. There were no other visitors that morning. She was washing out the sherry glass that Miss Fielding had used and which would have had traces of morphia. It killed the goldfish, anyhow. I expect she did that when Miss Fielding went to fetch a book on Chinese missionary work, the one Mr. Townsend found the receipt in.
“As I travelled back to London by train I could see the whole picture. I could imagine Estelle Pinkerton getting into conversation with the good-looking tall young man who was travelling by himself. She was always crazy for a man and he probably thought she had money. They began to exchange confidences over the boat rail. Among these confidences it came out that they would both be rich when their elderly relations died. Unfortunately, they had to admit, there seemed little likelihood of either of those rich relatives dying for a very long time. By now Estelle Pinkerton had, I imagine, become infatuated with this attentive, very masculine, young man. Who made the first suggestion of hastening the death of their rich relatives, no one can say. It was probably tried out as a joke. Personally, I think the woman was behind it, but it can never be proved. So desperate for him had she become that no risk was too great. Anything rather than lose this personable young man who had so providentially appeared in answer to her prayers. Gradually the plot was hatched. Gupp probably got hold of the morphia for her in some foreign port. It was agreed that they should do the two murders on the same day. In the meantime they thought it best not to be seen together or even to meet. The date had been fixed, and we know what happened. Both murders were successful.”
Beef paused and I took advantage of this to refill all their glasses.
“There were still difficulties,” he continued, “I knew now all I wanted, but, though I could almost prove the Hastings murder, I only had the barest circumstantial evidence about Gupp’s part in the Cotswold case. The police were sick of Gupp’s name. They had tried to break his alibi and failed. Unless I could prove my case, it was no good trying Scotland Yard again. That’s why I was glad when Greenleaf was arrested. I thought, and rightly, it would drive them into the open, lull them into a sense of false security. They had no reason to think that anyone even remotely suspected their reversed parts in the two murders. Gupp had gone down to Estelle Pinkerton’s for the weekend probably to extract further money out of her. She, he probably pointed out, had had her benefit from the crime, she had inherited her lot. But he, by an ironic stroke of ill luck, though honourably executing his part of the bargain, had earnt nothing at all, because Miss Fielding had cut him out of her Will. Mr. Townsend had seen him splashing money about in London and I guessed where that had come from. When I heard he was away, I suspected we should find him with Estelle Pinkerton. On the Monday morning Gupp saw in the papers that Greenleaf had been arrested and, as my name appeared, he imagined that the police and I were agreed that Greenleaf was the murderer. He phoned the bank that morning, I suspect, and arranged to be away on some pretext or other. That’s why the manager was a bit short with you, I expect,” Beef said, looking over at me.
“The last part of this story we can only guess. Whether Estelle Pinkerton found out that Gupp didn’t care tuppence for her and was only after her money, whether she realised that as long as he was alive he would bleed her of her fortune by blackmail, I don’t know. Nobody except Estelle knows, and she’s not likely to tell. It may be that Gupp was planning to murder her, knowing that while she lived to tell the tale he could never be free from fear. She might, he felt, break down and confess sometime. Perhaps she found out his intentions and got in first. Anyway, the cottage that she had planned as a love nest turned out to be the scene of his death. Her plan was simple enough. There was nothing to connect a charming old lady, a Mrs. Welldon from London, who rented a cottage at Downland, in which subsequently the corpse of a man called Hilton Gupp would be found, with the harmless spinster Estelle Pinkerton from Cheltenham. So she thought.
“I am going to repeat how I found out about her plans. That telephone call of hers was her only slip, but how could she imagine she was being followed and the number traced? Even then it was only to an hotel in Eastbourne. If it hadn’t been for the curiosity of that colonel’s wife, Mrs. Fordyce, we might not have found her so quickly.
“All she had to do after murdering Gupp was to disappear from the bungalow and reappear as Estelle Pinkerton on her way to her grandfather in France to spend a holiday. She would say in her letters that she felt she needed a rest after all the vulgar publicity about her uncle’s death. She could then come back to Cheltenham and enjoy the fortune that had been left her. With that money she hoped to find a better man than Hilton Gupp had proved to be. Well, Inspector Arnold and I caught her just in time on the boat. We’ve got ample evidence against her for Gupp’s murder and, if necessary, for poisoning Miss Fielding. First, her fingerprints were on the fountain-pen of Miss Fielding’s which she borrowed to write that fatal receipt. They’ve been compared, the Inspector tells me, and there’s no doubt. Second, Miss Amelia Pinhole will testify that she saw a woman she now knows to be Estelle Pinkerton coming from Miss Fielding’s house on the morning of the murder. Lastly, I think you’ve traced the receipt itself, haven’t you, Inspector? Bath, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” Inspector Arnold said. “The receipt for the Church Missions Society was a fake, of course. Beef suggested it was probably printed for Miss Pinkerton down in some town near her home. Well, we found the printers, a firm in Bath. She had given the name Mrs. Welldon, the same as she used to take the cottage in Sussex. Very careless.”
“It’s perhaps a good thing that Gupp is dead. We might have got the garage in Oxford to identify him, but that would have been the only bit of evidence that wasn’t circumstantial. What do you think, Chief Inspector?”
I was glad Beef had taken the bull by the horns. “Very interesting story,” he replied. “Thank you very much. I congratulate you on the Hastings part. How far your theories will stand any real test about our case in the Cotswolds remains to be seen. We will naturally go into the whole matter carefully. I presume you will make a written report?”
“Oh yes,” Beef replied. There returned to his voice a little of the old pomposity, and he spoke as though he were endowing an orphanage. “I’m giving the whole story in writing to Inspector Arnold. That will go to Scotland Yard and you will no doubt get a copy from your headquarters.”
“That’ll be fine,” said the Chief Inspector, but his looks did not support his words. “Come on, Superintendent. Enjoyable as the evening’s been, we must get back to hard work and hard facts.”
I thought I saw the fat Superintendent wink at Beef as he said good-bye. There was certainly a twinkle in his eye.
“Had to save his face,” Inspector Arnold said to Beef when they had left the flat. “Greenleaf will be out in a day or two, you see.”
“I thought he took it all pretty well in the end,” Beef replied. “Come on, Inspector, we can have a real drink now.” And they did.