Neck and Neck
After breakfast I strolled out to the garage and found young Charlie cleaning the Daimler. He seemed much more cheerful and greeted me with a smile. “Morning, Mr. Lionel. Thought I’d get the car clean in case it was wanted. I hardly like to ask so soon after Miss Fielding’s death, but I wondered what was going to happen like. Mum and I was talking last night. I’d like to take her to Canada. We could manage that on what Miss Fielding left her. It was left to her, sir, not to Dad, wasn’t it? I mean, there’d be no trouble about her collecting it?”
He looked very young and earnest as he waited for my reply.
“Oh no, Charlie, there’s no trouble about that, as soon as this is all cleared up. It’s your mother’s money absolutely, and, besides, Miss Fielding left you a hundred pounds too. But it’s your father I want to ask you about. He never turned up for his appointment with Beef. Did he come home last night?”
The same expression that I had seen in his face when Beef and I were questioning his mother returned. “No, he didn’t sleep here, Mr. Lionel. He came back for his tea about five. I gave him your message and I’m afraid we had a bit of an up-and-a-downer and he cleared off. I haven’t seen him since. Can’t say I want to much. Sooner Mum and I get away, the better.”
As he was speaking I had been looking round, conscious that there was something unusual about the garage. I suddenly realised what it was. Charlie’s motor-cycle was missing. It always stood looking so clean and bright, the aluminium exhaust pipes shining as brightly as the silver when Ellen had polished it. “Where’s your bike, Charlie?” I asked.
Charlie busied himself cleaning the headlights and did not look up.
“Oh, I sold it,” he replied.
“When?” I asked incredulously. “I saw it here yesterday.”
“Yesterday,” he answered almost irritably. “Got a good offer and let it go. I can always get another,” he added, but I knew he was lying. Vincent and I had known the boy since childhood, and now for the first time that I could remember he was not being open. As I turned to go I caught his eye for a moment and was worried at the hurt look. “Anything my brother and I can do, we always will, you know. We must get the question of my aunt’s death cleared up first.”
“Thanks,” he replied, and went on cleaning the car.
Beef had arrived when I returned to the house and I told him of my talk with Charlie. He made no comment, however, but got out his notebook. “I want to have a little stroll round this morning,” he announced. “I’m going to have a word with the people who visited your aunt the day she died. I’ve got all the addresses from the Inspector—that is, all except the lady who came collecting for charity. He can’t trace her yet. Anyway, we’ve got a few for a start. There’s the vicar, the two Misses Graves and Miss Pinhole her dressmaker. Like to come along?”
As he walked towards the vicarage, I began to question Beef. “Do you really think one of my aunt’s friends could possibly have poisoned her?” I asked. “I know it has been proved that she died of poisoning, but I can’t help feeling that it will turn out that it was all due to some mistake,” echoing Vincent’s words.
“According to the doctors,” Beef replied, “the poison was probably taken in the morning, and I’m just following the ordinary routine. After all, the only thing we do know that your aunt had to eat or drink between breakfast and lunch was her glass of sherry. They all seem to have known about that. Easy as wink just to put a little morphia into her glass. I know some very funny things happen among these church people. But it’s the motive you want to keep your eye on. What about these Misses Graves? They got a thousand, didn’t they? Were they hard-up?”
“I really don’t know, Beef,” I replied. “They always seemed to live fairly comfortably. Here’s the St. Luke’s vicarage, anyway,” and I opened the gate.
The vicar of St. Luke’s was tall, thin, and grey-haired. His clothes, which needed brushing, hung loosely and untidily about his spare figure. He looked as if he needed a month on the sort of meals that Mary had always prepared for my aunt. I had met him at my aunt’s funeral and introduced Beef.
“Dear, dear. Private detectives now,” he said, and could not conceal the distaste he seemed to feel at the thought. “I felt it was bad enough when the police came to question me. Poor Miss Fielding! How she would have hated all this . . . er . . . vulgar publicity.”
Beef did not seem to notice the vicar’s cold reception.
“You went to see Miss Fielding, didn’t you, sir, the day she died?” he began in his usual blunt way. “May I ask what you went to see her about?”
Vicar gave Beef a look of obvious dislike. “Parish matters, my dear sir, parish matters. Miss Fielding was always so good at understanding difficulties.”
“Contributed a lot, didn’t she, to your church?” Beef went on.
“Most generous, always, dear Miss Fielding. We shall miss her deeply. Thank to her legacy I can now finish my life’s work and the restoration of those fine old murals that have been covered for over a century. Some of the finest in the country. Just allowed to go to rot and ruin. Absolutely wicked.”
As he spoke of the murals the vicar seemed to forget all about us. His eyes lit with a kind of fanatical light. The quiet, untidy, underfed figure appeared transformed for a moment and I thought that even he, whom I had always considered a rather dull disappointed parson, had his splendid vision. It soon passed, however, as Beef began to question him about his last visit to my aunt.
“Did you have a glass of sherry with Miss Fielding that morning?”
The vicar paused, and I saw him look swiftly at Beef. “Let me see now,” he replied slowly, and he appeared to be thinking deeply. “Yes, I remember now. Your dear aunt pressed me. She said she thought I looked as if I needed a tonic. It was a special medicinal sherry, she told me.”
“What about her?” Beef continued. “Did she have one?”
“I seem to remember that she poured herself out a glass, but only had a sip out of it. I didn’t take much notice. I was in a hurry to be off, as I had much to do.”
Beef did not seem to have any further questions to ask, so as I rose to go I asked him whether he had begun further work on the restoration.
“Yes, yes indeed. I gave orders at once,” he answered eagerly. “We must lose no time. I don’t know how long I shall be spared, but I have vowed that I will see it completed.”
He ushered us out. I felt sorry for the vicar. A poisoned parishioner was so out of his experience.
“Very keen on this restoration work, isn’t he?” Beef asked as I led the way to where the Misses Graves lived. “Never think he had it in him, would you, to look at him? Do with a good square meal and a pint of Guinness. Bachelor, I suppose?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Thought so,” Beef said, and relapsed into silence. I still felt the air of cheerlessness in that room, of the dusty theological books that lined the walls and the stuffy atmosphere that still lingered in my nostrils.
The two Misses Graves had been life-long friends of my aunt. I had been told that they had all three been educated together and, as none of them had ever married and as they all had St. Luke’s as their chief interest, they had remained close friends ever since. If ever my aunt took a holiday, the two Misses Graves would go too. I often suspected that most of the expenses of such trips—once I remember they had ventured as far as the Holy Land—were paid by my aunt. I had heard my aunt say when we were out shopping, “That’s the very material the poor Misses Graves want for their new curtains. I must see what I can do”, and whenever she bought bulbs for the garden or some special delicacy for the table, she would give an extra order for some to be sent to these two sisters.
We as boys candidly disliked them, with their funereal black clothes and prim air of disapproval, and as we grew up we saw no reason to change our opinion. Their house always seemed dark and dingy, and in the last years, though my visits had been few and then only for the sake of my aunt, I could detect an air of unkemptness about the place due either to poverty or lack of care. The paint on the woodwork was peeling, though what was left retained its ugly dark chocolate colour, and in the small garden the grass was unmown and the flowerbeds untended.
I was surprised, therefore, as I led Beef up the gravel path, to see a man on a ladder painting and a gardener busily pruning the overgrown trees. I remembered then, of course, my aunt’s legacy of a thousand pounds.
“They’ve not wasted much time in anticipating getting my aunt’s money,” I said to Beef, and pointed out how far the place had been let go.
Beef seemed more than ever out of place in the poky little rooms over-crowded with Victorian knick-knackery. The two Misses Graves sat upright in uncomfortable-looking chairs and eyed Beef as if he were some monster.
“Got the painters in, I see,” Beef began cheerfully.
“Yes,” the elder Miss Graves replied. “I’m afraid the place was getting in a sad state. I’m sure your dear aunt”—she turned to me—“will look down with approval and know her kindness to us is already bearing fruit.”
Beef looked around, literally like a bull in a china shop, and I could tell he was anxious to escape. He questioned them about their visit the last morning of my aunt’s life, but they said that they had noticed nothing unusual. My aunt had seemed exactly as she always was.
“Did you both have a glass of sherry that morning?” Beef asked.
“Oh yes,” Miss Graves replied. “Miss Fielding insisted. “Only a very small glass, of course, just to please her. Miss Payne came in while we were there, so we left.”
I could tell from the nasty smug expression that there was no love lost between my aunt’s friends and her companion. As we walked out of the gate I said to Beef, “Much as I dislike the Misses Graves I can’t see them poisoning my aunt, even for a thousand pounds. She was their only friend and, more or less, the goose that laid the golden eggs for them.” I explained about the numerous gifts my aunt was in the habit of making them.
“No more can I,” Beef replied. “But you never can tell with old girls like that. They’re a bit cranky to start with. Look at that room we were in. More like a third-rate museum. They didn’t waste much time spending money, either, before they could have even got their hands on a penny.”
“The place certainly needed cleaning up,” I said, remembering how bedraggled it had looked. “People must have started talking about them soon.”
Beef nodded. “And tradesmen had begun to wonder, I daresay, how long they could go on giving the two old girls tick,” he said.
As Miss Pinhole, the last on Beef’s list, lived on the other side of the town, we walked back to my aunt’s house and picked up my car. We eventually found the address and saw a small wooden plate on the wall beside the door: “Miss Amelia Pinhole. Ladies’ Dressmaker.” The street was in the old town and, though in a poor district, was cheerful enough—a district of shrimps for tea and jugs of beer from the local pub. I had never met my aunt’s dressmaker, and somehow I imagined another thin faded spinster.
Miss Amelia Pinhole opened the door herself, and her bulk filled the whole passage behind her. Over her broad bosom hung a heavy necklace of pink coral that seemed faded as one looked up at her large made-up face.
“Well,” she said, in a deep, slightly husky voice, “what’s it this time? I’ve paid my rent and the water-rate . . .”
I hastened to assure her that our visit had no such object. “I came to see if you would be kind enough to help us. I am the late Miss Fielding’s nephew, and this is Sergeant Beef, a private investigator. He is looking into the unfortunate circumstances on behalf of the family.”
She beamed, and Beef coughed slightly.
“I daresay it’s been a bit of a shock to you, what with one worry and another. Supposing you just put on your hat and coat and we go where we get you something warming?”
I could see them almost winking at one another as she hurried into the house, and I felt angry with Beef.
“Beef,” I said sternly, “this is a serious enquiry. There was no need for that.”
“Get twice the amount out of that old girl with a large gin in her hand,” he replied unrepentantly. “Tell that as soon as I saw her, let alone heard her voice.”
“Well, I will have a drop of gin, as you suggest, Sergeant,” she said, as we settled into three chairs in the saloon of the nearest public house. “I feel I need it, after all I’ve been through. First the police—though I must say that that Inspector Arnold was as nice as pie. But it makes the neighbours talk. Then, just because I was a week or two overdue, they had to come and turn the water off. ’Course, I settled it all up. But there, I mustn’t talk about myself, though I will say some people are never satisfied. I’ve lived here for close on twenty years, ever since I came from Cheltenham. You’d think they could trust me now. I hardly look as if I’d fly away, do I?”
She laughed heartily and swallowed the gin. I ordered another round while Sergeant Beef condoled with the garrulous but likeable old thing, and then switched the conversation to the morning of my aunt’s death.
“Yes,” she said, “remember it well. I was fitting her a new wine-colour dress. Your aunt always had beautiful materials, Mr. Townsend,” she said to me. “But I could never persuade her to alter her style. Dignified, she always looked, I will say. Now where was I? Oh yes, that morning I remember because I thought I caught sight of an old friend of mine as I was going in, but it must have been someone else. No, your aunt was quite alone when I went in. We worked away some time. Sherry? Yes, she always gave me a glass. Very generous woman, Miss Fielding.”
“Did she leave you alone at all while you were there?” Beef asked, and I saw her look up warily. Then she burst into laughter. “How did you know? Yes, I did help myself to another glass or two while she went to the kitchen to give some order.”
As we drove back from the old town, after dropping Miss Pinhole at her small house, I asked Beef how he knew that the dressmaker had helped herself to the sherry.
“Measured out the decanter with the number of people,” he replied. “Ellen told me it was filled up every morning, and I found quite a lot extra had gone, and none of the others looked likely customers.”
When we got back to my aunt’s house we met Inspector Arnold in the hall.
“The inquest is fixed for Monday, ten o’clock,” he said to me. “You’ll be there, of course. I’ve arranged for all the witnesses, and naturally your brother and Mr. Gupp will attend. What about you, Beef?” the Inspector went on. “You coming along?”
“I shall probably look in,” Beef replied, “but I don’t expect much from it.”
The Inspector smiled. “We’ll see,” he said, and then more pleasantly asked how Beef’s enquiries were going.
“Covering much the same ground as you, Inspector, as far as I can see. I want a word with that fellow Gupp. When’s he coming down for the inquest?” Beef asked.
“He’ll be here, but I’m afraid you won’t get far there. Cast-iron alibi. Had the Yard on it. Can’t be shaken.”
“Still, I’d like a word with him,” Beef persisted. “Get any further in tracing that woman who came collecting for charity, Inspector? She’s another I’d like to find.”
The Inspector shook his head. “Afraid not,” he said. “Lots of them came here, and the parlourmaid said this lady knew the lay-out here, so she’d probably been before. I’m concentrating on motive, Beef. I advise you to do the same. Once you’ve got that the rest usually falls into place with a few enquiries.”
Beef laughed as the Inspector shut the front door. “What’s he think I’m doing?” he said. “But he’s no fool, you know. Not much misses him.”
“Well, Beef,” I could not help saying, “he is an inspector and you were only a sergeant when you left the Force.”
“Yes,” said Beef triumphantly, “but who’s ever heard of Inspector Arnold, whereas Sergeant Beef is what you might call a household word.”
“I wish it were,” I replied, rather nettled.
“Well, it should be,” he replied. “I don’t know whose fault it is. I go round finding the murderers for you. Either you can’t write ’em up the way they like or it’s your publisher’s fault. I shall have to look into it all.”
He paused. Then he added, in what I thought rather a nasty tone, “Anyway, perhaps I shall need a new biographer in any case, after this. You’ve never told me what you was up to all that day your aunt was murdered.”