Neck and Neck
Next day I received a most extraordinary communication from Beef—a telegram dispatched from Gloucestershire to me:
“Regret investigating other case very very interesting can only suggest you confess everything to police hiding nothing always the best way Beef.”
The infamous suggestion here was not lost upon me, but all my knowledge of Beef could not tell me whether this was the result of his coarse sense of humour or of genuine if perverted concern for me. I wired back:
“No laughing matter please drop everything and come stop this also promises interesting case Townsend.”
I received no reply to this, but while we all stood around the grave, watching the coffin bearing Aunt Aurora’s body being lowered, I became aware of his arrival. He stood a little aside, bowler hat in hand, and he was mopping his brow with a large handkerchief. It certainly was a warm afternoon for September, but knowing Beef I suspected that he had spent what he still called his dinner hour in the pub nearest to the cemetery. However, I was glad to see him and grateful that he had come so quickly. In addition to all the staff, Mary, Ellen, the gardener and young Charlie, there was present at the funeral a crowd of friends and fellow parishioners from St. Luke’s. I noticed particularly the two Misses Graves, Aunt Aurora’s great friends. They were almost always sombre in dress, but today they seemed to have surpassed themselves. Everything was black down to the knobs on their hat pins and the ugly great ornaments they pinned in their dresses.
In our party there was Vincent, of course, and Hilton Gupp, who had only arrived the night before and had had a long interview with Inspector Arnold before the funeral. He had not changed as much as I had expected since he had been out East. True, his features had coarsened and his large brawny body had grown gross and fleshy, yet he would still, I imagined, be accounted good-looking in a heavy, rather animal way. Edith Payne was there. Ever since Aunt Aurora’s death she seemed to have lost her colour and her flow of cheering commonplaces. She and Vincent were still, I felt, avoiding one another. Vincent had introduced me to Mr. Moneypenny, Aunt Aurora’s solicitor and fellow executor with Vincent.
As we wandered away from the grave to where the cars were waiting, I approached Sergeant Beef and thanked him for coming so promptly.
“Couldn’t very well help it, could I?” he said. “I couldn’t have you arrested just when I may need you to write a nice little case up for me. I’ve been taking an interest in a little affair in the Cotswolds, you see, which looks like making a first-class story for you.”
He suddenly caught sight of the two Misses Graves about to enter their car.
“Here,” he said to me, in what he imagined to be a whisper, “whoever are those old girls? Funerals look as if they was just about their meat. Black handkerchiefs, too, see?” he added triumphantly.
I hurried him into the car that had brought Vincent and myself to the funeral.
“Afternoon, Townsend,” Beef greeted my brother. “Bit different sort of turn-out from that affair at your school, but I dare say we’ll sort it all out.”
“Beef,” my brother replied rather irritably, “please remember that we have just buried my aunt. Miss Fielding was a member of our family. We were very fond of her. We shall be very grateful,” he went on in a more conciliatory tone, “for any help you can give us in clearing up this horrible situation. Personally, I think the police will find it is due to some tragic mistake. When we get back to her house, Mr. Moneypenny, the solicitor, will read the Will, and after that I’ll tell you all I know of the matter.”
We came to the house and Vincent went to have a few words with Moneypenny. Beef drew me aside.
“What’s up with your brother?” he asked. “He didn’t seem as pleased to see me as he did over that affair at his school. Cut up, is he, over the old girl’s death? Should be a bit of cash somewhere,” he added, looking round the hall.
Everyone, including the staff and the two Misses Graves, were seated in my aunt’s drawing-room as Beef and I entered. Moneypenny wasted no time, but began to read the Will at once. It began exactly as I expected with bequests to the servants (rather more generous than necessary, I felt); a thousand pounds to the Misses Graves “in memory of their life-long Christian devotion”; an annuity of two hundred a year to Miss Edith Payne (yes, I thought, that was wise of my aunt); and five hundred pounds for the St. Luke’s Restoration Fund. Then came the surprise. “The residue of my estate I leave equally between my nephews Vincent Harvey Townsend and Lionel Johnson Townsend,” I heard Moneypenny’s voice saying. But there was no mention of Hilton Gupp. I looked across at Vincent and could see that he appeared equally taken aback, though he, after all, was an executor. I hardly dared look across to where Gupp was sitting. At first I thought he had fainted. His face was white. He suddenly seemed to pull himself together.
“But I know my aunt left her money in three equal shares,” he shouted at Moneypenny. “I saw it.”
Mr. Moneypenny shook his head sadly. “No, Mr. Gupp,” he said, “your aunt’s instructions were quite implicit. She added a codicil to her Will on the twentieth of August. That was the day after you visited her on your return from the East Indies, I believe.”
Edith seemed to think that she should relieve the tension and began to lead everyone to the drawing-room where tea was to be served. The staff hurried to their quarters, and only Vincent, Gupp, myself, Sergeant Beef and Inspector Arnold were left. Moneypenny was gathering up his papers.
Gupp went up to the solicitor. “I would like to have a look at the Will,” he said in a flat voice. Moneypenny opened the pages again. There was silence as he looked at it, and then he turned to go. “I’ll get my own solicitor to look into this,” he said rudely to old Moneypenny. “I still think there’s a trick in it somewhere.”
As he was leaving the room, Inspector Arnold stepped across to him. “Where are you staying for the next few days, Mr. Gupp?” he asked politely.
“Not here, anyhow,” he said, looking angrily at Vincent and myself.
“I’d like to know,” persisted the Inspector.
“The East Indian Club will find me. Any objections?”
“None,” replied the Inspector, but I noticed that he followed Gupp from the room.
When they had gone, Vincent introduced Beef to Money-penny. He had obviously prepared the solicitor for Beef beforehand, for Moneypenny did not turn a hair when Beef asked eagerly, “Roughly, after paying out, how much would you say there was in the kitty?”
I must say, that although I thought this was hardly the time to go into details of money with my aunt only just buried, I could not help being interested in what Moneypenny’s answer would be.
“When death duties and all the bequests are paid, there should be between fifty and sixty thousand to divide between the Messrs. Vincent and Lionel Townsend, in addition to the house and personal effects.”
“Yes, I thought there’d be quite a lot,” Beef said, nodding his head sagely. “You can always tell. Look at this room. Look at the servants. Good solid comfort and no extravagance. I shouldn’t think your aunt spent half her income all these years. Nice tidy sum.”
As we entered the drawing-room to join the others for tea, I heard Edith Payne saying to the Misses Graves how kind it was of dear Aunt Aurora to remember her. The Misses Graves nodded their heads sadly. “She was so good to everybody,” one of them said.
I had arranged for Beef to have a talk with Inspector Arnold, and after swallowing a quick cup of tea I led Beef to the morning-room, which the Inspector had come to use for all his official work. The Inspector greeted Beef in the impersonal manner that he used with everyone. But he seemed ready enough to discuss the facts of the case. I was interested, too, to know what the police had been doing and, as the Inspector seemed to raise no objection, I stayed in the room.
The Inspector ran over very clearly the events up to the time when my aunt was taken suddenly ill, the morning spent with letters and accounts, the list of visitors, and the walk with Spot the terrier.
“Did she have anything in the middle of the morning?” Beef asked. “Most of these old ladies like their elevenses.”
“Yes, she had a glass of sherry and some biscuits,” the Inspector answered. “She always had a decanter and half a dozen glasses left out every morning. Someone usually came to see her. Don’t wonder. It was good sherry.”
This was the first human remark that the Inspector had made, and I wondered how far his cold manner was assumed.
“Fingerprints?” Beef queried.
“Yes, we were lucky. The glasses hadn’t been washed up. I’ve got them all, but I don’t think they’ll be much help. We had all the glasses and the decanter tested, but there was no trace of morphia in any of them. They had used six glasses in all. You remember there were all those visitors.”
“What about her dinner?” Beef went on to ask.
“Lunch was soup, fried plaice and some fruit,” the Inspector replied. “Miss Payne and Mr. Vincent Townsend had the same as your aunt. So did the servants. They were all right.”
The Inspector went on to describe how Doctor Rowley had summoned the police, and how the police doctor agreed with Rowley’s suspicions and how this was confirmed by the autopsy.
“What about her?” Beef asked. “Didn’t she say anything before she died?”
“She was half unconscious most of the afternoon. She had no suspicion that it wasn’t just a natural attack.”
“Now, what about this chap Gupp?” Beef asked. “He seems a likely customer. There’d been some funny business with his aunt on that last visit. You could tell that by old Moneypenny’s manner.”
“He’s got an apparently cast-iron alibi for the whole day from ten o’clock in the morning till after Miss Fielding’s death. I shall, of course, investigate his movements, but I somehow felt he was telling the truth. He seemed almost too eager to tell me about where he was.”
“He obviously didn’t know he’d been cut out of the Will,” I said.
“In which case, if you think the motive was money, he thought he had exactly the same amount to gain as you and your brother.”
I looked up quickly at the Inspector as he said this, but his expression was unchanged.
It was at this point that Vincent came in and asked me to spare him a few minutes with the solicitor before he departed for London.
I left Beef with Inspector Arnold, and when I had settled a few points with Moneypenny, I found Beef alone.
“Did you get all the facts you wanted, Beef?” I asked.
“Oh yes. Good chap, that Inspector. There’s a lot of things I want to find out that I can’t ask him. I shall just have to nose round by myself. I say, look at the time. It’s six o’clock. Coming to have a look at the pub I’m staying at?”
“How do you think I could be seen in this town drinking on the day of my aunt’s funeral? It wouldn’t be decent.”
“All right,” Beef replied affably, “I only thought you might like to get away from this house for a bit. Your aunt’s body only just removed and all this mourning and drawn curtains. Couldn’t stand it myself. Besides, there’s that money that’s coming to you. Ought to have a drink on that.”
I must say I was greatly tempted to follow Beef’s lead and go out with him. My brother and Edith Payne in their present mood were poor company.
“All right, Beef,” I said, feeling I was being weak. “Just wait till I change this black tie. But, mind you, we’ll have to take my car and go out of the town, and no low pub-crawling.”
“Suppose you’re worried what those old girls in black would think if they heard you’d been seen in a boozer.”
“Of course not,” I replied indignantly.
We drove over to Battle, and on the way Beef questioned me about Aunt Aurora. He wanted to know all about the family and the relationship of Hilton Gupp, Edith Payne and ourselves. He seemed more interested in the past than what had just happened. I told him stories of our visits to our aunt, of my dislike of Edith, and confessed the reasons. About Gupp I had no strong feelings. He had occasionally stayed with my aunt while Vincent and I were there. He was a strong, well-developed, but a rather gross boy at that time and used to beat us both at the games we played. He was a strong swimmer and had a passion for the silent films of those days. He would tell wild tales of his escapades at school—he was a day-boy at a London school—in which he figured as hero, and often I felt he must have been a bully. When he left to go into a bank, and later to go to a foreign branch in Sumatra, we lost sight of each other and during these years had hardly given him a thought. Vincent had once told me that Hilton Gupp and ourselves would eventually divide Aunt Aurora’s money between us, but that her death had always seemed to be something so distant and unlikely that I had not given the matter much thought.
Beef seemed so interested in all this, in Gupp and how Edith first came to Aunt Aurora, that I lost sense of time and was surprised to find that we were in Battle already. I managed to persuade Beef to patronise the saloon bar, but I noticed him casting an eye every now and then at the public bar, where we could just see a four playing darts. I took a roundabout route back, and it was after eleven when I got back to the house, dropping Beef on the way. I tried to persuade him to move to the house, but he would not hear of it. I noticed that all the lights were out in Camber Lodge as I drove to the garage, which was away from the house. I had borrowed from Ellen a key of the garden door and entered as silently as I could. The house looked so quiet and respectable that I felt I did not want to meet anyone after my outing.
I got to my bedroom and undressed. Aunt Aurora had never had the bedrooms modernised with wash-basins and running water, so I had to go along to the bathroom to clean my teeth. As I crept along the heavy carpeted passage, I noticed a light flickering ahead, and as I approached I realized that someone was in the bathroom. The door was half open and I could tell from the way the shadows moved that the light was a candle held in someone’s hand. I felt suddenly a bit nervous as I advanced cautiously to the door. A mirror hung on the wall, and reflected in it I saw my cousin Edith, the candlestick in one hand and a small wicker basket in the other. She could not, even if she looked in the mirror, see me because I was in the darkness. The light of the candle rose for a moment and I realized what she was doing. She had my aunt’s key basket in her hand and she was trying key after key in the hope of unlocking the medicine cupboard. I did not like to be caught spying but I was not content to leave her there, so I went along the passage, then came back whistling. I burst straight into the bathroom, turning on the electric light as I did so.
“Hullo, Edith,” I said. “Whatever are you doing at this time of night?”
She turned very pale and for a moment I thought she was going to faint.
“Oh, Lionel, what a fright you gave me,” she answered. “I’ve got such a headache and I was trying to find some aspirin.”
“I’ve got some I can give you, Edith. But why all the keys? Where’s the key of the medicine cupboard? My aunt always kept it on her special ring, didn’t she?”
Edith looked terribly ill, and I thought it was unkind to question her further and I went to fetch some tablets from my room. When I returned I found her looking a little better.
“Lionel dear, I’m afraid it was my fault. I lost Auntie’s key some days ago and I’m frightened to tell the police. Please don’t say anything to them about tonight.”
She took the bottle of aspirin I had brought and went out. I lay in bed for a long time thinking about Edith and the medicine cupboard. I was quite sure my aunt did not keep poison there, but there were numerous bottles. Patent medicine had been a weakness of Aunt Aurora’s, and I supposed that some of them might contain poison in some form. But perhaps Edith really just had a headache and no aspirin. In that case it was curious about the loss of the key. I would have to tell Beef in the morning, but somehow I did not think I would tell Vincent.