Chief Inspector Stute of the Special Branch is a man for whom I have the highest regard. He had been in charge of the investigation of several previous cases in which Beef had blundered on a solution, and although I suspected that he attributed most of Beef’s success to luck he was fairly tolerant of my old ex-policeman. Perhaps he realized, too, that Beef so much belonged to the world of such people as the Gabriels, Mills and Dunton that he often learned facts from them which they would not willingly reveal to the police. At all events, he usually listened to Beef and sometimes gave him information in return for the scraps of tittle-tattle which Beef retailed.
The Buck and Arrow turned out to be a Tudor inn which had been taken over by one of the hotel catering combines. It had an impressive sign painted by a commercial artist of some talent and swinging in a wrought-iron frame. It had diamond-paned windows in great profusion and a wealth—no, a positive El Dorado—of oak beams. It also had a receptionist’s office near the front door. We approached the young lady in this.
“Chief Inspector Stute?” she said. “Eh’m effreyed he’s engaged at the moment.”
“That’s all right,” said Beef looking a little uncomfortable, “I’ll wait till he comes out.”
“Eh’m effreyed he has someone with him.
“What, old Stute? You can’t . . .”
“The gentleman is in conference.”
“Tell him Sergeant Beef’s got some vital information for him, will you?”
“Eh’m effreyed . . .”
He turned to me in exasperation.
“Here, Townsend, you talk to her. She’s more your sort than mine. Find out where he is, for goodness’ sake. We’re wasting half the morning.”
I came forward and raised my hat. After a few minutes I managed to discover that Stute was upstairs in the “Residents’ Drawing-Room“ with “two other gentlemen“ and had asked not to be disturbed.
“That’s all right,” said Beef. “He won’t mind me.” And before the young lady could say any more, or repeat herself, he had bolted for the stairs.
There was an angry “Oh, come in!” in answer to Beef’s tap and certainly no pleasure shewn in the three faces turned towards us.
“Well? Oh, it’s you. I might have known,” was Chief Inspector Stute’s welcome.
He looked a little, but not much, older than I remembered him on previous occasions. His thick grey hair was more silvery but just as thick and carefully combed, his neat military moustache as clipped and his clothes as well pressed. His appearance contrasted with the ready made serge suit and stringy tie which Beef wore. And Beef’s manner, in the presence of a man so distinguished in his old service, became rather awed, I noticed.
“You’ll excuse me, Chief Inspector,” he said, “but I’ve got a little information in the Ducrow case which I think you ought to have.”
Stute exchanged glances with the other two, and I guessed that Beef had mentioned the very subject of their discussion.
“Oh, you have? I suppose you’ve come to tell me that Rudolf was Freda’s lover? Or that a car was near the corpse in the early morning? Or that Zena Ducrow was up at the house that night?”
Beef’s mouth opened like that of a fish on a slab.
“I . . .” he began.
“Or is it that Mrs. Dunton returned to her husband’s house that evening?” went on Stute, enjoyed Beef’s humiliation. “Or that they were still up when Gray phoned?”
Beef was never very good at taking a joke against himself, and now lost his temper.
“No!” he shouted. “I’ve come to bring you this!”
He threw the brown-paper parcel which he had been hugging all the morning on the table among them. Without troubling to unwrap it Stute continued to talk calmly.
“One of Rudolf’s jackets, I suppose, which you think he wore on the night of the murder.”
“One of Rudolf’s jackets,” said Beef, “which I think has had bloodstains cleaned from it.”
Stute smiled. “All right. Beef. I’m not saying you don’t do some good work sometimes. I was pulling your leg just now. These two gentlemen are Forster and Liphook of the Special Branch. This old warhorse is Sergeant Beef, who gets himself employed as a private investigator and is less of a fool than he looks.” I found that I was being omitted and coughed. “Oh, and this is Townsend,” added Stute. “So you’ve found the coat he wore? Where was it?”
“Hanging in Rudolf’s cloakroom.”
“We searched there.”
“Then either you didn’t think it was of interest, or it was not there then. I might not have noticed it if I had not heard from Mrs. Gabriel that such a jacket of Rudolf’s had been hanging on a peg at Hokestones till the night of the 12th.”
“What else can you tell us?”
Beef quite honestly gave them the results of his enquiries, keeping nothing back, but drawing no inferences either. The unlocked french windows in the library, Mrs. Ducrow’s intemperate habits, Mrs. Gabriel’s apparently unreasonable suspicion of Mrs. Dunton, the various footsteps heard by Mrs. Gabriel, the certainty that it was Gulley’s old Lagonda which had been driven up to the scene of the crime, the missing croquet mallet, the back door which was open ajar when Rudolf was coming through the kitchen that night, the reason for Zena’s visit to Cosmo and his reaction to the information she brought, the suspicion that Gulley had been swindling Cosmo and that he knew it; even, though rather grudgingly, the figure under the umbrella which I had observed last night and the discovery this morning that Rudolf’s car had been stolen-all this was gone over by Beef in straightforward and businesslike terms. Stute said little, made a jotting or two and finally thanked the Sergeant.
“Some useful stuff there,” he said, “but it does not alter our main conclusion, which is probably the same as yours. Either Rudolf is a pretty stupid sort of murderer, or else it is all an elaborate plant to try to make him look guilty.”
“Take the croquet mallet,” said Stute. “If Rudolf did it, why should he choose the very mallet he always used? Wasn’t that asking for trouble?”
The man called Liphook spoke slowly.
“You know what I think about that,” he said. “Rudolf might easily have been clever enough to use it on the grounds that it would remove suspicion from him rather than otherwise for the very reason you’ve just given. He may have done everything so obviously that it looks like a plant.”
“That’s ingenious,” I couldn’t help saying.
“Quite possible, too. It would account for this coat. Did he invite you to the cloakroom where it was hanging, Beef?”
“There you are. But what is interesting about the croquet mallet is that only his fingerprints appeared on it and there was no sign of smudging as there would have been if someone had used gloves.”
“What condition was it in when it was found?”
“Oh, it had been used for the murder all right. One flat end of the hammer pan was a mass of blood.”
“What about the missing mallet?”
“Difficult to understand,” admitted Stute. “Who noticed it? Gulley? Everything from that fellow’s pretty suspect. It might be a red herring. It might have some quite ordinary explanation.”
“I should be grateful for one or two technical points,” said Beef. “The doctor’s report, for instance.”
“I haven’t it here,” said Stute, “but it was very much what you’d expect. ‘Cause of Death’ sounds rather inadequate for those mallet blows—the poor wretch had practically no skull left. It was a most shocking crime from that point of view—quite unnecessary violence. Yet not with any idea of concealing identity, for all the blows were on the back of the head, none on the face.”
“What about time of death?” asked Beef.
“Very difficult to gauge. The doctor did not examine the corpse until half-past nine on the following morning. He’ll only say that he thinks it was after twelve-thirty and before five-thirty. Gives a nice wide range, doesn’t it?”
There was a long silence. Then Beef asked if any of the people connected with the case had criminal records.
“Funny you should ask that,” said Stute, “because there are two—both old ones. Gulley did six months for some cheque frauds on hotels when he was a man of twenty-seven. Mills was a Borstal boy: burglary at sixteen. Gone straight since then. Strange that old Ducrow should have had two men with records working for him. I don’t think he or anyone else knew of them though.”
“Perhaps not,” said Beef.
“Well, we come back to Rudolf. Plant or not, we could get him hanged on the evidence we now have, and if the jacket turns out to have had bloodstains cleaned from it I don’t see that we can do anything but arrest him.”
“Nor do I,” said Beef. “As a matter of fact I shouldn’t be sorry to see you do so.”
That seemed to me like treachery to his employers, but I said nothing.
“Why?” demanded Stute.
“Because as you say there are only two possibilities. Either he is a murderer, in which case he may as well be tried as soon as possible. Or else he is the victim of an elaborate plant, in which case he’s in danger.”
“Do you really think so?”
“Well, if someone killed Cosmo and tried to pin it on Rudolf, that someone must be getting very worried that Rudolf is not arrested. Sooner or later that someone is going to take the matter into his or her hands.”
“I see what you mean.”
“One or two other things. Which Borstal Institution was Mills in?”
“Good. And have you traced the woman whom Gulley took back to the flat in Montrevor House that night?”
“Yes. Her name is Esmeralda Tobyn, and she lives at 18 Peckham Avenue, Putney Common.”
“Have you any details of Rudolf’s army service?”
“Yes. He did very well. Had a breakdown in 1945, though, and was sent to an Army mental hospital for a few weeks. Discharged as fit. Nothing unusual about that, as you know.”
“No. Well I’m very much obliged to you, Chief Inspector, for the information you have given me. Very much obliged.”
“I suppose now you’ll go away and come back with some wonderful new theory unrelated to either of our alternatives?”
“Just now I don’t see any theory that accounts for everything.”
“If it’s a plant,” said Liphook, “it should be easy to discover who is guilty because a scheme as elaborate as that must have taken weeks to work out.”
“If that were the case,” said Beef heavily, “I shouldn’t think it was a plant because whatever else is uncertain about this business I’m pretty sure that there was no scheming beforehand. It all happened that night like spontaneous combustion.”
“Then Rudolf’s guilty?” smiled Liphook.
“I am not giving any opinion yet,” announced Beef.
I could see that the three experts were rather amused at the old boy though I think they were glad of his bits and pieces of information.
“Are you going to stay up at the house?” asked Stute. “It’s not my idea of a cosy home from home.”
“I think it would be an excellent idea if we moved here,” I said.
“What, with all this old oak? Not me. I like a pub to be a pub, not an antique shop. Besides, that piece downstairs with the plum in her mouth would drive me crackers. We’ve got to see what goes on up there.”
“You watch out for yourself,” said Stute quite seriously.
“I will,” he said.