All next day we were waiting for the expert’s report on Rudolf’s jacket. I gathered that if there had been any bloodstains, however well the cloth had been cleaned, traces would remain.
At the house, in which Beef insisted on staying, there was a tense and trying atmosphere. Theo Gray would scarcely speak to us; Freda Ducrow spent most of the time in her room and, I suspected, was drinking heavily. Major Gulley put up a show of defiance. Even Gabriel seemed to have lost his faith in Beef—perhaps, I thought, because the latter had given gratuitous information to the police. It was a sullen household and one on tenterhooks.
Beef himself seemed at a loss, and for the first part of the morning sat in an easy chair, smoking his pipe and reading one of the more irresponsible daily newspapers. When I tackled him about this he said that there was nothing much he could do until the report on the jacket came through.
“I’ve done all my preliminary investigation,” he said. “Now we must wait for something to turn up.”
I tried to make him see that this was not the right attitude for him to take, and asked whether he thought any of the better-known detectives whom he sought to emulate would be content to sit in an arm-chair reading while a murderer remained at large, to which he replied characteristically that it all depended. I was about to retort sarcastically when Gabriel came in and said rather sulkily that Mills wanted to speak to Beef alone.
I had never liked that young man, whose shifty eyes and reserved manner contrasted, I thought, with the open bonhomie of Rudolf Ducrow. But when Beef stood up and prepared to go out to the garage I decided to accompany him.
“He said ‘alone’,” Beef pointed out.
I made a derisory noise such as old-fashioned writers used to interpret as “Pshaw!” and kept close behind Beef. Mills was waiting in the yard.
“Come up to my room,” he said in his secretive way. Then, seeing that I intended to follow, he asked: “What about him?”
“He’s harmless, Bomb,” said Beef.
I was not surprised to find that they were on terms which allowed them to use nicknames to one another, for Beef has, I admit, a gift for familiarity with such people and I had known him just as matey with a man whom he afterwards caused to be charged with murder. Nor did I mind being called “harmless”, if it was in a good cause.
We found the room over the garage which Mills occupied a cosy place with two wicker arm-chairs and an electric fire. A photo of a flashy-looking girl was on the table and an array of bottles—shaving-lotion, brilliantine, eau-de-Cologne and so on—which would have been better suited, I thought, to a lady’s apartment. “Sit down, Sarge. I’ve got something to tell you. I didn’t mean to let this out because I thought it might come in useful.”
“What d’you mean by ‘useful’?”
Mills looked uncomfortable.
“Well, you know. Might be worth something to someone.”
“So that’s it, is it? Well, let me tell you this, young Bomb. You can get into serious trouble for withholding information in an affair of this kind. I don’t say that if your information is any good I won’t make you a little present when the case is over, but don’t imagine you’ve got anything to sell, because you haven’t.”
“O.K., Sarge. Don’t get worked up. I said I was going to tell you.” Mills lit a cigarette from the stump of the one he had just finished. “I saw something that night. The night of the murder, I mean.”
“That’s where you’ve got me. I never thought to look. It was some time in the small hours, I think, because I’d been asleep for a long time. I don’t know for certain what woke me up, as a matter of fact. I think it was the yard door slamming to.”
He led us to the window.
“See that door there? It leads to the kitchen garden. Anyone coming to this yard from the terrace would use it. But when there’s a bit of wind, as there was that night, it blows shut unless you’re careful. It must have been the noise of it which woke me up. I went straight to the window.”
Mills seemed to be playing for effect. He paused to take several pulls at his cigarette.
“Someone was crossing the yard,” he said.
“Man or woman?”
“Don’t know. All I could see was an open umbrella.”
I jumped up with excitement.
“There you are!” I exclaimed. “I told you that what I saw the other night was important . . .”
Mills gave me a hard, narrow look.
“What did you see?” he asked, and I did not like the tone of his voice.
“Never mind Townsend,” said Beef rudely. “He’s always seeing something. Go on with what you were saying.”
Mills continued to look at me, and if ever the word “murderous” was an apt one for a man’s expression it was now.
“Go on, Bomb,” said Beef gently.
Mills seemed to pull himself together.
“Whoever it was had put up an umbrella, though it wasn’t raining and there was enough wind to make it rather difficult to hold. Seems they thought they might be seen from a window and didn’t mean to be recognized.”
“Call him ‘he’ for convenience,” said Beef. “Where did he go?”
“Across to the furnace room. The door along to the left there—you can only just see it from here. He must have stepped in first then put down his umbrella because I couldn’t see him even when he went in. I was just making up my mind to pull some clothes on and go down to see what it was all about when the umbrella was stuck out again, unfolded, and away he went under it, through the same door to the kitchen garden.”
“So you went back to bed?”
An ugly cunning look came to the young man’s face.
“No. I guessed what he had gone there for—could only have been one thing. He wanted to burn something. ‘Gulley!’ I thought. ‘Gulley destroying some evidence of his swindling!’ I’d forgotten for the minute that Gulley was supposed to be in London. So I pulled on some clothes and went down to look in the furnace.”
“Were you in time?”
“No. At least—there were no papers or anything burning. But right on top of the coke there was something that I took to be a log of wood. A very smooth, round log though. I thought there must be a madman about the place—bringing a log to the furnace in the small hours of the morning. It wasn’t until I got back to my room that I realized what it was: the heavy part of a croquet mallet. If there had been a pair of tongs handy I would have pulled it out, I daresay. But there wasn’t. In the morning it had burnt right away.”
“Is that all?”
“Isn’t it enough? Doesn’t it solve the whole thing for you.”
“Not quite. There’s still the little matter of identity, isn’t there? However, I’m grateful to you, Bomb. I want you to promise me something very particular.”
“Not to tell anyone what you’ve told us. Anyone at all.”
“Want all the credit for yourself, I suppose?”
“It’s not that. Will you promise?”
“All right. I won’t tell anyone.”
“Thanks, Bomb. See you on the dartboard tonight?”
“You bet. We’ll see those two again.”
“Till tonight then.”
We left the yard by the gate which, as Mills had indicated, led into the kitchen garden. As we opened it we almost walked into Dunton, who was leaning over a bed of culinary herbs. He nodded, but in a rather unfriendly way, I thought. We were certainly out of favour that day.
“I want you to drive me over to Roffington this afternoon,” said Beef.
I knew his trick of taking little excursions at my expense pretending that they were necessary to his enquiries when in fact all he wanted was an outing.
“What for?” I asked suspiciously.
“To see a friend of mine. Man called Piper.”
“And what has a man called Piper to do with the Ducrow case?” I asked.
The brief show of fine weather which we had enjoyed on the previous day was over and our drive was on wet and slippery roads and through heavy rain. I did not talk much for I had to concentrate on my driving to avoid skids. Beef, too, was silent. When I remarked on this he said that he was thinking, and I let it go at that.
We came at last to the rather dreary town of Roffington, and when Beef had consulted his notebook we drove to what must have been its ugliest street. All the houses were identical and hideously built of yellow bricks. We drew up at the one Beef indicated and knocked on a shabby front door.
After we had waited some minutes an untidy woman opened it.
“Mr. Piper in?” asked Beef.
“Well, he’s not up yet. He was on night duty last night,” she said resentfully. “I was just having ten minutes myself. Who shall I say?”
“Tell him Sergeant Beef is here.”
A faint animation came to her face.
“Oh, yes, he’s talked about you. Joined the police force together, didn’t you? He didn’t stay long at that, thank goodness. I told him I wouldn’t be a policeman’s wife for anything, and he gave it up and took this job where he’s been ever since. I’ll tell him you’re here. Better come through to the kitchen. I’ve been doing my ironing, but you can find somewhere to sit down. There’s no fire in the front room.”
We did find somewhere to sit down, but it was with difficulty. It was like sitting in the sorting-room of a laundry.
“You can see what she is,” Beef whispered when she had left us. “Three weeks’ washing here. She doesn’t move till she has to. But he’s all right.”
After some minutes a heavily built humorous-looking man lumbered in and there were noisy greetings between him and Beef. Mr. Piper, it appeared, was known as “Old Windpipe”, while Sergeant Beef had shrunk to a monosyllabic “Bill”. They banged each other’s backs, and said it was donkey’s years, assured one another that they hadn’t changed and seemed about to begin exchanging reminiscences when I interrupted.
“Wasn’t there something you wanted to ask Mr. Piper?” I said.
Beef gave me an irate look but came to the point.
“Oh yes, there was one little thing. You’ve worked at the Borstal institution for twenty-odd years now, haven’t you?”
“So you must have had thousands through your hands. But I want you to try to remember one particular lad. Mills. Alan Geoffrey Mills. With you about twelve years ago at the age of sixteen for burglary.”
“Remember him perfectly,” said Mr. Piper at once, seeming to find this a matter of course. “In fact, you’d be surprised how many I do remember by name.”
“Tell us about him,” said Beef. “This is, of course, between ourselves.”
“I better say at once I didn’t like him,” said Mr. Piper. “His conduct was always exemplary—at least, in official reports, which is what matters. He was never caught doing anything wrong all the time he was here, which didn’t seem natural to me. I suspected that there were others taking the rap for him. Mind you, I’ve only got my private suspicions about that, with nothing to back them up. But I had a feeling that he was deep. Capable of scheming things out to put someone else in the wrong.”
“Ah!” said Beef expressively.
“And I didn’t like the affair he came in for, either. It read to me as though he’d given his mates away. I daresay I was prejudiced. If you were to see an official report about him it would tell another story. But he struck me as the kind of fellow who would scheme and plot to get someone else in trouble.”
“Thanks, Windy. You’ve been very helpful. See, I’m investigating the Ducrow Case.”
“Oh! Is Mills mixed up in that?”
“He’s the chauffeur.”
Mr. Piper whistled. “I see why you ask. Well, I don’t need to tell you that what I’ve said is between ourselves.”
“No. You don’t need to tell me,” said Beef and gave his old friend a reassuring smile.