Beef decided that we should go down to Folkover at once.
“I could do with a sniff of sea air,” he remarked. “And what about whelks, eh? Nothing better when they’re fresh.”
I reminded him that we were investigating two deaths, perhaps two murders, and suggested that his levity was ill-timed.
“No levity about it. You’ve got to eat, haven’t you, murder or no murder.”
To bring him back to the matter in hand I said it was a pity that the sea would have been over Freda’s car before it could be examined, but he replied that he did not think it mattered. Even if anyone had been with her that evening he wouldn’t have left any fingerprints or anything of the sort, and in any case the car would probably have most of the prints of the family and dependants on it. Mills admitted that it had not been cleaned for ten days. As for the body of Mrs. Ducrow—what could you learn from that? A body which had been in a small car falling several hundred feet on to the beach would in any case be battered almost beyond recognition.
“You mean, she may have been dead before the car went over?”
“I suppose she may. Shouldn’t think she was, though.”
“If you don’t expect to learn anything from the car I don’t quite see why we are going to Folkover.”
“I told you. Sea air and whelks. Now let me think.”
I drove on, with Beef remaining silent. I was painfully aware that the process which he called “thinking“ was going on beside me; indeed I could almost hear the mechanism of his brain at work.
We had a good clear road and were making excellent time when I saw in the mirror that an unmistakable police car was following us. Instinctively I slowed down, though Beef pointed out that this was not a built-up area and I was well within my rights to be doing fifty miles an hour. The police car seemed to accelerate and passed us at a speed which gave me the sensation of going backward. Beef was chuckling inanely.
“Old Stute,” he said. “Means to be the first one on the spot. Well, he’s welcome to it.”
We did not, in fact, see the Chief Inspector again that day for when we reached Folkover, Beef asked to be taken not to the police station but to the office of Mr. Ernest Wickham.
“I don’t know what you expect to learn from him,” I said crossly, but stopped at a telephone booth to find out the address. “Shall I see if he’ll give you an appointment?”
“No. We’ll just turn up. He can’t help seeing us then.”
He was right, for after Beef had explained to a clerk that he was investigating the death of Mr. Cosmo Ducrow on behalf of the family, we were admitted to a large and airy office overlooking the sea—quite unlike the musty cubby—holes in which most solicitors spend their professional lives. Nor did Mr. Wickham look characteristic of his calling. He was a dressy little man in a well-cut grey suit with a button-hole and enviably well-laundered linen. I guessed him to be about sixty, quick of eye and movement, a lively and forceful type.
“I can give you twelve minutes,” he said sharply.
“You’ve heard about Mrs. Ducrow of course?”
“I have. Tragic.”
“Did you anticipate anything like that, Mr. Wickham?”
“Anything like what?”
“Certainly not. Mrs. Ducrow was in a condition of nerves and distress, but nothing in her conversation led me to think that she contemplated taking her own life.”
“Yet within a few hours she had apparently done so.”
“Apparently,” said Wickham, faintly stressing the word.
“What I would most like to know is whether you noticed any suggestion of fear in her.”
Mr. Wickham hesitated. “She was very much afraid for Rudolf Ducrow,” he said at last.
“And for herself?”
“Not in the same way. She had nothing to hide so far as her husband’s death was concerned. She was past caring about any unpleasant publicity over her relations with Rudolf. But fear of another kind—yes.”
“She admitted that?”
“I can tell you almost word for word what she said, though these remarks were not made consecutively but at different times during our interview: ‘I don’t want to stay in that house. I am afraid. There is something I am afraid of all the time. No, I can’t say exactly what it is. Cosmo was murdered by somebody who is still near me—I’m sure of that. If only I knew who it was. Perhaps I shall be the next’.”
“She said that?”
“She said just that. But she was a highly imaginative woman, of course.”
“Do you think she was murdered, Mr. Wickham?”
“Surely that is more in your field than mine? I have told you that she said nothing to suggest that she was contemplating suicide, but with a woman of her character it can by no means be ruled out.”
“Quite so. She left you at about six?”
“At ten minutes to.”
“Did she say where she was going?”
“Yes. She was going to meet Major Gulley. Now is there anything else you wish to ask me?”
“Is there anything else you wish to tell me?” countered Beef.
“There is this. You were employed by Theo Gray to find out who murdered Cosmo Ducrow. You have not done so. If you had, Mrs. Ducrow would still be alive. I believe you have a reputation higher than your appearance warrants. It cannot be impossible to trace a killer. Why haven’t you done it?”
“Oh, but I have, Mr. Wickham.”
“You know who killed Cosmo?”
“Then why on earth don’t you charge him or her?”
“I have my reasons.”
“They cannot justify you in silence.”
“I think when you know them you will agree that they do.”
“I see. One more thing. If Mrs. Ducrow was murdered, was it by the person who killed Cosmo?”
Beef shook his head. “No, Sir. If Mrs. Ducrow was murdered it was not by the person who killed her husband.”
“All I can say is the quicker you get over this childish game of mystery and tell the police what you know the better.”
“I’ve told the police everything I know. Good morning, Mr. Wickham.”
I was not going to pander to what Wickham had so aptly called Beef’s childish game of mystery, and walked in silence beside him to the car park. Here a most unprepossessing small boy with spindly legs, pimples, spectacles and a notebook announced to me that my car was issued in Birmingham in 1938.
“I am well aware of it, thank you,” I said, irritated by the priggish little know-all.
“That one there came from Coventry last year.”
“Please go away,” I said, “and stop shewing off the useless knowledge you get from number plates.”
Beef, however, seeing my irritation, came up and gave the unpleasant youngster a grin.
“This your hobby?” he asked.
“Yes. See, I keep this notebook for all the cars that park here, then I know where they were issued.”
“And what good does that do you?” I asked. “Even train-spotting is more intelligent than this.”
“I like it,” said the boy with a cocky look at me. “I can tell the other chaps.”
“Doesn’t that rather bore them?”
“The other chaps would like to do the same only their mums want them home. My mum’s got a goitre. A whopper.”
“I can perfectly understand your mum’s not wanting you home.”
“Were you here yesterday?” asked Beef.
“In the afternoon I was. Mum had a man coming to see her and told me to keep out.”
“What time were you here?”
“All the afternoon after three. I saw a cyclist knocked off his cycle. He wasn’t hurt though.”
“Were you here at five?”
“Yes. I didn’t go away till it was time to see the last programme at the Odeon at seven-fifteen.”
“Did you write down the cars that were in this parking place yesterday afternoon?”
“Course I did. I’ve got them all here.”
Beef almost snatched the notebook from the boy’s grubby hand and examined the entries for the previous day.
“Yes, here it is,” he said to me, pointing to the index number of Freda Ducrow’s car. “What are these numbers here, 505 and 557?”
“Times it came and went. Then I know how long it’s been here.”
Beef pulled out a two-shilling piece.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Mine? Leonard Parks.”
“Well, Leonard, I think that’s a very useful hobby of yours. You’d better buy yourself a new notebook and pencil with this.”
“You might make it half-a-crack,” said the odious boy. “Then I can get an indelible pencil.”
Looking less amiable, Beef pulled out another sixpence.
“Don’t forget your car came from Birmingham in 1938,” shouted the boy as we drove away.
“Where now?” I asked.
I might have guessed the answer.
“They’re open, aren’t they?” said Beef as if aggrieved at my slowness of comprehension in failing to guess what he wanted. “Besides, we can combine business with pleasure. Drive to the Marina Palace.”
The cocktail bar at the Marina Palace, the only bar entered from the hallway of the hotel, was called “The Smuggler’s Den”, but its decoration would have served equally well for the Buccaneer’s Cave, Drake’s Cabin, the Pirate’s Saloon or the Armada Room, all of which I have discovered in various English hotels. I need scarcely describe the plaster carvings gilt and lacquered, the ship’s models and the illuminated port-holes we found. Behind the bar, his head framed by a diploma for cocktail shaking, stood a most unpiratical barman who eyed Beef as though he was the man who had come to collect the garbage.
“Yes?” asked this pomaded youngster before we had finished balancing ourselves on two very high and uncomfortable stools.
“I’ll have a pint of wallop . . .” said Beef.
“If you mean beer, Sir,” the barman said, pronouncing the word as though it was burning acid on his lips, “I’m afraid we don’t serve it here. You’ll have to go out of the front door and round to the outside bar . . .”
“I shall have to do nothing of the sort, you cheeky young monkey,” said Beef. “What’s a bar for if there’s no beer? This is a bar I suppose?”
“It’s the Smuggler’s Den,” said the barman, and no name could have sounded more outré from his lips. “We have the bottled beer, of course, only you said ‘wallop’. I understand that meant draught beer or something of the sort.”
“I’ll have a brown then,” said Beef. “What’s yours?” he asked me.
I had been studying the list of cocktails, and saw that the barman had won his award with one called The Kiss of Night. I thought that since we wanted information from the barman it would be conciliatory to ask for this. Beef gave a low guffaw.
“You’ll get Kiss of Night!” he said. “Kiss my Aunt Fanny, I should call it.”
The barman was huffed. “It’s very good,” he said hotly. “A little gin, lemon juice, just a hint of Maraschino . . .”
“I’m sure it’s excellent,” I said. “Sergeant Beef does not appreciate anything but beer. Now, we wanted to ask you about last night. Did you have a man with a large moustache here?”
“Did I? I thought he’d never go. He came in just as I was opening up and stayed till after nine. He was the most crashing bore I’ve ever known. Kept talking about some lady he was expecting. Drank double gin and soda all the time—a most revolting drink. What did you want to know about him?”
“I think you’ve told us all we want to know. He stayed here all the time? Never went out?”
“Only to the Gents once or twice.”
I suddenly noticed that Beef was making a violent show of impatience. “I’ve just thought of something,” he whispered. “Finish your drink and come on. Quick! It’s urgent.”