I would not willingly live through that afternoon again. Beef’s ostentatious making of arrangements in preparation for what everyone supposed would be some sort of show-down had set us all on edge. Even Theo Gray, who had shown himself remarkably cool throughout the proceedings so far, seemed jumpy and bad-tempered, and Gulley looked as though he were seeing ghosts.
I realized that my own position was a difficult one. Whatever Beef’s scheme might be, its success depended on my securing the co-operation of the two police officers, who were both rather sceptical about it. Nor could I rid myself of the notion that Beef might be playing to the gallery, and under some mistaken impression that he was providing me with a better story, be risking a fearful anti-climax. He seemed to be counting on the murderer behaving in a certain way, and that was surely a foolish thing to do. The man or woman who had been clever enough to kill one, and perhaps two, people under the very noses of a number of others would not walk into any trap clumsily set by Beef.
If he intended to expose the guilty person downstairs then expect him to make a dash for the roof, how could Beef know that the murderer would do anything of the sort? There were plenty of means of escape from the house; why should anyone be foolish enough to make for the roof?
Then the tow-rope. I imagined that to mean that Beef had some clumsy scheme connected with cars, if the murderer made a dash for it that way. Perhaps he and Mills had prepared something on the drive which would cause a car to be ditched. Beef’s ideas were apt to be naive, and I was prepared to find that he had worked out some elaborate nonsense which might fail to produce the effect he wanted. I only wished he would discuss these things with me, for my caution in them was an asset he lacked.
Then, at about a quarter to six and just as I was finding the strain unsupportable, Beef disappeared. I could scarcely believe that even he would go out to drink at such a time, but when I asked Gabriel where he was the answer left little doubt of it. Gabriel spoke with undisguised and understandable disgust.
“Where do you think? Young Mills has driven him off in the guv’nor’s car. I heard him say he needed a livener.”
This was too much for me, and I resolved to go and bring him back at once. I saw Cosmo Ducrow’s Daimler outside the beerhouse in which we had spent yesterday evening and hurried in. I found him with a pint glass in his hand.
“Beef!” I whispered fiercely, “I’m not going to stand for this! With everything we have on our hands you can’t come here and waste time. It’s madness to drink when you need a cool head for tonight.”
“Oh go away, for God’s sake,” said Beef rudely. “You’re worse than an old woman. There’s plenty of time before I have to show up, and I need a drink to steady me.”
“There is not plenty of time. The guests are expected at any moment. You’ve arranged this party—you’ve got to be there.”
“I’ll be there all right, when the time comes. You look after your part of it and I’ll look after mine.”
“Don’t you realize, you stupid fool,” I hissed, “that your whole reputation depends on your handling of this?”
He suddenly looked quite serious. “More than my reputation,” he said. “My life, very likely. And perhaps yours. And others.”
“Then come back at once!”
“I’ll come back when I’m ready.” He turned to Mills. “Nearest the middle for a start,” he said and I could do nothing but show my disapproval by stamping out.
Yet, I thought as I drove back to Hokestones, yet there had been something in the way in which he said that his life and perhaps mine depended on his handling of this, something which was not buffoonery. Perhaps he really did need a drink to steady him, and his game of darts might be like Drake’s bowls.
I remembered that Beef had promised the two policemen that there would be a drink in my room, and went to the library to see whether I could arrange anything. Among the bottles in a side cupboard I found a half-empty bottle of gin and was just holding it under my coat to see whether I could carry it through the hall without being seen when, most unfortunately, Zena Ducrow walked in. I was so embarrassed that I scarcely noticed that she was wearing slacks, and it was not until afterwards that I remembered George’s remark about the person under the umbrella: “Well, it had never occurred to me. I suppose it is possible if she was wearing trousers.” I tried to replace the bottle.
“Well, well! ” she exclaimed in that unpleasantly loud and manly voice of hers. “A spot of secret drinking, what?”
I felt myself blushing.
“I scarcely drink at all,” I said with what dignity I could. “I was just . . . I wanted to see . . .”
“Quite. Suppose you pour us out one each instead of sneaking away with it somewhere. What does your old Sergeant want us for this evening? A showdown, I suppose?”
“I really don’t know. Sergeant Beef does not confide in me in these matters.”
“It’s a frantic bore. I’ve only come because I expect to see the murderer unmasked.”
“Beef has made no promises,” I warned. “He only says that he wants to ask a few questions.”
“Who do you think murdered Cosmo?”
I was saved from the difficulty of answering by the entrance of Gulley with Esmeralda Tobyn. He quickly introduced the two women and hurried over to the drinks. I noticed that he poured out liberally for both himself and Esmeralda.
“This is going to be a cheery party!” said Zena.
“I only hope that at least it clears this horrible suspense,” Gulley answered. “We can’t go on much longer like this. If Beef knows who is guilty why can’t he tell the police, instead of staging an elaborate mise en scène ?”
“Perhaps the police know as much as he does,” I conjectured, “but they cannot use his unconventional methods.”
Gray came in with Rudolf—the latter looking remarkably steady and at ease considering the circumstances. When at last Ernest Wickham arrived our party was complete, with the exception of Beef.
“Where is the man?” asked Gulley.
“He’s engaged at the moment. Something unexpected has turned up,” I haltingly explained.
More drinks were poured and there were attempts at general conversation, but they were not very successful. I related a little anecdote about an uncle of mine whose raspberries were always disappearing until he discovered that they were being eaten by a retriever dog he owned. On previous occasions this story had held the interest of my audiences but tonight it had not its usual success. We all kept watching the door, expecting Beef to put in an appearance.
At seven o’clock there was still no sign of him and Gabriel, questioned, said that neither he nor Mills was back.
“I cannot think what is delaying him,” I protested though unfortunately I knew too well. “I’m sure he will be here in a few minutes.”
“I hope you’re right,” said Gray. “We have all taken great trouble to be here at his request, and unless it’s a matter of life and death there is no excuse for his failure to arrive.”
I saw an opportunity of defending Beef and looking as grave and mysterious as I could, I said: “I rather think it is—a matter of life and death.”
This produced the silence I had anticipated. But I knew that I could not keep up this bluff for long, and when at half-past seven dinner was announced and still there was no word from Beef I made no further excuses but followed the party into the dining-room.
It was a strange meal. We sat and conversed and ate as other people were doing at such a small gathering as this, but with the sinister difference that one or more of those present, I reflected, might soon be facing retribution for a cruel, cold-blooded crime. One or more of those who ate the excellent roast pheasant which Mrs. Gabriel had provided, who tried to converse with his neighbour, must see in his mind’s eye the frail figure of Cosmo Ducrow before the weapon had crashed down on the skull, must hear perhaps the last incoherent pleading of Freda Ducrow before she had been sent to her terrible death.
Perhaps if the guilty person was present he was trying to take some comfort from Beef’s absence, as though this could save him.
“You find yours interesting work, Mr. Townsend?”
This was Esmeralda Tobyn who was on my right. I tried to make some sort of reply.
“Oh yes, indeed. It is not usually as nerve-racking as this. Beef’s previous investigations have been just as . . . puzzling, but there has never been quite this anxiety before.”
She looked at me for a moment and I thought there was something like sympathy in her attractive face. “I suppose nothing could have happened to him, could it?” she asked.
This had never occurred to me. I have come to depend so much on Beef’s burly confidence, his faculty for extricating himself from difficult situations created by his own impulsiveness, his undeniable strength both of muscle and character, that I had never thought of danger to him. Yet now I remembered his words about his life depending on his handling of the case and I felt a new fear.
“Oh no,” I said as confidently as possible. “Old Beef can take care of himself.”
But I had lost my assurance of this. I had left him with Mills, and both were drinking. I had never liked Mills or approved of Beef’s friendly attitude towards the young man. At sixteen Mills had been convicted of burglary. Suppose that his story of the man with the umbrella was a lie, and he himself had murdered Cosmo. He had no alibi for that night, nor, so far as I knew, for the time of Freda Ducrow’s death. In fact, as I remembered now, he had admitted taking the car out that evening. Had he realized that Beef knew too much? Was he, even now, guilty of a third murder?
Perhaps I ought to go and investigate? I could pick up Stute and we could perhaps trace them from the time they left the pub. Yet again I remembered Beef’s emphatic instructions to me. “Never mind what happens downstairs unless I actually tell you, this arrangement stands.” With such words there was no argument. I could only sit and pretend to eat and wait to see what might transpire.
The agonizing meal went on. Eight o’clock passed and at a quarter past there was still no relief. I had an additional anxiety over Liphook and Constable Spender-Hennessy, but since Gabriel had scarcely left the room I was fairly confident that they would have made their way safely to my room. I tried to listen to Esmeralda Tobyn talking about the arrangement of winter flowers on which she seemed to have the most revolutionary ideas, but could not concentrate.
Coffee was served at the table and Gabriel started to leave the room. Just as he was opening the door to go out I called him back, thinking that if by chance Liphook was crossing the hall just then this would warn him. For want of any better reason for having recalled Gabriel I asked him in a whisper to let me know as soon as Beef came in.
A few moments later he returned and told me, to my enormous relief, that the car with Beef and Mills in it had just come into the yard.
“He’s having a wash at the kitchen sink.”
I thanked him then announced triumphantly to Gray: “Sergeant Beef has come back. He will be here in a moment.”
When the door opened we all looked across anxiously. With a sensation of sick horror I watched as Beef lurched stumbling into the room. His eyes looked glassy and his ruddy cheeks positively bloated. I saw at once that he was blind drunk.