My first thought was that this was some idiotic leg-pull of Beef’s, and I was about to stand up and tell him not to be ridiculous when Liphook gripped my arm painfully and whispered, “Shut up! Keep still!” I knew from his voice that he was in earnest.
Now Beef crossed to the parapet and appeared to be re-buttoning his braces. The moon was behind us and lit up his burly outline but it was impossible to see the expression on his face. I felt the tenseness of the moment chiefly through the men beside me for both of them, who had till now made light of the whole affair, were now watching with taut expectation. I did not yet see why this should be, for I had not guessed as they had what would be the next development.
I do not think I was afraid, exactly, but there was a nervous uncontrollable trembling in one of my legs and I was curiously conscious of being very far from the ground. A keen wind was blowing and the low parapet behind which we crouched did not seem to give much protection.
Then, almost as cautiously as Beef had done, someone else began to emerge from the little doorway. We could see nothing but a dark outline slowly increasing in size as the newcomer climbed out on to the roof.
Beef seemed to remain unconscious of this and I was tempted to shout a warning. I might have done so if the two policemen had not seemed so clearly to understand what was going on and to intend that we should in no way reveal our presence. As the newcomer stood up facing Beef, with face still not shown to us, the suspense became intolerable. The parapet was scarcely up to Beef’s knees and he appeared to be swaying slightly as though still made unsure by the alcohol he had drunk. While we watched this ugly little scene, in fact, he pulled a bottle out of his pocket and swigged from it.
Then, in a voice which seemed familiar, the newcomer shouted: “You drunken brute!”
Only then did Beef seem fully aware that he was threatened.
“Don’t come any closer!” he said, and I could hear the terror in his voice.
He was answered by a contemptuous laugh. “You don’t really think I shall let you leave this roof alive, do you?” said the newcomer. “I can tell you now that your days of detection are finished. You’re a blundering ass, but this time you have blundered on a little too much of the truth. In a few minutes there is going to be another suicide. Sergeant Beef is going to throw himself from the roof and no one will ever know that he did not do so of his own accord in a fit of drunken remorse.”
“You keep away!“ shouted Beef. “It won’t do you any good. The police will find out everything, just as I did.”
“Not if you are unable to tell them. They haven’t yet found out who killed Cosmo Ducrow, have they? And that, after all, is the key to the whole thing. How did you find out, by the way?”
Beef sounded almost hysterical.
“I knew it wasn’t you!“ he yelled.
“No, it wasn’t. But that is the interesting thing. How did you know it wasn’t?”
“Never mind now. You keep away from me.”
We could see distinctly the newcomer thrust a hand into an overcoat pocket and thereafter hold an arm crooked towards Beef.
“Put that thing away!” Beef shouted wildly. “Put it away, I tell you.”
“I hope I shan’t have to use it. A shot would not be heard in this wind and you might have shot yourself as easily as thrown yourself over. But it would all be so much more satisfactory and tidy if there was no bullet-hole in you when you were found.”
It occurred to me that however much of this scene had been anticipated by Beef, the revolver might be something unforeseen.
“Oughtn’t we to go across now?” I whispered anxiously to Liphook.
“Not yet,” he said grimly.
The newcomer seemed to be in no hurry but stood watching his wretched victim.
“Put that thing away!” Beef shouted again. “Where did you get it from?”
A chuckle came from the dark figure before us.
“Oddly enough, from my own chest-of-drawers. I even have a licence for it. But if I have to use it that won’t associate it with me at all. You see, I take precautions. I reported to the police today that it had been stolen. And it will, of course, have your finger-prints on it when it is found beside your corpse.”
“Do you mean that you foresaw this?”
“I foresaw that I might have to kill you. I gathered that you knew a little too much. But I never imagined that you would make it as easy as this. A roof-top. So convenient. But I’m glad I’ve got this little pistol. I would not risk a struggle with you by that parapet. There is a very nasty fall from there to the earth.”
“Keep back!” shouted Beef again as the figure moved another step towards him.
“Yes, you’ve had it now,” went on the voice. “You blundered, as I say, on too much truth. But you didn’t find one thing which you must have looked for high and low.”
“What’s that?” asked Beef thickly.
“The suicide note, of course. The little letter written to explain why life was unendurable.”
“You kept it?”
“Of course I did. I hoped not to have to produce it, but how could I be sure? It gave too much away but it was there in case some fool found cause to accuse me of murder. I found a safe place for it, though. I don’t think you would ever have found it, for I can’t imagine you or anyone else in this house reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. However, I don’t think it will be necessary now.”
“It won’t do you any good to kill me,” said Beef. “The police will get you—for this too.”
“I don’t think so. It is unfortunate that you know too much. Ironic, too. You have been floundering on some facts which make your death essential if I am to enjoy peace and leisure.”
“You’ll never do that!” Beef’s voice was high and loud again. “Never. Now stand back!”
The dark figure was very near to him now. It was time, I knew, for us to move. Every instinct of loyalty to my old friend, every scrap of courage, rose in me, and I resolved to risk the levelled pistol and go to Beef’s assistance. I opened my mouth to speak but Liphook’s hand was over it before I could utter a sound. “Don’t move!” he said in a low threatening voice.
I was appalled at his cowardice. How could he watch while Beef was murdered? I knew he had no great opinion of Beef, but to cringe here while my old friend was done to death was contemptible.
“We must!” I tried to say, but the words were muffled. Then as I watched it happened. The dark figure took a last step forward and by a sudden catlike movement swept Beef’s legs from under him and sent him hurtling over the parapet. A sickening cry, like the scream which in nightmares always sticks in one’s throat, broke from him as he went back into darkness.
“Oh God!” I cried.
I stood up, not caring now if the pistol was turned on me. I don’t know what I shouted to the creature across the parapet, but it must have been loud for at once the figure turned towards me and the moon was full on its evil face. I could not move from where I stood but I saw Liphook and the constable rushing across. I think I was still shouting incoherently and hysterically when I saw that they would be too late, for the murderer had seen them too.
In those few seconds the wretched creature had time to know the game was up. Not only had the murderous attack on Beef been witnessed but words meant only for Beef had been overheard. With a cry like that of a wild beast the murderer sprang towards the parapet. For a few seconds, and just as Liphook stretched towards the dark outline, it remained in the white glow of moonlight. Then, like a man jumping into water, the thing leapt from the parapet into the darkness of space.
I started to make my way round the chimney stacks to where Liphook and the constable were leaning over the parapet. I scarcely knew why. Beef was dead and it seemed to me suddenly that with him had died a great deal of kindness and decency and sturdy common sense which the sick world could not spare. He had his faults and one of them, his love of beer, had been the cause of his falling a victim to an unscrupulous murderer, quick enough to take advantage of his condition. But with all his faults, his vulgarity, his obstinacy, his childish sense of humour, his rudeness, he remained an honest man, a good detective and a true example of the best in English life and genius. “He was a man, take him for all in all,” I said reminiscently, and added: “I shall not look upon his like again.”
But there I was wrong. There was something strange in the attitude of Liphook and the constable as they leaned over, something that suggested deep-sea anglers trying to draw in some monstrous fish. And this I found was very much what was happening, for suspended by a steel cable just below the level of our feet was the great weight of Beef, Beef very much alive and quite literally kicking.
I think I must have been a little hysterical from the relief and pleasure of finding my old friend alive for I started to laugh.
“Oh, Beef!” I cried. “You do look funny!”
“You’ll look funny when I get up there,” spluttered Beef, floundering about like a child trying to swim. “Pull me up for goodness sake, and never mind laughing.”
It seemed that the cable was attached to something round his waist for it appeared to come from the small of his back. It took a good deal of manipulation by the three of us and some scrambling by Beef himself to get him at last over the parapet. He at once sat down and blew and gasped from these exertions.
“Good thing the coping juts out a foot or two from the walls of the house,” he said at last, “or I could never have done it. It’ll take me days to get over the wrenches and bruises as it is.”
“So you’ve come back from the dead,” I reflected.
“What’s the matter with that?” asked Beef defiantly. “You can’t say I don’t give you something to write about.”
“I don’t know. It will be very hard to make this convincing. I shall have to describe you being thrown into space and I don’t know how readers will take your resurrection.”
“They took it all right from Sherlock Holmes,” said Beef. “And he hadn’t got a steel cable like I have.”
Liphook smiled. “Did you expect the suicide?” he asked.
“No. Can’t say I did,” Beef was honest enough to admit. “Still it may be just as well. I doubt if we would have got a conviction for murder. Now help me out of this thing.”
Beef stood up and took off his jacket which was ripped at the back. We saw an elaborate arrangement round his trunk, a sort of canvas strait waistcoat which went from his armpits to his thighs.
“My idea,” he said proudly, “though young Bomb helped me fix it. Couldn’t have done it without. Anything narrow would have cut me in two. Well, let’s go down and pick up the pieces.”