Case for Sergeant Beef
FLIPP WAS NOT AT HOME
But Beef was up and busy early next morning as is his infuriating habit. He will let everything wait overnight while he plays his eternal darts and drinks his beer, then expect me to start the day’s work with all the cheerfulness and enthusiasm of a young boy.
“Come on,” he said, while I was still sitting at the breakfast table. “We’ve got to go and see Miss Shoulter.”
I rose unwillingly and we started off for Deadman’s Wood. We had learnt from willing informants in the bar on the previous evening, informants whom Beef had tried to impress with talk of “private investigations”, that we could reach her bungalow by the fatal footpath, passing first “Labour’s End”, the home of the retired watchmaker with the absurd name, and then the spot where the crime had actually been committed.
On our way through the village we met Inspector Chatto who gave us a friendly greeting.
“On the job, eh?”
“Ah,” said Beef. “There was one point I wanted to ask you about. Those footprints. You said they were Miss Shoulter’s. What made you so sure? Was there something special about them which corresponded to a pair of her shoes?”
Chatto laughed outright.
“Wait till you see her feet!” he said. “Couldn’t mistake ’em. I doubt if there’s another woman in the county who takes that size.”
“Large, are they?”
“Large? You’ve never seen such plates of meat in your life. The footprints were hers, all right. Rubber soles which she always wears, I understand, and an outsize. But women’s shoes with semi-high heels.”
“I’ve got you,” said Beef, and we walked on.
We passed “Labour’s End” and noticed an old gentleman at work in his garden.
“That must be Wellington Chickle,” I whispered.
“We’ll see him later,” promised Beef. “It’s Miss Shoulter I want to talk to now.”
We were stopped again by our arrival at what Beef called “the Spot”. It was a pleasant place. It seemed a pity that it should have been denied by a brutal crime. It was a clearing about twelve or fifteen yards wide, and the path ran right across it. To our left as we walked was a fallen tree, about six yards back from the path on the verge of the wood itself. It was behind this that the corpse had been found.
There was nothing to see here now, as Beef himself admitted, for it was nearly a week since the murder, and dozens of people had tramped about since then. There were some scratches about six feet from the ground in the bark of a tree to our right which had been marked with chalk, and Beef decided these had been caused originally by shot and examined by experts.
“They can tell the distance from them,” he remarked. And when he had gazed long at the wood about us he added that anyone could have approached the spot without using the path, and left no footprints at all.
We stood there in silence for a long time, and I wondered whether Beef was expecting a flash of inspiration to descend on him and reveal the murderer’s identity. I asked him as much.
“No. Just thinking,” he said, and we walked on.
Miss Shoulter greeted us from her kennels in her ringing voice.
“Hullo!” she shouted, and when she had joined us at the gate, added, I’m glad you’ve come. The damn fools think it’s me now.”
Beef took this very seriously.
“Inspector Chatto’s no fool,” he said. “And what makes you think he suspects you?”
“Tell it a mile off,” said Miss Shoulter, slapping her jodhpurs with a stick. “Keeps asking me what I was doing in the wood that day. Never went near the place.”
“Do you think there is somewhere we could go to talk a little more discreetly?” I asked, hoping she might take the hint and lower her voice.
“Not a soul here except Ribbon and he’s all right. My kennel-boy, you know. Came on the body on his way to church.”
“Yes, but others might be within earshot,” I said, lowering my own voice as an example to her. I was thinking privately that earshot was a wide term when it referred to Miss Shoulter’s vocal powers.
“Come in then,” she invited. “No one in the house. Haven’t got any servants.”
“Expensive, aren’t they?” suggested Beef.
“It’s not that so much. Between you and me I could have afforded a good many things I did without. It was that brother of mine. I had to pretend to be broke or he’d have had it out of me. He couldn’t keep money, poor chap. . . .”
“We’ll come to that in a minute,” said Beef. “There’s something I’ve got to tell you first. I understand that you engaged me because the police thought your brother’s death was suicide and you wanted this disproved. Well, I am breaking no confidence when I tell you that the police are now convinced that it was not suicide, and that at the inquest today there will probably be a verdict of murder against some person or persons unknown. So perhaps you’ll no longer require my services.”
“Good Lord, yes,” said Miss Shoulter. “I tell you the fools think I did it. I don’t want to face a murder charge. You’d better keep going and find out who did do it.”
“In that case you understand that what I shall be looking for is the truth. I could not undertake a case with any special axe to grind.”
Miss Shoulter laughed.
That’s all blah,” she said. “I’ve read that stuff in detective novels. You know perfectly well I didn’t do it.”
“You’ll forgive my pointing out that we know nothing of the sort,” I put in. “Of course we don’t think you did it. But what Sergeant Beef wants to say is that he will bring to book whoever murdered your brother.”
“That’s all right,” said Miss Shoulter. “Now ask what questions you like.”
“There are rather a lot, I’m afraid,” said Beef. “First of all about the footprints—”
“Perhaps I oughtn’t to have mentioned that. But the police found footprints near the place where the body was found which corresponded to your own.”
Miss Shoulter stared.
“Must have been old ones,” she said.
“It rained the night before.”
“Can’t have been mine then. Yet I should have thought my feet were pretty unmistakable. I have to have my shoes made specially.”
“Exactly,” I murmured.
“But I didn’t go down the wretched path. Dammit, I’d tell you if I did.”
Beef spoke slowly.
“In that case there’s only one possible explanation and it makes this crime look uglier than ever. Have you ever missed a pair of shoes?”
“No. Can’t say I have.”
“Perhaps you’d just go and check on what you’ve got.”
“That’s easy. I’ve only got three pairs.”
She left us.
“Do you think she’s lying?”
“No,” said Beef. “She’s speaking the truth.”
She was soon back.
“None missing,” she said.
“Think back carefully, now. Over the last year, say.”
“Tell you what,” she said at last. I sent a pair to the Jumble Sale a few months ago. Pretty well done for, they were. I wondered who could possibly want them.”
“They were sold?”
“I suppose so. You’d better see Eva Packham about that. She had the old clothes stall. She’s the curate’s sister.”
“I will,” said Beef, and made one of his laborious notes.
“Do you think that someone wore them—to incriminate me?” asked Miss Shoulter.
“We shall see,” said Beef severely. “Now about this brother of yours.”
Her breezy manner dropped for a moment. I was watching her closely, and I could understand what Chatto had meant when he said that he believed she was quite fond of the wretched man.
“He was what you call a bad hat,” she said. “No doubt of that. Mother and Father spoilt him as a child. And I’ve never been able to do much with him. He was two years older than me and very self-willed. He got through the money they left him in about five years, then started looking round for more. It never seemed to occur to him to work for it. I used to beg him to get a job. But he never did. I’m afraid he lived on women quite a bit when he was younger. He had studied chemistry and once tried to run a chemist’s shop. Then he scrounged a living out of racing. He’s never actually been to jail. But he was the type you read about in novels by Mrs. Henry Wood. Drink and the devil, you know. Of course I was his sister, and that makes a difference.”
It was queer to see this noisy, hearty woman as she spoke of her brother. I was convinced that she was quite sincere.
“I tried, often enough. But for the last few years I’ve—well, I’ve tried to protect myself a bit. I told him I had no money left. I’d find him a pound or two when he came down. But then he’d go to the local pubs and make a fool of himself. Quarrel, you know.”
“Who with?' asked Beef. I’ve given up trying to correct his grammar.
Miss Shoulter paused.
“No one in particular,” she said. “He just got quarrelsome. Anyone who argued with him.”
“You never heard of any particular quarrel?”
“So he had no enemies down here?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Who did he know in Barnford?”
“Just the men he met at the Crown or the Feathers. And the Flipps, of course.”
“Why ‘of course’?”
“He’d known Flipp in London. There was some sort of business between them. I never knew that. It was through Ron that the Flipps came to live here at the beginning of the war. He told them about “Woodlands” being vacant. And whenever he was down here he went up to see Flipp.”
“They were friendly?”
“Yes. So far as I know. It’s rather odd now I come to think of it, but I don’t think I ever saw them together.”
“Who was aware that your brother was coming down for Christmas?”
“Pretty well everyone. He’d been down only three weeks before. He told several people then that he was going to spend his Christmas with me. And I probably told others.”
“I see. When he came down how did he usually come from the station?”
“He’d leave his bag for the bus to bring and walk up. Take the footpath through the wood.”
“He always did that?”
“Yes. It saves over a mile.”
“So that almost anyone living round here would know that some time or other after the arrival of the London train he would be walking along that footpath?”
“Yes, but they wouldn’t have much idea of when. My brother usually stopped in the village for a drink and might easily not come here till they slung him out at ten o’clock.”
“Ah! Now about the gun.”
“Can’t be much use over that, I’m afraid. Haven’t the remotest when it went. I’m pretty careless about things, and there’s nothing in this bungalow worth pinching except the dogs. I never noticed it had gone till a week before Christmas.”
“Do you think your brother might have taken it when he was last here?”
“Possible. But I shouldn’t think so.”
“Who knew what cartridges you used?”
“Warlock’s, I suppose. And I tell you who else knew that,” she said, smiling. “Little Mr. Chickle. He’s a dear little man who’s just come to live at ‘Labour’s End’. He was asking me about a fortnight ago where he could get some cartridges and I told him that his only hope was Warlock’s and that they supplied ‘Fesantsure’ to all of us.”
“Do you know him well?' asked Beef with a monstrous affection of casualness.
“Little Chickle? He’s in and out of the house all day.”
“He does a bit of shooting, too?”
“Well, he does. But I don’t honestly think he likes it. I think he sees himself as a country gentleman walking about with a gun. Poor little chap kept a watchmaker’s shop for thirty years and has just retired. Pathetic, really. He told me the first time I saw him that he didn’t shoot. He couldn’t bear to cause suffering to a living creature. Then later he started this potting at rabbits.”
“I see. Now about these shots.”
“I can tell you exactly what I heard. I’ve gone over it so many times with the police that I should know by now. I heard two shots in quick succession somewhere between three and half-past, and two more just like them about an hour later. That’s all.”
“Where were you round about six?”
“Didn’t hear anything then?”
“No. I had the wireless on softly though.”
“You went to Copling in the afternoon?”
“Just to post a letter.”
“My bank in Ashley.”
Ask them if they’ve kept the envelope. Might have in these days of paper-saving. The envelope would be handy.”
“Then I think that’s all.”
“There’s one thing I ought to tell you.”
“It’s about Flipp. Very odd. When I was on my way to Copling a little before four o'clock I went to call on Flipp. I wanted to borrow something. And he wasn’t in his house. I shouldn’t have thought anything about it only he told the inspector that he’d never been out. I know he wasn’t there. I went right in and called him and looked in the rooms. It was all open to the world—we leave our houses like that round here. And he wasn’t in.”
“That’s interesting,” said Beef. “That is interesting. Now I’d just like a word with your kennel-boy.”
“Certainly. You’ll find him down at the kennels. And for goodness’ sake find out who did do it,” said Miss Shoulter as she shewed us out. “I hate all this suspicion about the place.”
“I will,” promised Beef. “It may take time, but I will.”
“Good man!” shouted Miss Shoulter heartily.