Case for Sergeant Beef, Chapter Thirteen

Case for Sergeant Beef


Mrs. Pluck seemed far less pleased to see us now that we were entering her own domain with the evident intention of questioning her.  There was something almost sinister in the look she gave us as she told us grudgingly to sit down.
“I don’t know what I can tell you, I’m sure,” she said.  “I told them at the inquest about the shots and you’ve heard that.”
“Quite a lot of questions for you, Mrs. Pluck,” remarked Beef cheerfully after a glance at his notebook.  “And first of all I’d like to know a little about yourself.”
“About me?  What do you mean?”
“Where do you come from, for instance?”
“Kingmead.  I should have thought Mr. Chickle would have told you.  I was ten years—”
“Yes, but where was your home?”
“That's no business of yours and nothing to do with what you’ve got to find out about.”
“But you’ve got nothing to hide?”
“Never mind whether I have or whether I haven’t.  I’m not answering any questions about my home.”
“When were you married?”
“Twenty-three years ago.  But what that—”
“What was your husband’s name?”
“Look here—you be careful what you’re saying!”
“Keep steady, Mrs. Pluck, keep steady.  If you’ve got nothing to hide you can answer a few plain questions.”
“Pluck, of course.”
“Where is he now?”
“I don’t know and I’m sure I don’t want to, and I don’t know why you're raking all this up.  He left me after a couple of years with a twelve-months-old baby.”
“And you’ve never seen him since?”
“Nor heard of him.”
“What happened to the baby?”
“What do you think happened to the baby?  What usually happens to babies?  She grew up, of course.”
“And now?”
“Married and settled at Frittingbourne—twenty miles from here.”
“When did you see her last?”
“About a month ago.  Anything else you want to know about my family?”
“No.  But I should like to know where you went to that night.”
“Which night?”
“The night of the murder.”
“Ashley.  Pictures.”
“What picture did you see?”
“Which Tarzan?”
“How should I know which Tarzan?  It was a Tarzan picture, anyway.  At the Odious.”
“How did you get to Ashley?”
“By bus.”
“Anyone you knew in the bus?”
“Well, the conductor will remember you, anyway.  Christmas Eve, and that.  Only small buses, aren’t they?”
Mrs. Pluck seemed doubtful for the first time.
“It’s driver and conductor all in one in our buses.  Don’t see how he could remember.”
“He will.  Now you said this afternoon that Mr. Chickle had changed.  Since when?  When did you first notice it?”
“Well, he seemed a bit funny that afternoon, Christmas Eve, I mean, when he came in from his walk.”
“In what way?”
“Well, snappy like.  He'd always been such a nice-spoken gentleman.  He spoke quite sharp about his tea.”
“And ever since then he's not been himself.  Gloomy, like.  Never a smile.  And doesn’t sleep at night.  I can hear him moving about.”
“He was all right before this happened?”
“Yes.  Funny, you know, in some ways.  For ever asking the time and what time he’d come and what time he’d gone.  Fortunately, I notice these things and was able to tell him as often as not.  Then he was queer about his garden.”
Now that we had left topics more personal to her and were discussing her employer, Mrs. Pluck became almost garrulous.
“In what way queer about his garden?”
“For ever measuring this way and that, and shifting round that line he used to plan paths and beds and what not, then never giving any orders for them to be changed.  Harold Richey, who comes here two days a week to work, says it was chronic.  You better ask him about it, if you’re that interested.”
Beef’s notebook was out at once.
“Thanks,” he said, “I will.  Was he doing this measuring and that on the day of the murder?”
“Was he not.  First of all in the morning he had his old line out shifting the pegs here and there and standing back to see how it would look.  That was on the village side of the garden where the vegetable patch and a few ramblers are.  Then after lunch he was round on the wood side, where there’s a bit of lawn, stretching it out this way and that till you wondered what he thought he was going to make.  He came in about half-past two and I don’t know whether he played round with it any more before he went for his walk, because I usually have five minutes to myself in the afternoon and my room’s on the other side of the house—”
“Half a minute.  Half a minute,” said Beef.  “You say you go to your room in the afternoon.  Yet you were with Mr. Chickle at a quarter past three when the first shots were heard.”
“That was a bit different,” said Mrs. Pluck.  “It was Christmas Eve and I knew he had a bit of a Christmas box for me.  I took it off to my room and did not come out again till it was time to get his tea.”
“You didn’t see him go off then?”
“No.  My window faced towards Barnford.  But I tell you what I did see not long after he’d gone.”
“What was that?”
“Young Joe Bridge with a gun under his arm going towards Barnford.”
“Towards Barnford?”
“Yes.  He was then.  Must have come down the footpath through the wood from Copling.”
“You did not see him on his way back?”
“What about these shots?”
“I’m tired of going over them.  There was the two at three-fifteen, and two more about half-past four, and one more I heard with Mr. Chickle at five past six.”
“One more?”
“Well, it sounded like one to me.  Mr. Chickle said it was two barrels let off almost at the same time.  So it may have been.”
“Where did they come from?”
“So far as I could tell, the first and second lots were from some way away.  The third sounded quite close.”
“Where were you for the third one?”
“In Mr. Chickle’s sitting-room making up the fire.  He’d just gone out into the garden to take up his measuring line.  Said someone might trip over it.  He was always very careful of other people.  And when the shots went he came in at once.  ‘Someone poaching,’ he said.  ‘Ah, well, we can spare them a rabbit or two.’  He was kind, mind you.  I told him it sounded very near, but he said no, it was far away in the woods.  I didn’t argue about it, but I still think it was close at hand.  Then he went out to finish bringing in his things.  And that’s all I can tell you.”
“H’m.  There's still one or two things I must ask you, Mrs. Pluck.”
“So long as you don’t start on things you’ve no business to ask I’ll tell you what I can.”
Beef leaned forward impressively.
“Did you know Shoulter?” he asked.
There was no doubt that the woman was flustered.  I could see her great bony hands moving nervously.
“Shoulter?” she repeated, as though to gain time.
“Ron Shoulter, that was murdered,” amplified Beef.
“Never seen him in my life.  Not till he was carried by on a stretcher.  Then I only saw his feet.”
“Quite sure?” asked Beef.  “Far better speak out if you did.”
“No,” said Mrs. Pluck.  “I never knew no Shoulter.”
“Then we’ll leave that.  Can you fire a gun?”
“Ever tried?”
“That’s funny.”
“I don’t see anything funny in it.”
“Have you ever said you could?”
“You never told young Jack Ribbon, for instance, that you were a farmer’s daughter and firing guns before he was thought of?”
“Did he say that?  The young so-and-so.  I’ll tell him what I think of him—you see.”
“But is it true?”
“Course it’s not true.”
“You’re not a farmer's daughter?”
“Well, my father might have had a bit of land.”
“And you might have shot over it?”
“No harm in that, is there?  A girl’s as much right to do a bit of shooting as a man.  Only when there’s been a murder done with a shot-gun and you come and ask questions like that it’s no wonder I’m careful what I say.”
“Then you can shoot?”
“I’m not saying I don’t know how to.  But I never have done.  Not round here.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Pluck,” said Beef, closing his notebook.  “Why, gracious me, it’s past seven.  Mr. Chickle will be wild.  He was afraid if I kept you too long you’d have to hurry over his dinner.  We must go out the back way.”
We did.  And for ten minutes as we groped our way back towards Barnford, Beef did not speak.
“Come on,” I said at last, “what did you think of them?”
“I don’t know what to think,” confessed Beef.  “It’s a funny case, and no mistake.  There's a lot of things I’d like to know.  Why, for instance, did Chickle tell Miss Shoulter that he didn’t like shooting?  And what was Joe Bridge doing on that path that afternoon?”
“We’d better ask him,” I suggested.
“No.  We won’t do that.  Joe Bridge will tell us everything in time.”
“Not if you don’t go and question him.”
“I think he will,” said Beef obstinately.
“Why?  Why should he incriminate himself?  He did not tell the police he was on that footpath that afternoon.”
“But he’ll tell me,” persisted Beef.  “Just you wait and see.”
I plodded on in silence.
“Yes, he’ll come,” said Beef thoughtfully.  “Ever hear of Mahomet and the mountain?”
And since it was opening time when we got back I was pretty sure that that was all I should get out of him for that night.  I retired early and was just dropping off to sleep when Beef came into my room.  I could see at a glance that he was flushed and talkative from the alcohol he had consumed in the bar downstairs.  I admit that he never gets drunk, but in his present condition he could certainly be described as “happy”.
“I’ve seen Richey,” he announced, gripping the foot of my bed for support.
“Richey?” I asked sleepily.  “Who’s Richey?”
“Odd job man.  Does a bit of gardening for Chickle.  Says the old man’s always playing round with his line and two pegs, and never decides anything.  Richey privately thinks Chickle's a bit weak in the head.  Says he’s been fooling round for a fortnight now with his line and has not made a single change in the garden.  He went up there on Boxing Day and old Chickle hadn’t planned a thing.  Not a thing.  What d’you think of that?”
I decided to tell Beef exactly what I thought.
“You barge into my room half intoxicated—” I began.
“Who’s half intoxicated?”
“And wake me up to tell me a bit of nonsense like that.  I think it’s—”
“You don’t think it’s important, then?  What I’ve just told you?”
“No!” I shouted.
Beef gave his hoarse laugh.
“Good night,” he said, and reeled off to bed.