Case for Sergeant Beef
ELEVENSES WITH THE CURATE
“I shall be glad when we finish with these interrogations,” said Beef next morning.
“So shall I,” I agreed fervently. “What, we need is to do something and not so much chit-chat.”
“There you go, thinking of your book all the time. What I want is to find out who is the murderer, not give entertainment to one or two lending library subscribers. However, there’s only two more for now.”
“Who are they?”
“First this curate’s sister, and then Flipp. And I shouldn’t be surprised but what we find out something important from each of them. We’ll see Miss Packham this morning, as soon as I’ve gone through my notes.”
It was eleven o’clock before we reached the little house on the outskirts of the village in which Mr. Packham and his sister lived. The former was Curate-in-Charge of Barnford, which belonged to a parish nearer Ashley. He seemed to be fairly popular in the place, it being said that he “didn’t interfere”. We had gathered that he was agreeable to dances being held in the village hall and had no objection to cricket matches on Sunday. But I was not greatly impressed by his appearance when he opened the door. He was a large young man with a big white shining face, a skin of lard, and bright red ears. He had his mouth full when he appeared and there were cake crumbs on his black shirt front.
My sister? Yes. Come in. We’re just having our elevenses.”
His sister was as beefy as he was porcine, a weather-beaten young woman in a hand-knitted jumper.
“Have a cup of coffee?” she suggested. “And try these cakes. Given us yesterday.”
She handed the plate to Beef who refused, saying something about “eating between meals”.
“If you can get the meals,” she said, biting at another rock-cake. “It’s so difficult nowadays. Rationing hit Edwin very hard, I’m afraid.”
Rev. Edwin Packham seemed determined to make up for this now.
“You’re trying to solve this mystery, aren’t you?” he mumbled, showering fragments of pastry over himself. “Working for Miss Shoulter, I understand?”
“That’s it,” said Beef.
“How are you getting on? Plenty of suspects?”
“Too many, I’m afraid,” I interjected.
“Still, you’ll sort it all out in the end, I expect,” said Miss Packham comfortably. “Now what on earth can you want to know from me, I wonder. I didn’t even know Miss Shoulter’s brother.”
“I want you to recall your last Jumble Sale,” said Beef.
“Great success,” said Mr. Packham. I wished he wouldn’t use so many sibilants while he was eating. “And I won the cake weighing competition.”
“Congratulations,” said Beef. “I understand that you had an old clothes stall, Miss Packham?”
“I did. And I sold every stitch. With clothing coupons and so on it wasn’t difficult.”
Tm going to ask you to try to recall one particular item sold,” said Beef seriously.
“It was a pair of shoes belonging to Miss Shoulter.”
In spite of our sober faces there was a sudden roar of laughter from the two of them.
“Edith Shoulter’s shoes!'” cried Miss Packham at last. “I wondered what on earth I’d do with them. Have you seen her feet? They’re gigantic. Size twelve, I should think, if they have any size as large as that. They tell me policemen have big feet. I always say Edith Shoulter ought to join the Women’s Constabulary!”
“And what did you do with them?” asked Beef when a fresh burst of laughter from the curate and his sister had subsided.
“Well, what could I do? I couldn’t refuse them; it would have offended the poor woman. So I made up a basket of old shoes and put hers in with the rest. Then I sold it as a lot.”
“Who bought it?” asked Beef grimly.
“Who did buy it? Do you remember, Edwin?”
I could see that Beef was almost holding his breath in the anxiety of the moment. It was evident that he attached the greatest importance to this query.
“I’m sure I don’t remember,” said the curate. “I was looking after the fruit and vegetables.”
“It wasn’t Mrs. Flipp, I know,” said Miss Packham.
“I hope you’ll manage to remember,” said Beef. “It’s most important.”
“But why? What in the world can Edith Shoulter’s outsize shoes have to do with her brother’s murder?”
“These things cannot always be explained.” I pointed out. “You may be sure that if Sergeant Beef says it is important it is important.”
Mr. Packham took the last cake.
“You told me you sold the lot in an old clothes-basket,” he said.
Suddenly there was a shriek from his sister.
“I remember! I remember perfectly clearly now. I can’t think how I came to forget. It was our dear little Mr. Chickle who bought the whole collection. He’d seen a pair of carpet-slippers of my brother’s which he wanted. You remember those carpet slippers, Edwin? Old Miss Sant back in Hornsey made them for you and you never would wear them. My brother hates being given that sort of thing by parishioners, and Miss Sant was a butcher’s sister and could easily have sent us a leg of mutton. They were almost new and I put them in with the rest and little Mr. Chickle fancied them. Just right for him, too. So I rather wickedly made him buy the lot, poor man.”
“Did he take them all away? Or just his slippers?”
“No. He took the lot. I made rather a good joke about it, I remember. I asked him if he was going to grow boot-trees in his garden! Boot-trees, see?”
And there was another hearty laugh from the brother and sister.
“Very funny,” said Beef politely. “And he took the whole lot?”
“Yes. Richey was at the Sale, and he does a few days’ work each week for Mr. Chickle. About the only work he does do. The rest of the time he’s in the Crown. And little Mr. Chickle called him over to the stall and asked him to bring the basket up next day. Seven pairs, he said, and the basket. Well, you have to be like that with Richey.”
“Thanks,” said Beef.
“I could tell you a very funny story about our little Chickle,” said the curate.
I had really had more than enough of the Packham humour and said that really we ought to be going. But Beef grinned and asked what that might be.
“It’s about eight months ago now,” said Mr. Packham. “Bluebell time. The whole of Deadman’s Wood becomes carpeted with bluebells, a really gorgeous sight. I was walking through on my way to Copling and had just reached the very spot at which Shoulter’s body was found. I happened to glance over the fallen tree there, and what do you think I saw?”
It was quite clear that the curate was preparing to give us the laugh of our lives. He could scarcely contain his own mirth.
“Little Mr. Chickle!” he roared. “Crouched down behind the tree like a rabbit and peeping over the top at me! I could scarcely believe my eyes. He looked so funny. Like something out of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. ‘Picking bluebells?’ I asked him, and he said he was. His suit was covered with mud and dead leaves.”
Mr. Packham and his sister seemed in no hurry to see us away, and Beef leaned back in his chair comfortably.
“Do you know this Mr. Flipp at all well?” he asked.
“I know Mrs. Flipp better,” said the curate’s sister. “She’s a good soul and very helpful in the village. They keep a lot of poultry, you know.”
“Excellent birds,” put in Mr. Packham with gusto. “Splendid layers and good roasting fowl.”
“What about Mr. Flipp?”
“We don’t know him very well,” said Miss Packham.
“We don’t know him at all well,” said Mr. Packham stiffly.
“Anything wrong?” asked Beef.
“No-o. Nothing really. We find him rather a coarse individual. Language and so on.”
“Well, there was one tiny thing I didn’t like just at Christmas time,” Miss Packham remarked. “It shewed, I’m afraid, that he isn’t quite truthful. You see we managed to get hold of some Christmas cards and sent them out on the evening of the twenty-third. And when I called on Mr. Flipp on Boxing Day I noticed that although he had quite a display of Christmas cards on his mantelpiece ours was not amongst them. I asked him about it, and he said he had never received it. He spoke with such violence that I felt sure he was not speaking the truth. He got quite worked up about it, complained of inefficient postal service, and repeated again that he had never received our card. Now I happen to know that that was an untruth.”
“How do you know?”
“Well, I asked the postman. In a small place like this everyone at the post office knows everyone else’s business, besides when they take the lonely roads I expect the postmen take a peep at postcards and open letters. The postman remembered my card perfectly well. He delivered it on Christmas Eve—it was the only letter for Mr. Flipp by that post. He says he met Mr. Flipp at the gate and handed it to him. Mr. Flipp put it in the pocket of his mackintosh as soon as he had glanced at it, and marched off.”
“What time would that be?”
“Well, he came here about half past two that day. I think it was an extra delivery. Didn’t he, Edwin?”
“That’s right. Brought that parcel of sweets from Betty Clough.”
“Ours is almost the last house he would call at before he went up to Deadman’s Wood. So it must have been before three when he got there.”
“And Mr. Flipp was going out?”
“So the postman said. He was dressed to go out. But he only saw him making his way to the mixing shed by his chicken run, which is between his house and the wood.”
“Well, I’m very very grateful to you for all your help and information,” said Beef.
“I only hope we’ve been of some use,” said the curate. I’m afraid we’ve just given you a lot of gossip. My sister and I cannot help seeing the funny side of things, you know. If you had seen little Chickle squatting down behind that tree I’m sure you’d have roared!”
Both the curate and his sister laughed for some time over this pleasant recollection, but were recalled to sterner thoughts by a call from the butcher’s. We left them having a heated debate in which “rations”, “offals”, and “extra” were words which seemed frequently to occur.
“Are you satisfied?” I asked Beef as we left the house.
“You don’t seriously suspect little Chickle?” I asked.
“I should like to know what he did with those shoes.”
“Probably threw them away.”
“I hope so,” said Beef.
“What now?” I asked.
“We’ve just time to do Flipp before lunch. He’s the last.”