Case for Sergeant Beef
BEEF BORROWS A RAINCOAT
I did not like Flipp from the moment I saw him. A big brutal-looking man, he seemed both overbearing and cunning. I felt that he would have liked to be thoroughly rude to us, but that for some reason he dared not. He ought to have been greased and bloated with that face of his, but there was something oddly deflated about him as though he were a powerful and successful man who had suddenly lost his authority.
His home gave more evidence of prosperity than most of the houses we had visited, and he asked us into a large well-furnished room and offered us sherry.
“I’ve been expecting you to call on me,” he admitted. “I’ve had the police here a couple of times, so I was prepared for the private detectives as well. And I suppose you’ll ask me all the same questions as they did—where I was that afternoon—”
“Where were you?” asked Beef.
“I thought so,” said Flipp. “I was here. Never left the house.”
“Do you mean in the house? Or the grounds?”
“I mean the house. It was a beastly cold day and I sat over a fire with a kettle of hot water, a lemon, and a bottle of whisky to cheer me. Celebrating Christmas on my own.”
“I see. Yet the postman remembers you just going out.”
I thought that Mr. Flipp would fly into a temper. But after a short pause he spoke quite genially.
“Been checking up on me already, eh? The postman is perfectly correct. He met me at the gate. As a matter of fact I was just going to feed the chickens when I saw him coming and waited. Then I went round to my mixing shed. To that extent I did leave the house.”
“Do you remember what the postman gave you? What came for you by that post?”
“Can’t say I do. Nothing of importance, I think. Probably a circular or something.”
“Not a Christmas card?”
“Might have been.”
“You knew this man Shoulter well, I believe?” asked Beef after a stare at his notebook.
“We were neighbours in London,” said Flipp shortly.
Beef attacked his notebook.
“Where was that, sir?” he said.
After only a moment’s hesitation Flipp said, “I have a large commission agent’s business in Gordon Street, Paddington. I still keep a controlling interest though it is now a limited company. Shoulter occupied the premises next door.”
“As a private house?”
“No. He had a small chemist’s shop.”
“I see,” said Beef. “How long ago was this?”
“Twelve years. He was only there for a year or so, then he sold the business and went in for professional punting. He was always fond of the horses.”
“So a friendship which started just by you being neighbours in business has lasted all these years?”
“Well, I was sorry for Shoulter. And for his sister. I’ve tried to help him on and off. But he was a fellow who would not help himself.”
“So I’ve gathered. You also knew Mr. Chickle, I think?”
“Not very well. He’s been here once or twice and I’ve met him at Edith Shoulter’s. Seems a harmless little chap.”
“Met him anywhere else, sir?”
“Not that I can remember.”
“I believe you mentioned to Miss Shoulter that he had been hanging about at a certain spot in the wood.”
“Oh, that. You shouldn’t take me too seriously, you know. I believe I met him once by that fallen tree and mentioned it to Edith Shoulter. Quite a casual meeting.”
Ah. What was he doing there?”
“Doing? Nothing. He was just there.”
“I see. You have a gun, Mr. Flipp?”
“What kind is it?”
“When did you use it last?”
“About three years ago. I used to do a bit of duck shooting on some marshy land in Sussex, but I’ve had to give it up since nineteen-forty.”
“Would you have any objection to my seeing your gun?”
“Not the slightest. I’ll bring it along.”
Beef examined the gun carefully, squinting down the barrel like an officer on an arms inspection in the army.
“Been cleaned recently,” he remarked.
For the first time Flipp shewed irritation.
“Of course it has. I know how to look after a gun.”
“Yes. I see you do.”
Beef put the gun down and stood up.
“I’ve nothing more to ask you at present,” he said, and rather rudely made his way into the hall before our host could accompany us.
There was a queer little scene by the front door. When Flipp arrived Beef was already wearing a light-coloured raincoat which I am sure he had not had on when we arrived. Flipp stared at him for a moment.
“Isn’t that my raincoat?” he said.
Beef examined it and then appeared abashed.
“Why, so it is!” he said. “I’m sorry, Mr. Flipp. I’ve got one just like it at home and took it without thinking.”
He replaced it on the peg and we took our leave.
“Whatever did you do that for?” I asked.
Beef’s voice became conspiratorial.
“Just as I hoped,” he said. “One of the pocket linings is adrift.” And he chuckled to himself.
That afternoon we had a conference with Inspector Chatto in the small private room at the Crown, which chatty little Bristling arranged for us with a good deal of talkative pleasure.
“You sleuths want somewhere you can be quiet in, I know, he said. “Well, when you want your tea, shout out. I suppose you’ll be deciding who’s guilty this afternoon?”
“That’s most unlikely,” I told him. “The investigation is still in its initial stages.”
“Oh I see. Well, good hunting to you, he smirked and scurried out to leave the three of us in conclave round the table.
“I’ve done my interrogation,” announced Beef. “And I think there may be a few bits that are new to you. They’ve all been willing enough to talk, anyway.”
Referring to his notebook he went painstakingly over the information he had gathered from each of the persons he had seen. I watched Inspector Chatto, who made a few notes, and I gathered that the points which interested him chiefly, either because they were new to him or perhaps because they fitted a theory he had already formed, were these:
(1) Miss Shoulter’s shoes. He went so far as to admit that the footprints found in the wood could have been caused by someone wearing these, though he would not commit himself to more than that. When he heard about the old pair sold to Wellington Chickle at the Jumble Sale he agreed again that this might be the pair. It would be necessary to find out what Chickle had done with them. Beef asked him if he would leave that to him for the moment as he had a theory about those shoes and did not want Chickle questioned just now. Chatto agreed, but warned Beef that it might be necessary in a few days to take it up. Beef would be given warning, though.
(2) Miss Shoulter’s story of visiting Flipp’s house and finding him out that afternoon interested Chatto profoundly and he thanked Beef for bringing it to light. He said it was very important for a reason he would explain later.
(3) Ribbon’s account of how Flipp sent his servants away was also of paramount interest to Chatto. “Of course,” he said, “we should have got it in time as I’m going to see the two girls, but it’s handy to have it from you first.”
(4) The postman’s story of Flipp leaving the house that afternoon Chatto characterized as second-hand, but took a note of it all the same. I could see that his interest was centred on Flipp, especially when he said that since Flipp went into the mixing shed that might well be where he kept his gun.
(5) Mrs. Pluck’s ability to shoot caused Inspector Chatto to smile in a slightly superior way, but he agreed that she “needed looking into” and made a note that her alibi for Christmas Eve should be checked as far as possible.
(6) It seemed difficult to interest him in anything connected with Chickle. When Beef told him about Chickle’s lie to Miss Shoulter about shooting he said it was “natural enough in the circumstances”. After a wordy story by Beef about Chickle’s garden measurements he merely asked what about it, and he seemed nearly as amused as the Packhams had been at the curate’s story of Chickle crouching behind the fallen tree. Beef did not try to persuade him.
(7) When it came to Mrs. Pluck’s statement that she had seen Joe Bridge going down the footpath that afternoon, Chatto said he could soon get the truth of that from Bridge. Again Beef begged him to ‘lay off’ for as long as he could. Beef still seemed certain that if nobody questioned Bridge he would become so steamed up at being left alone that he would come and volunteer a statement. And one volunteer, proclaimed Beef, was worth six conscripts. If he had heard nothing from Bridge after five days, or if Chatto found it essential before that, he would be questioned.
Finally, when Beef began to touch on Flipp’s account of his old acquaintance with Shoulter, Chatto stopped him.
“I know all about that,” he said. “And a lot more. We’ve not been twiddling our thumbs, you know. I’ve got a bit of a story for you now!”
“That’s good,” said Beef, and we both adopted attitudes of close attention.