Case for Sergeant Beef
JOE BRIDGE AT LAST
Beef’s day has some curious landmarks. Where you and I speak of “morning”, “afternoon”, “lunch-time”, “sunset”, and so on, for Beef there are four points in the clock-round—morning and evening “opening time” and “closing time”. I have sometimes spoken to him about this. Even when we have been among the more respectable people with whom our cases have brought us in touch, Beef will glance at the clock and say: “Well. It’ll soon be ‘opening time’. We must be running along.” Or, “Well, if we don’t hurry it’ll be ‘closing time’.” I try to explain to him that not everyone counts the hours by the licensing laws, and that these continual references to public-houses are not in good taste. But he is, of course, incorrigible.
At what he would have called “closing time” that evening we had retired to the back room when Mr. Bristling put his head in. He had just been bolting the outside doors.
“Young Bridge is waiting,” he said. “Wants a word with you. He’s had a few but he’s all right. Bring him in, shall I?”
“There you are,” said Beef to me, not concealing his triumph. “What did I tell you? I knew he’d be along.”
Young Bridge was six feet four and, I judged, would have been a handsome fellow if it had not been for the effect of too much beer-drinking during his years of manhood. His cheeks were of a coarse crimson texture, though there were remnants of good features noticeable. He pushed into the room with his hands in the pockets of his mackintosh, and I could see at once that Mr. Bristling was not exaggerating when he said that Bridge had “had a few”.
“Evening,” he blurted out in a gruff voice. “You Sergeant Beef?”
“That’s my name,” said Beef pompously.
“Well, I’m going to tell you something.”
“Wouldn’t it be wiser for you to inform the police?”
“No. I don’t want anything to do with the police.”
“Had some trouble perhaps?”
“Me? With that fellow Dunton? I shouldn’t have trouble with his sort, I can tell you. No, what I’ve got to say I’ll say to you and get it over with.”
He slumped into a chair.
“Why haven’t any of you been to me?”
“Why should we?” asked Beef quickly.
Bridge did not like that.
“There’s been a lot of talk,” he said lamely. Tm supposed to have been out for that ——’s blood.”
“Which . . . ?”
“You know very well I am.”
“And were you ‘out for his blood’?”
“Well, I didn’t like the fellow. But I didn’t murder him.”
“That’s what a good many say.”
“You knew I went down that path that afternoon, didn’t you?”
“Someone see me?”
“Well, as a matter of fact I go down that path almost every Saturday. I go to see my uncle and aunt in Barnford. But this time I had my gun.”
“Then why haven’t I been questioned?”
“I can’t answer for the police. I haven’t got round to you yet, myself.”
“Do you think I did it?”
“I don’t know who did it.”
There was another pause.
“I decided to walk down to Barnford that afternoon,” Bridge said at last, rather sulkily. “And I took my gun.”
“Why not? I had to cross several of my own fields. Might have got a dinner.”
“But you didn’t?”
“You never fired the gun?”
“Is that what you’ve come to tell me?”
“No. There’s more to it than that. I passed the Shoulter woman’s kennels and took the footpath which enters the wood at her place and comes out by Chickle’s. I did not meet anyone till I reached that little clearing where the body was found.”
“Well, I didn’t exactly meet anyone there. But just as I came into the place I heard some movement to my right, looked over and saw a man disappearing among the trees.”
“A man? Who was it?”
There was a breathless silence, then Bridge said that he didn’t know.
“He was off pretty quickly and he didn’t turn round. He seemed to be walking like a cat—half as though he didn’t want to be seen, and half as though he didn’t want to be heard, but most important of all to get out of the way. All I saw was that he was a biggish man wearing a raincoat.”
A slow grin crossed Bridge’s face.
“Interest you?” he asked.
Then something in Beef’s manner seemed to anger Bridge.
“It happens to be true!” he said shortly.
“I never said it wasn’t.”
Bridge looked sulky for a few moments, then continued his story.
“I went on down the path,” he said, “and about fifty or a hundred yards on I met Shoulter.”
“Did you speak to him?”
“You’d had a bit of a row?”
“I had, and I didn’t want to start it again, else I’d have knocked him to hell. I decided just to walk past. And he didn’t seem to want any trouble because he made way for me on the path.”
“Was he carrying a gun?”
“He had his golf clubs with him. They were in one of those lone mackintosh bags with a top to them. It could have been in there, I suppose. He wasn’t carrying it otherwise.”
“And he passed straight on?”
“That would have been about three-fifteen?”
“Roughly. Soon after he passed there was a shot from the wood. I knew that little Chickle had what he called the ‘shooting rights’ there and thought it was him potting at a stray pheasant. But it wasn’t.”
“How do you know?”
“Because a few minutes later I came to his bungalow and saw him in the garden.”
“The devil you did. Sure it was him?”
“Certain. I saw his face.”
“Did he see you?”
“No. I took good care he shouldn’t. I’d come down the path quietly and looked into his garden from behind cover.”
“Well, I caught him poaching once, and I didn’t want him to accuse me of the same thing.”
“Just because you were carrying a gun on a public footpath?”
“Yes. I’d just come through the wood, after all, and there had been a shot a few minutes before.”
“Ah. And did you see him?”
“Yes. He was in his garden. I watched him for a few minutes. And I saw something very odd.”
“At least,” said Bridge in a rather more friendly and confidential tone than he had been using, “it may not seem odd to you, and it may not have any meaning, as it were. But it seemed funny to me. He had a line in his hand like a gardener uses for laying out paths and beds. He had one end of it pegged by the window and was walking round with the other end as though he couldn’t decide where to put it. Then I saw him go across his little piece of lawn to where it goes up close to the wood. He stood there for a moment, then looked all round him, over to the windows of the house and towards where I was standing in a furtive sort of way. Then he stooped down and tied the end of his line to what looked like a thinner line already lying there.”
“He did, did he?” said Beef, staring, rather vacantly I thought, at Bridge.
“Yes. What was the idea?”
Beef was silent.
“I don’t know for certain,” he said at last.
“But you’ve got some sort of a theory?”
“Might have,” said Beef.
“And it fits in?”
“Yes. It fits very nicely. Almost too nicely. And now I’m going to give you a bit of advice. You go and tell your story, exactly as you’ve told it to me, to Inspector Chatto, who’s investigating.”
“Why should I?”
“I could give you a lot of reasons. In the first place it’s your duty,”
“Hell. I told you I don’t like the —— police.”
“All right then. If that means nothing to you, let me tell you something else. How do you know you’re not suspected of this murder?”
“Me? Why should I shoot that rat?”
“Why should anybody? You’re known to have had a row with him, but no one knows how serious that row was. You admit you met him and a few minutes later you heard a shot. You had your gun with you. Altogether a nice little case could be made against you, Mr. Bridge.”
The farmer was silent.
“Do you think I did it?” he asked suddenly, rather ingenuously.
“I’m not saying whether I do or whether I don’t. But I do say that you’ve given me some evidence which the police may think important. There’s no doubt at all you should see them.”
“I suppose I shall have to.”
“And tell them the truth,” added Beef, nodding significantly.
I was surprised to see that the aggressive Mr. Bridge took this quite calmly. He stood up and after the briefest good night lurched out.
“What do you think of that?” I asked Beef.
I might have known that he would grow mysterious.
“Interesting,” was all he said.
“Do you think he was speaking the truth?”
“Some of it, anyway. If not all.”
“Then who was the man in the raincoat?” I asked sceptically.
Beef looked at me almost as though he presumed to think me foolish.
“Flipp, of course,” he said.
“I’m glad you know who it was,” I rejoined. “Perhaps you know the murderer as well?”
“Got a pretty good idea,” admitted Beef. Then raising his voice he called to Mr. Bristling, who was still wiping glasses in the bar, having a distaste, as he often said, for going to bed before he’d “got straight”.
“Is there a Boy Scout troop here?” was Beef’s surprising question to the publican.
There certainly is. Very keen they are. Mr. Packham runs it.
“What on earth?” I asked Beef. Privately I sometimes think he is little more than an overgrown Boy Scout himself.
“Handy sometimes, Scouts,” he said. “I think I can give them a little job that will please them and be useful. I must see that curate tomorrow. Then, of course, we must call on Aston, the solicitor.” “I don’t see why.”
“Red tape,” explained Beef, and with a huge ill-mannered yawn took himself off to bed.