Case for Sergeant Beef, Chapter Eighteen

Case for Sergeant Beef


At breakfast next morning I told Beef that I thought things were going very slowly.  He seemed to take pleasure in stumping steadily through a case, instead of shewing flashes of brilliance like his more famous confreres.  I wanted action.
“You’re going to have it today,” he said.  “We’re going on the bus to Ashley.”
“I mean real action.”
“What, another murder?  Or a chase across the country of someone who turns out to have nothing to do with the case?”
“Well, action,” I returned.
“All in good time,” chuckled Beef.  “You wait till we get these Boy Scouts on the job.  You’ll have action all right then.”
We waited outside the post office for the green single-decker bus which would take us into Ashley, and Beef seemed to enjoy being stared at by the small boys who knew him to be a detective.  When the bus drew up he took an awkward little seat beside the driver who also sold the tickets.  I could see that he meant to get into conversation with him.  But he might have used a little more originality in his approach.
“Nice day,” he commented gruffly.
“Cold,” said the driver.
“How long does it take into Ashley?”
“About half an hour.”
“How many of you are there on this run?”
The driver did not seem to resent this clumsy catechism.
“Only the two.  Me and George Rivers.”
“Did you take her in on Christmas Eve?”
“Happen to notice who was on her on the seven o’clock run?”
“Not many.  They’d finished their shopping by then.  Three or four, I think.”
Beef leaned very close to the man and tried to make his voice inaudible to the rest of us.
“See.  I’m on this murder case,” he said.
“I know you are.”
“And there’s a bit of information I’d like from you.”
“You’re welcome.”
“Do you happen to remember whether Mrs. Pluck, the housekeeper of the old gentleman who lives by the wood, was on that bus?”
The driver whistled.
“So that’s it, is it?  It was her done him in, eh?  Well, she looks as though she could of.”
“Now don’t be running away with any silly ideas,” said Beef severely.  “I never said nothing about her doing anyone in.  I just wanted to know if she was on the bus on Christmas Eve.”
“Well, she wasn’t.”
“Quite sure?”
“Quite.  I’d of noticed.  Well, you couldn’t miss her, could you?”
Beef laughed.
“Bit of a fright, isn’t she?  But don’t you go talking to people as though I suspected her, see?  Never do.  I should have a case for slander on my hands before you could say knife.”
“That’s all right,” said the driver, and they began to talk of other matters.
When we arrived in Ashley, Beef inquired the way to the office of Mr. Aston, the solicitor, and we found it near the market place.  Mr. Aston had not come in yet, his clerk said, and without being invited to do so Beef sat down in the outer office to wait.  The clerk, a dim and pinched-looking man of middle age, busied himself with the morning’s mail.  Again Beef started with elephantine awkwardness to try making conversation.  But he got only a brief nod to his comments on the weather, the food shortage, and the price of liquor.
Presently, however, he got his chance.  The clerk was tying up a bundle of papers.
“Is that what you call red tape?” Beef asked.
The clerk looked up as though for the first time Beef had touched on something which could interest him.
“It is.”
“But it’s not red at all.  It’s pink.”
A faint smile crossed the clerk’s face.
“That was precisely the comment of a gentleman sitting here a few weeks ago.  ‘It’s not red,’ he said, ‘it’s pink’.”
“Ah,” said Beef.  “Great minds think alike.  Who was the other one to remark on it?”
“One of our clients.  A Mr. Chickle, from Barnford.  He seemed most interested in the subject.  He even asked, if I remember rightly, how it was sold, and I told him in spools.”
“Well now,” cried Beef.  “That is funny!  Because I was just going to ask you myself.  What do they look like?”
The clerk pulled open a drawer in which we could see a number of spools of the pink tape and handed one to Beef, who solemnly examined it.
“Mind if I keep this?” he asked.  “I want it for a bit of a lark.  Red tape, you know!”
“It’s not easy to get,” said the clerk dubiously.
“You got plenty.”
“Oh, very well,” said the clerk rather sulkily, and turned with marked concentration to his work.
Soon after that a buzzer sounded and we were shewn in to Mr. Aston.
The solicitor was a grey and portly man with horn-rimmed glasses and a very smart suit.  He affected, I thought, to be busier than he was, and quickly asked what he could do for us.
“It’s about this murder,” said Beef.
“I know nothing about it.”
“You have a client called Wellington Chickle, I believe?” said Beef solemnly.
“I have.  At least I have undertaken one matter for Mr. Chickle.”
“And the nature of that matter?” asked Beef.
The solicitor stared at him.
“On what possible grounds do you put such a question?”
“Investigating.  Representing the dead man’s sister.”
“Am I expected to see some connection between that and my client?”
“Just wanted to know what he came to see you about,” said Beef, rather abashed.
“Then I’m afraid your curiosity—I can scarcely call it anything else—will remain unsatisfied.  Mr. Chickle’s business was confidential.”
“I see.  And where were you that afternoon?”
The solicitor looked up sharply.
“I don’t think I can have heard you correctly,” he said.
“You heard.  I asked where you was on the afternoon when Shoulter was murdered.  You live out that way, I believe.”
Mr. Aston pressed his buzzer and his clerk appeared.
“Shew these men out and don’t admit them again,” he snapped.
I wondered whether to attempt some kind of explanation or apology for Beef’s gross blunder.  But he was signing to me from the door and I followed him from the room in confusion.  To my annoyance Beef had no sooner reached the street than he started laughing.
“What on earth made you put that idiotic question?” I demanded.
“I thought you’d like another suspect,” grinned Beef.  I did not reply.
Back in Barnford we went at about four o’clock to the house of Mr. and Miss Packham.  They received us in a friendly manner, which did not seem to chill even when Beef began by saying that he had come to ask a favour.
“We’re used to that,” said the curate.  “What is it this time?”
“I understand you run a troop of Boy Scouts?”
“I do.”
“I was wondering if they could do a little job for me.  Sort of good deed, you know.”
“What sort of job?”
“Well.  I want them to search a certain area.”
“No.  Not footprints.  If you would not mind I would explain to them myself what I want.  How would that be?”
Mr. Packham considered.
“Nothing against the Law, I take it?”
“Oh, no.  They would be helping the Law.”
“No danger?  None of your murderers about?”
“No danger,” promised Beef.
“Then I don’t see why not.  It’s a Scout Night tonight.  You could come along to the Lady Flitch Hall and explain just what you want.”
Suddenly both brother and sister assumed an attitude of attentive listening.  They were quite motionless, staring before them.  I tried to speak, but received a vicious “Sshh!” from Miss Packham.
“What is it?” Beef inquired.
“Tea!” shouted the curate’s sister.  “I heard the rattle of cups!”
“Stay and have some?” said the curate very tentatively.
“I think we’ll go back to our own place,” said Beef with unusual tact.  “They’ll be expecting us.  See you at the Hall at—what time?”
“Six.  Six.” Mr. Packham’s manner had become absent.
At six o’clock, therefore, I accompanied Beef to the hall, and we found ourselves surrounded as we entered by countless small boys, some of them wearing the uniform of Scouts.  I felt very self-conscious, for I knew that on such occasions Beef was apt to pose a good deal, and to talk to the boys as benevolent schoolmasters or cheerful uncles talked in the boys’ stories of half a century ago.  This is not well received by modern boys who expect a man-to-man form of address.
As we entered we found that Mr. Packham was deeply engaged with a few youngsters who seemed to know the way to his heart.  One had brought him half a dozen eggs and another a pair of stored apples with skins wrinkled from a stay in some straw-covered loft.  There were two other packages the precise contents of which were not apparent though guessable.
“Splendid.  Splendid,” he was saying.  “Good chaps.  Most grateful.  My sister will appreciate these.  Hullo, here’s Sergeant Beef.”
There was a good deal of fuss and movement in the hall before the boys could be got into the chairs facing the platform, but it was achieved eventually, and Mr. Packham rose to lecture them.  He explained that they were going to be addressed by a real London detective, a description at which I shivered.  Indeed, the whole proceedings seemed to me silly in the extreme.  Whatever Beef wanted, I could not see that a lot of little boys running about thinking that they were sleuths would help much, and I was frankly nervous when I thought how Beef would address them.  My worst fears were realized.  When Mr. Packham had finished he stood up and sticking his thumbs in the arm-holes of his waistcoat turned to the troop.
“Boys,” he said.  “Would you like to help me catch a murderer?”
He pronounced the word as though he were a comedian giving an imitation of an old-fashioned melodrama, dragging out the first syllable through a series of vowels.  To my surprise there was a murmur of eager assent.
“If you’ll do what I ask you,” he went on, “you may be the means of bringing him to the gallows.  All I need now is a little more evidence and you can help me get it.”
This clumsy approach seemed to appeal to the boys, who looked keen and eager.
“I want you to comb Deadman’s Wood,” said Beef.  “Every inch of it.”
He paused for effect.
“Split up into parties,” he said.  “Organize yourselves.  See that not a little piece of ground escapes you.  And pick up anything you find.  It’s no good looking for footprints.  They’ve all gone by now.  But anything else.  Anything else at all you may find you bring to this hall to-morrow night.  Got the idea?”
They had.  There was a rustle and chatter of expectation.
“And there’s something else,” Beef continued.  “I want you to look at the barks of the trees all round that bungalow where Mr. Chickle lives.  Say up to twenty yards from there.  See if you can find one that’s split about a bit.  You might.  I don’t say you will.  But you might.  The boy who finds that gets a reward.  And one for any boy who finds anything in the wood that’ll help me with my investigations.  Now are there any questions you would like to ask?”
One boy wanted to know what they were to look for in particular.
“Ah,” said Beef.  “I can’t tell you that for the very good reason that I don’t know myself.  You just keep your eyes skinned.”
“Who did it?” asked a thin boy with glasses.
That’s what you’re going to help to find out,” returned Beef.  “Now off you go and divide it all up into squares.  And plan out how you set about it.  We’ll meet here tomorrow night.  All right?”
There was a shout of excitement as the meeting broke up.