Case for Sergeant Beef
NIGHT IN DEADMAN’S WOOD
“Got a torch?” asked Beef after our meal that evening.
“And some nice warm clothes?”
“I’ve got a greatcoat. Why?”
“We may be out all night.”
“What on earth for?”
“You wanted action, didn’t you?”
“Yes, but I don’t want to fool about all night for nothing.”
“I don’t think it will be for nothing. Now look here—this case is more interesting than you think. It’s a nasty business and we’re going to find out the truth. It’s all very well for you to think of it as nothing but a story—I tell you that there has been some clever and some dirty thinking done and, after all, a pretty violent crime. What we see tonight, if it happens as I think it will, is going to bring us a lot nearer the truth. And I’m serious about it.”
“That’s fine. By the way you’ve been clowning about with Boy Scouts—”
“Those kids are going to be useful—even if they find nothing, as I think you’ll see presently.”
“Well, since you won’t even tell me whom you suspect I can only take your word for that.”
“It’s not as easy as just suspecting someone. There are several people involved in this business—some of them innocent, perhaps. And as to suspecting, you know everything I know, so your suspicions are as good as mine. Well, I’ve never let you down yet, have I? You come along with me tonight and you may see something.”
“Very well. Where are we going?”
“To call on Mr. Chickle, of course.”
I let the “of course” pass, and prepared to follow Beef, accepting his suggestion of warm clothes and a torch. He himself had a woollen scarf round his neck when we set out. It was a dark night with a thin chilly drizzle from low clouds. We needed our torches to find the footpath across to Mr. Chickle’s house. I trudged along, taking care not to slip on the sticky ground and not attempting to get more information from Beef, since I know from experience that it is useless to catechize him.
We found “Labour’s End” to be well lighted, and I was glad of its cheerful aspect as we approached. But I thought there was something sinister about the gaunt figure of Mrs. Pluck when she opened the door to us. She stared at us without speaking, and I’m sure there was fear in her big, hollow eyes. I had the impression that she found our visit unwelcome, though half-expected, and that she was relieved when Beef asked to see Mr. Chickle.
The old gentleman was sitting beside a large fire when we entered his cosy book-lined room, and rose to greet us. In his manner, too, I sensed something strange, though with him it certainly was not fear.
Beef spoke as respectfully and politely as I could wish. He called Mr. Chickle “Sir”, and said that he had come to warn him that his peace would probably be disturbed on the following day by an invasion from Boy Scouts.
Mr. Chickle beamed and assured Beef that so far from disturbing him it would be a pleasure. As he grew older, he said, he liked more and more to see young people enjoying themselves, and it would not be the first time that the Scouts had played Cowboys and Indians in the wood.
“They won’t be playing Cowboys and Indians this time,” said Beef rather harshly. “They’ll be doing a little job for me.”
Mr. Chickle seemed amused and mildly interested, and wondered if “detectives and criminals” was a new variation of the game.
“In a way you might say so,” said Beef. “What they’re going to do is to search every inch of Deadman’s Wood in parties. Every inch of it. And bring me whatever they find.”
“And what will they find?” asked Mr. Chickle blandly.
“I shouldn’t be surprised but what they might find something that will help to clear up this murder case.”
“Yes. I see. A clue, in fact?”
“Perhaps a clue.”
“It’s very good of you to have come up to tell me,” smiled Mr. Chickle.
“Well, we were on our way back from Copling, sir. I thought we would just call in.”
And Beef almost literally licked his chops just as a village policeman might when he has brought back a straying dog to his owner and expects to be offered a drink. Mr. Chickle was not slow to perceive what Beef expected of him.
“A drink, Sergeant?” he suggested. “I have a little reserve of Scotch, I’m glad to say.”
“I don’t mind if I do, sir,” said Beef inevitably, and before long we were wishing good health to our host. But we did not linger for more than a few moments over the drink. Beef remembered that we had a darts match at our inn, and after cordial good nights we started towards Barnford.
But we had not gone more than fifteen yards when Beef stopped round the bend of a curve.
“Now,” he said, “we go back and wait. If anyone comes out of the door of that house we follow him or her. But we don’t get ourselves seen or heard until I speak out. Got it?”
It is at moments like this that Beef is at his best. In spite of his age and bulk—for he is close on fifty now and a heavy and powerful man at that—he can move as swiftly and silently as some great feline. He ceases to be the ungainly overgrown boy that I sometimes think him, and becomes genuinely a man of action. I am the first to criticize Beef, but I always admit that in an emergency his nerve and quickness of action are remarkable.
In the drizzle and darkness of that night he led the way to a point from which, while remaining concealed ourselves, we could watch both the front door and back door of “Labour’s End”. And there we stood, sheltered a little from the cold moisture of the night, but still wet, chilled, and uncomfortable for the best part of an hour. Beef discouraged me even from whispering, and when I signed to him that I would like to smoke a cigarette, he shook his head vigorously. I had begun to think that he had miscalculated and that our wet vigil was to be in vain, when some lights were switched out in the house, and a few moments later we saw the small figure of Mr. Chickle in the open doorway outlined against the only light left burning within. He had opened the front door noiselessly and was engaged in closing it in silence.
“Ready?” whispered Beef.
When the little man started up the path which led to Miss Shoulter’s home, we were behind him. I followed Beef as he dodged behind trees in his advance, keeping us out of sight and hearing, but never losing sight of Chickle. It was exhausting and difficult, but at least it was what I had demanded of Beef—it was action.
Presently Beef, who was ahead of me and could see our quarry, stopped. For some minutes I had been unable to catch more than a glimpse of Mr. Chickle and had been satisfied to leave observation to Beef while I concentrated on moving in silence and remaining unseen. It appeared now that Beef was annoyed by something that had happened on the path ahead.
“He’s dived into the wood,” he whispered to me. “Can’t follow him there. Just have to wait here and chance it.”
Again there was a long uncomfortable wait. My feet felt as though they had been pushed into a ‘Frigidaire’ for several hours, and I was longing for a smoke. Beef, however, seemed to strain his eyes in watching the path ahead, never moving from beside me and never turning away. Ten or fifteen minutes must have passed.
Suddenly, Beef began to walk forward, no longer dodging among the trees, and at the same time flashed his powerful torch far down the path ahead. In its beam I could see Mr. Chickle coming towards us. Beef was talking loudly to me.
“We shall have to hurry,” I heard him say. “Ah, here’s Mr. Chickle. Why, you’ve dropped your parcel, sir. There it is just in the grass behind you.”
“So I have,” said Mr. Chickle.
Beef stooped to pick up the little bundle which had been dropped. It consisted of something wrapped in a piece of mackintosh. Beef handed it politely to Mr. Chickle.
“Thanks, thanks. It really doesn’t matter. Very much obliged to you.”
I had never seen the little man in such a state of confusion.
No one moved for a few moments. Then Mr. Chickle seemed to pull himself together.
“Darts match cancelled?” he asked. There was nothing openly sarcastic in his tone, but I felt that it was not quite natural.
“Yes. The other side never turned up.”
It was funny, I thought, that it was Beef who did the explaining of our presence there, and Chickle who said nothing to justify his.
“To tell you the truth, sir,” Beef went on. “We have just heard a bit more from the police. We were on our way to call on Mr. Bridge.”
Mr. Chickle became animated.
“Mr. Bridge, eh? I told you he was a violent young man.”
“Ah,” said Beef. “You’ve been having a stroll yourself, sir?”
Mr. Chickle seemed to be deciding whether or not he should speak.
“Yes, Sergeant. And to tell the truth, I’ve made a very curious discovery. I was going to keep it for the police, but since you’ve come along so opportunely, I may as well tell you first.”
“Very much obliged to you.”
Mr. Chickle began to unroll the mackintosh of his parcel and revealed the largest pair of woman’s shoes I have ever seen.
“Well, I never!” said Beef. “Miss Shoulter’s, I take it?”
“They were Miss Shoulter’s,” said Mr. Chickle, who seemed now to have recovered himself. “They were made especially for her. Outsize, you know. But they have been in my possession since then. I had to purchase them in a lot at one of our worthy curate’s auctions. What I cannot understand is this. Two months ago I myself put these shoes in my own dustbin, expecting, I might say hoping, never to set eyes on them again. And tonight while I’m taking the little stroll I have for the sake of sound sleep, I find them wrapped in this piece of old mackintosh beside the footpath. How do you account for that?”
“Funny,” was Beef’s comment.
“Do you think it has any connection with the crime?”
“Hard to say,” said Beef. “Very hard to say.”
A few minutes later we left him, this time to go home and sleep, I hoped. I know that when at last we reached our inn, having waited another half-hour in the cold and rain to make sure that we should not have another encounter with Chickle, I was pleased to get between the sheets. But Beef had been chuckling to himself with pleasure all the way home.