Case for Sergeant Beef, Chapter Twenty

Case for Sergeant Beef


And what must Beef do next day but organize and lead his ridiculous Boy Scouts’ treasure hunt.  It was a Saturday, I remember, and having a holiday the boys turned up in great numbers.  Beef sat under a tree with the patrol-leaders about him and intricate plans seemed to be drawn up during the discussion in the course of which there was a good deal of repetition of that “every inch” phrase of Beef’s which had already been used a number of times.  Personally, I sat apart and smoked a pipe, regretting once again that I had relented in my decision to throw up the chronicling of Beef’s exploits and turn to the less eccentric profession of insurance.  Boy Scouts searching “every inch” of a wood, I said.  Ridiculous.  A good detective should know exactly what to look for and exactly where it was likely to be found, not sit discussing plans of action with patrol-leaders or whatever these sniffing and coughing youngsters might be.
Last night’s episode, I admitted, had been curious.  If Beef was right in supposing that the footmarks of Miss Shoulter found near the corpse had been made by someone wearing her shoes, what in the world had little Mr. Chickle been doing with them at eleven o’clock at night on the very footpath of the crime?  Why had he tried to drop them out of sight?  Why had he said he had found them on the footpath when Beef had seen him disappear into the thickness of the wood and return with them?  I flatter myself on being a pretty shrewd judge of a man’s truthfulness, and I was convinced that his story of a little stroll for the sake of sleeping well was a fabrication.  Moreover, Beef had actually been expecting him to do something of the sort that he did.
And yet I could not bring myself to suspect Mr. Chickle.  Apart from the fact that he had no motive, had never even met Shoulter so far as we knew, he was obviously incapable of murder.  Or even if one’s imagination could be stretched to a point of believing that he might have poisoned someone, the mere association of a violent crime with the kindly little retired watchmaker was absurd.
Mrs. Pluck, now, was a different matter.  She had proved herself a liar in the most incriminating matter of her alibi on the night of the crime, and also in the scarcely less interesting one of her ability to fire a gun.  She was a big masculine woman who could easily be capable of murder, I thought, when I remembered her big, horny hands and dour face.  Then I had a brilliant inspiration.  There was some mystery about her husband.  I remembered her indignation when Beef had asked his name and her flat refusal to discuss that part of her life.  There was also a story that Shoulter himself had been married and had deserted his wife.  What if these two stories were one?  What if Shoulter had been the absconding husband of Mr. Chickle’s strange housekeeper?  Then with her false story of her movements on the night of the crime, the whole thing fitted.  True the last shot noticed by the inhabitants of Deadman’s Wood had been at half-past six.  But what of that?  With shooting so common in the vicinity, a report could easily have been unnoticed.  Or perhaps Chickle knew the truth and to save his housekeeper was deliberately lying to us.  That would account, too, for his evasions and odd behaviour.  He knew, perhaps, that it was Mrs. Pluck who had worn the outsize shoes and had concealed them in some place afterwards.  When he had heard that the Scouts were to search the wood, he had decided to retrieve them in order to save the woman.  It was all far more in conformity with the character of Chickle as I knew him than any suspicion that he himself was implicated.
But there were other suspects.  My investigations into crime have taught me to avoid fixed ideas and to keep an absolutely open mind.  There was Bridge, for instance.  All very well to accept his story because he was the kind of man whom Beef liked—hard-drinking, hard-living, and over-masculine.  Look at it how you like, he was a man who well might have committed a violent crime.  And it was surely something of a coincidence that he had been near the scene of the crime within a few moments of the firing of the first double shot, and that by his own admission.  I was by no means prepared to accept his story blindly, and what was more, I did not believe that Beef had done so.
Of course, I could name others who might be involved, and I had to admit that the case looked pretty black against Flipp, the police suspect.  There was Miss Shoulter, who might also have had a motive for all we knew, and Mr. Aston was a “possible” since he lived in Copling, and could have been in Deadman’s Wood that day, especially since it was red tape (of a kind which Beef had now found to be identical with that in his office) which had been used for faking the suicide.
“Going over your suspects?” enquired Beef suddenly.
I started.  I had not noticed him approaching.
“Certainly not,” I said, rather huffed.  “I know who did it.”
Beef gave his coarse laugh.
“You know, do you?”
I decided to brazen it out.
“I do.  And I shall be interested to see how long it takes you to work it out.”
“The police know, too,” reflected Beef.
“Oh, the police,” I said, rather contemptuously, I’m afraid.
“You don’t want to underrate them.  Chatto’s a very shrewd chap.”
“Yes,” I said.  “But it will take more than shrewdness to solve this crime.” Once having taken up this rather confident line I had decided to go on speaking with authority.  “It will take a quality which I don’t think that either of you have in sufficient strength—that is, imagination.”
Beef laughed again.
“Well, all I can say is if you know who did it you’ve got a wonderful imagination.  Wonderful.”
“How are your search parties doing?” I asked in order to change the subject.
“They’re on the job now.  They’ll cover every inch . . .”
“Exactly.  Every inch of the wood.  In the meantime what do we do?”
“Take it easy,” said Beef, “and await developments.”
At that moment a dishevelled youth who needed a haircut and a pocket handkerchief sidled up.  He was flushed with excitement, but he did not seem anxious to say anything in front of me.
“Well, Lionel?” asked Beef, for he had already learnt all the boys’ names.  “Lionel’s the leader of the Porcupine Patrol,” he explained to me.
“’Ippopotamus,” corrected Lionel.
“Well, what is it?”
He glanced uneasily in my direction.
That’s all right,” said Beef grandly.  “This gentleman is in my confidence up to a point.  You may speak in front of him.”
I ignored this ridiculous mummery.
“Found something,” said the boy called Lionel.
“What have you found?”
When at last he spoke it came out with a rush.
“You know you said we was to look at the barks of all them trees round that bungalow where that old toff lives with that old housekeeper down the bottom end of the path towards Barnford, don’t you?  Well, we done it.”
“Looked.  And just as you go into the wood, well about as far as a cricket pitch only perhaps a bit shorter, there’s a tree where the bark’s been ripped as you might say to ribbons just below a bough which runs out straight towards the bungalow, and Albert Stoke, whose father’s a keeper over at Whitton, though he’s laid up now, says a gun’s been fired straight at the tree from quite near and you better come and have a look.”
Beef nodded.
“Yes, I did.”
“Did what?” I asked disgustedly.
“Did better go and have a look.  Come on.”
We found the tree in question surrounded by eager youngsters.  I wondered what Mr. Chickle might think if he chanced to look from the window of his study, which directly overlooked us.  I felt extremely foolish and Beef went through a lot of hocus-pocus with a tape measure while the Boy Scouts watched in breathless silence.  The bough, as the boy had said, stretched out almost precisely at right angles to the tree and pointed straight towards Mr. Chickle’s home, as though the tree were a natural fingerpost.  And there was a narrow, but unbroken, space from the tree to Mr. Chickle’s lawn.
Beef had examined the bark of the tree just below the junction with the bough, and had found it scarred and charred as Lionel had described.  If it was the result of a gunshot the weapon must have been quite close to it, indeed one would have said along the under side of the bough itself.  The same idea seemed to have occurred to Beef, for he was scanning the bough closely.  Suddenly, to my disgust, he actually pulled a magnifying glass from his pocket, on which a chorus of “Coo!” went up from the boys.
“Beef!” I expostulated.
“Come and look at this,” was his only reply, and he indicated some indentations and scratches on the bough.  “See?” And turning to the members of the Hippopotamus Patrol he declaimed, “Boys, you’ve done it.  This will be a great help.  I’m proud of you.  Now go on to your square of the wood.  That’s from the wire fence to where Nelson Grover found the jay’s nest, isn’t it?”
“That’s right,” they chorused and sped away with their eyes on the ground.
We ourselves, I am thankful to say, returned to the village, but not before Beef had reminded his assistants that they were to meet in the hall that evening and that they were to bring all they had found.
We spent the afternoon quietly; at least I was quiet, but Beef had a sleep, which in the daytime and after his noon glass of beer is usually a thunderous process.  At tea-time Miss Shoulter looked in to see how we were getting on.  She seemed to have a childlike confidence in Beef and urged him not to spare time and expense in his investigations.
When it was time to go round to the Lady Flitch Hall I accompanied Beef, not without misgivings.  To tell a score or more of vigorous youngsters to bring in everything they found in a wood seemed to me an incautious proceeding, and as we entered the place my worst fears were realized.  I’m bound to admit that Beef did not delay in giving orders for the disposal of a dead and half-decomposed cat which was the most offensive of the articles collected, but it was long before its aftermath had left us, in spite of hastily opened windows.  Four snares attributed to the possession of Old Fletcher who was known not to be above a bit of poaching were not, as they should have been, handed over to the police, and the whitened skull of a sheep was presented to the Mongoose Patrol as a souvenir.  Three boots which might have been discarded by tramps in Queen Victoria’s reign were consigned to the dustbin, and the remains of an umbrella likewise.  A number of pieces of rusty metal were promised rather optimistically to salvage; and broken china was thrown out.  An empty bottle was also said by Beef to be of no account, which led to some argument among the Water Buffaloes.
“Might of had poison in it, mightn’t it?” one of them suggested, to be snubbed promptly by a Rattlesnake who reminded him that Shoulter had been shot.
At last Beef came to the scraps of paper which had been collected into one heap.  After a moment he seized the freshest of these and calling me to the light shewed it to me.  I must say I was impressed, and I could see that Beef was as excited as one of the Boy Scouts.  For it was an envelope addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Flipp and containing a Christmas card.  Absently I examined its still vivid design—a steaming football of Christmas pudding with a sprig of holly in it.  Inside were the printed words “Good Cheer!”  And under them were scrawled the names of the curate and his sister.
“Who found this?” asked Beef.
A bespectacled boy with thin legs was pushed forward.
“Where was it?”
“I’ve marked the spot, Sarge,” he returned cheekily.  “I’ll take you there tomorrow.  It was ten paces into the wood itself from the clearing where the body was found.”
Beef silently handed him his reward.