Case for Sergeant Beef
MRS. PLUCK’S PAST
“Anybody would think we were commercial travellers or employed on finding out people’s opinions for a Gallup Poll,” I said next day as we reached the village of Pitley. “We seem to do nothing but knock on people’s doors and ask questions.”
“We’ve got to find out the truth,” said Beef. “People won’t tell you things unless you ask. Besides, you ought to be pleased with this one. It’s the first young lady we’ve had in this case.”
“Young married woman,” I pointed out.
“And that takes away all the glamour, does it?”
But I must say it didn’t. When Mrs. Muckroyd opened the door to us I caught my breath and wondered how she could be the daughter of the grim Mrs. Pluck. She looked only about nineteen and was, if I may use the word, dainty in the extreme. The pale winter sun caught her fair hair and her eyes were blue and gay. She was smiling and would I think have been friendly and pleasant if Beef had not put his foot in it and announced in his coarse and brutal way that he had “come about the murder”.
Her face changed in a moment. She looked startled, as well she might.
“What?” she cried.
“The murder over at Barnford.”
Her reaction this time was instantaneous.
“Jim!” she called.
Jim Muckroyd who emerged from an inner room was six foot four of solid Yorkshire manhood. I could well believe he had been a sergeant-major in the Commandos.
“What is it?” he asked.
“They . . . you tell him . . .” she gasped to Beef.
Beef stood his ground.
“Morning, Sergeant-major,” he said. “I’m investigating the death of a man named Shoulter over at Barnford, and there’s a little information Mrs. Muckroyd could help us with.”
I think all of us became aware at this point that a head was over the garden wall to our left and the door to our right had opened suspiciously.
“Better come in,” said Jim Muckroyd, and we trooped into a warm little kitchen. On the table were the remains of the young couple’s midday meal. There was a chair for each of us. Beef began talking.
“Thought I’d better tell you straight out what we wanted. No good pretending that we’d come to sell something and get into conversation that way. It’s like this. I’m not the police. I’ve retired from that. Private investigator, see? Working for Miss Shoulter. And trying to find out who killed her brother.”
“What can we tell you?” asked Jim Muckroyd. “I wasn’t even here. Only got released three days ago.”
“Ah. But you see Mrs. Muckroyd was over there that night. Seeing her mother.”
“That’s right,” said the girl, who seemed to have recovered. “Mum wrote to me to come over. She wanted to see me particular.”
“What time did you meet her?”
“Half a minute,” said Muckroyd. “Let’s get this straight. Is my wife’s mother suspected of having anything to do with this murder?”
“Well, it’s like this,” he said. “Mrs. Pluck can’t make up her mind to speak out straight. I won’t say she’s suspected and I won’t say she’s not. But when anyone won’t talk out, and tells you things that turn out not to be true, you’ve got to follow up and find out the real facts. The best service you can do her is to tell me the gospel.”
Jim Muckroyd and Beef stared at one another for a few moments, then the Yorkshireman seemed to make up his mind to trust Beef.
“Tell him what you know, lass,” he said shortly to his wife.
“But I don’t know anything! And you ought to be ashamed of yourself thinking bad about my mother. She’s one of the best. What she’s done for me you’d not believe—bringing me up and everything. And she’s so kind-hearted she wouldn’t hurt a fly. I know she couldn’t have had anything to do with it.”
“Then if you’ll speak out we’ll soon get her clear. Now what was this urgent business she wanted to see you about on Christmas Eve?”
The girl’s voice was so low that I scarcely caught her words.
“It was money,” she said. “She needed some money.”
“Ah. Were you surprised? Or has she ever wanted money before?”
“Never. I was terribly surprised. Mum doesn’t drink and doesn’t spend anything on herself. And she’s got a good job. She wouldn’t tell me what it was for, either. I could see she was ever so worried. I asked her if she’d been gambling, and she said of course not. I couldn’t get the truth out of her. It was something she didn’t mean me to know. All she’d say was that it was for the sake of my happiness and she had to have ten pounds at once.”
“And did you give it to her?”
“Not at once. Jim was still away. I had to draw it out of the Post Office, but I sent it over a few days later. Then a funny thing happened. It came back by return of post. She said she did not need it now. Things had changed.”
“She seemed worried that night?”
“Ever so worried. Not herself a bit. I could see something was wrong.”
“What sort of thing?”
“Something big. Mum isn’t one to get worried. I’d never seen her like that before.”
“Anything to do with her job?”
“I don’t think so. She seemed to like that all right. She laughed a bit about the old fellow she worked for. But he treated her all right and she never said a word against him. No, it was something else, I think. She’s had a hard life, you know. Father dying when I was a baby and that.”
“Do you happen to know, Mrs. Muckroyd, where your mother met your father and where they were married?”
Mrs. Muckroyd seemed surprised.
“Why, at her home at Pittenden, I suppose. Mum’s father was a farmer there. I always understood from her that she’d married while she was still at home. Why?”
“Because I think I can find out what was on your mother’s mind. Now you say you met her at seven?”
“Yes. She was standing waiting outside the post office when the bus came in. We went round to Mrs. Wilks’s and sat there talking. Then I left her to catch the last bus at ten o’clock.”
“Other times you’ve met her lately she’s seemed herself, has she?”
“Well . . . yes. But soon after she started to work for this Mr. Chickle there was something that upset her. Then she seemed to get over that. I wish you could find out what it’s all about.”
I did not speak, but I thought I knew. When she had taken the job at “Labour’s End” she had heard the name Shoulter as one of Mr. Chickle’s neighbours, and then she had learnt that Miss Shoulter had a ne’er-do-well brother and realized that it was none other than the husband who had deserted her many years before. But her state of mind on Christmas Eve had been caused by the fact that Shoulter had found her out and was demanding money, threatening to go over and see her daughter and tell her who he was if Mrs. Pluck did not give him what he asked. The woman obviously loved her daughter and would do anything to shield her. The question was, had she gone to the length of murder? No one knowing Mrs. Pluck could doubt that she was capable of it. I looked at the pretty, rather distressed girl and hoped that this would turn out not to be the truth.
Suddenly, as we sat there, the front door could be heard opening and in a moment the kitchen door too. Mrs. Pluck was standing there, a really horrified expression on her gaunt face.
“Oh! They’ve got here! You haven’t told them anything, Mabs?”
“Why, Mum, whatever’s the matter?” cried Mrs. Muckroyd, running to her.
Mrs. Pluck was sobbing.
“I knew they’d come and question you. I knew they would. What have you told them?”
“Why, nothing, Mum. There was nothing to tell. Only about my meeting you that night and your being worried lately.”
Jim Muckroyd told her to sit down.
“Far best speak out,” he said. “You’ve got nowt to hide.”
“You don’t know. You don’t understand.” She turned to Beef. “I told you I never had anything to do with the murder. It was as much a shock to me as anyone. Why can’t you leave us alone?”
“You place us in an embarrassing situation, Mrs. Pluck,” I volunteered, since I could see that the situation was one which called for tact. “It is our business to find out the whole truth of this. You did mislead us at first.”
“Only because I didn’t tell you I’d met Mabel that night. I didn’t want her dragged into it.”
“Still, you will admit that it was most misleading. Sergeant Beef and I have had to go to a great deal of trouble to find out the truth. And even now you won’t tell us what is worrying you.”
“I haven’t said anything’s worrying me, have I?”
“You know there is something,” put in her daughter.
Mrs. Pluck put away her handkerchief and turned with an angry look to Beef.
“I’ll tell you what is worrying me,” she said. “All this nosing and prying into the private business of folks that is nothing to do with anyone except themselves. Call yourself a detective and go and tell poor Emma Wilks you’re a friend of mine to get Mabel’s address then come over here startling the life out of her about a murder she doesn’t know anything about. It’s right down mean and cunning, and if there’s any way I can have the Law on you I will.”
Beef looked rather sheepish, but help came from an unexpected quarter. Jim Muckroyd seemed to have the old-fashioned notion that men should stand together under feminine assault and had sensed that Beef meant no harm to him or his wife. He rallied with a quiet interpolation.
“Take it easy, Ma,” he said. They’ve got their job to do like everyone else, and you did lead “em up the garden. Now what is it you want to know from her?”
There was a very tense silence.
“I want to know the name of her first husband,” announced Beef solemnly.
Jim Muckroyd blinked.
“And you’ll go so far as to say that the name of my mother-in-law’s first husband has something to do with finding out who did this murder?”
“Sergeant Beef never asks questions out of mere curiosity,” I put in loyally.
“I’ll go so far as to say that it might have,” said Beef.
“All right then. What was it, Ma?”
“I’ve told him once,” Mrs. Pluck retorted sulkily. “I’ve only been married once. His name was Pluck.”
Beef stood up, and I followed his example. Jim Muckroyd came out with us, shutting the kitchen door behind him. When we reached the road he gave us a slow smile.
The old girl’s all right,” he said. “I know her. She’s been too wrapped up in the wife.”
“I can see that,” said Beef, and becoming more human added: “And nobody can’t blame her. You’re a lucky man, Sergeant-major.”
“Dare say I am. I’d like to know that this business was cleared up though. Not a good thing having your mother-in-law questioned about a murder. When do you think you’ll know the truth?”
“You may not like the truth,” said Beef.
“You don’t think the old lady did it, do you?
'I didn’t say that, did I? There’s a lot of things I’ve got to find out before I say who did it. But when you start what she calls nosing and prying you sometimes have to find out things that are best forgotten, see? Still, if anything should come up which won’t be very pleasant for you to hear, I don’t think it would make much difference to you and your young missus, would it?”
Jim Muckroyd smiled.
“No,” he said. “There’s nothing could do that. Still, I’d like to know the old girl’s out of it. She’s a good sort.”
We all shook hands and Beef seemed relieved as Jim Muckroyd returned to his house.
“Nice young couple, that,” he announced. “It’s a good thing we meet some decent folk now and again in these cases. We see plenty of the other sort.”
I heartily agreed.