Case for Sergeant Beef, Chapter Twenty-Four

Case for Sergeant Beef


There followed a day of inactivity for me, during which Beef did what he called “studying his notes”.  I have long since given up doing anything of the sort myself, for in reading other detective novels with the eye of an experienced chronicler I have come to the reluctant conclusion that lists of suspects, time-tables, elaborate catalogues of clues and so on are the resort of those who feel the need to fill another chapter when nothing in the way of true detection presents itself.  Besides, I accept my task as that of relating the doings of Beef as faithfully as another author described “What Katy Did”, and I have decided not to vary from this rule.  If my activities are of the least importance it may be said that I played a game of snooker at the Barnford Working Men’s Club and waited for the results of the no doubt monumental deliberations that were being done by Beef.
“Solved it?” I asked cheerfully that evening.
“Not altogether.  I can’t see any reasonable motive.”
When I know that he is indulging in mysteriousness I leave him severely alone.
“Chickle came back today,” he observed.
“Yes.  On the same train as Shoulter took that day.”
“Ah,” I said, mimicking his favourite interjection.
“We’ll go up and see him in the morning.”
“Don’t you think he may get rather tired of your visits?”
“I hope so,” said Beef enigmatically.
But we were destined to see Chickle before the morning, and in circumstances which, even to me, with my long experience of the unexpected, were astonishing.
At about ten to ten that evening, when I was rather unwillingly taking down the scores for a game of darts which Beef was playing in the public bar, Mr. Bristling came in and whispered to me that Mrs. Pluck was in the bottle and jug and wanted to see Beef most particular.  As soon as he had thrown the double-eighteen which he needed for a finish, Beef accompanied me and we interviewed the housekeeper in the little back room where Joe Bridge had told us his story.  It was plain at once that she was in a state of great trepidation.
“Whatever’s? the matter?” asked Beef, to whom the visit was unwelcome, coming as it did so close to closing time.
“It’s Mr. Chickle,” she blurted out.  “He came home this afternoon looking ever so ill and funny.  He didn’t hardly speak to me and didn’t eat a bite with his tea.  Then as soon as it was dark he got on his coat and hat and said, ‘Mrs. Pluck, I’m going to call on Mr. Flipp, you understand.  If anyone should want to know where I’ve gone you tell them I’ve gone to call on Mr. Flipp.  Don’t forget that, please.’  And he marched off and hasn’t come home since.  It’s the best part of five hours he’s been gone and I’m worried sick, what with that murder in the wood and everything.”
“Did he take his gun?” asked Beef.
“His gun?  Certainly not.  Whatever for?  It was dark when he started out.”
“Well, there’s only one thing for it.  We must go and report to Inspector Chatto and see what he says.  I shouldn’t be surprised but what he decides to go up to Mr. Flipp’s home.  Come on.”
Neither Inspector Chatto nor Constable Watts-Dunton seemed very pleased to see us, but when he had heard Mrs. Pluck’s story the inspector decided, as Beef had anticipated, to go at once to “Woodlands”.  We waited only while the two policemen hastily pulled on greatcoats and then the four of us set out, while Mrs. Pluck went to the home of her friend Mrs. Wilks, saying that nothing would persuade her to go up to “Labour’s End” again that night.
I shall not easily forget that long walk through the dark and cold of a windy January night.  The two policemen were ahead, talking a little between themselves, but saying nothing to us, whose presence was made to seem on sufferance.  Beef was silent, too, and I was glad to be left to my own thoughts, which were by no means calm.  In spite of all Beef’s investigation of Mrs. Pluck, the case seemed to centre round the two contrasting men whom we should find at “Woodlands”: the big bluff Flipp and little talkative Chickle.  I formed no definite idea of what I thought had happened, but I agreed with the serious view taken by the police of Chickle’s failure to return after so long an interval.
As we tramped along with the wind in our faces a figure loomed up in the road ahead, and Inspector Chatto threw the light of his torch on the approaching man.  It was Joe Bridge.
“Where are you coming from?” asked Chatto.
“My home.  Going down to Barnford.”
“Have you met anyone on the way?”
“Not a soul.”
I knew this was not Bridge’s quickest route, but I said nothing.  Again we were trudging on.  For a few minutes there was a half-break in the clouds and a dull moon shone, but soon it was dark again.  At last we reached the end of the long drive which went up through the wood to Flipp’s lonely house, and turned in.  We were sheltered from the wind now and, except for the rattle of the bare boughs overhead, the night was quieter.
When “Woodlands” came in sight Chatto stopped, and the four of us stared into the semi-darkness.
“Not a light in the place,” said Chatto.
“May have gone to bed.  It’s nearly eleven now.”
“Then we must wake “em up.  Come on.”
We walked slowly up to the front door, peering about us as though we expected some movement in the night.  The windows were like squares of wet ink, dark and shining.
Not a dog barked.
Then we had a surprise.  The front door was wide open and we could catch a glimpse of a dark hall beyond.  We stood listening for a few minutes, but there was not a sound of movement.
“Anyone at home?” called Chatto.  Then louder, “Anyone at home?”
I had an eerie feeling that someone in the dark house was listening and waiting—perhaps crouching in fear or standing behind the locked door of a bedroom.
“Where’s the switch?” asked Chatto.
There’s no electric light,” Watts-Dunton told him.
Chatto’s torch played over the hall.  What we saw was commonplace enough—a hall table, coats hanging, a few umbrellas.  Nothing seemed out of place.  Chatto crossed to a door on the left and, flinging it open, again let his torch play over the interior.  It was a small dining-room, I judged; and lying on a mat before the last red cinders of a fire was the body of a man.
“My God!” I whispered to Beef.  “That looks like Flipp!”
It was Flipp.  He was prone on his stomach with his face buried in his arms, fully dressed.  Chatto stooped over him.
“Is he dead?” I asked.
“Dead drunk,” was the curt reply, after the inspector had made a brief examination.  “Can’t you smell it?”
There was, indeed, a stench of stale alcohol in the air.
Watts-Dunton struck a match and set it to the table lamp.  A yellow light, inadequate though it was, made the figure on the floor discernible in greater detail.  Chatto had turned him over now and I could see the almost purple face of the police suspect.
Without ceremony Chatto emptied a carafe of water over the man’s head, and Flipp stirred, at first uneasily and then with a sudden jerk.
“What the hell—”
But before he could form his question Chatto snapped.  “Where’s your wife?”
“Gone,” said Flipp, and fell back again.
“And the servants?”
“Gone.  Everyone gone.  Left me alone.  Who the hell are you?”
“Police,” said Chatto.
This time Flipp sat up and attempted unsuccessfully to rise to his feet.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“I’m looking for Mr. Chickle.”
Flipp seemed to lose interest.  He said: “Oh,” and closed his eyes.
“When did you see him last?”
“Who?  Chickle?  Days ago.”
“You haven’t seen him today?”
“Today?  No.  Haven’t been out all day.  Everyone gone and left me.  No food—nothing.  Wife deserted me.  Servants flown.  Now I want to sleep.”
Chatto shook him.
“We know positively that Mr. Chickle came to see you this evening.”
“Positively didn’t.”
“He set off from his home with the object of seeing you.”
“Never—well—came here, I tell you.  I know Chickle.  If he’d come here I’d have seen him.”
“What time did you start drinking?”
“Thirty years ago.”
“Don’t be funny, Mr. Flipp.  What time today did you start?”
“All day on and off.  Wife deserted me.  But I’m sober enough to see Chickle.”
“How long have you been asleep?”
“Few minutes.  Dropped off about eight o’clock.”
Chatto indicated to Watts-Dunton with a nod that he should stay with Flipp.  The rest of us started to search the house.  It soon became clear to us that Flipp had spoken the truth when he said that his wife and servants had left him.  In their rooms the cupboards and drawers had been emptied and a confusion of unwanted clothes and packing paper was left on the floor and furniture.  But no one was in the house.  We conscientiously looked in every space large enough to conceal a human being.
I found a large tin trunk in one bedroom and was proceeding to prise it open when Beef asked what I expected to find in it.
“Think Chickle’s inside?” he asked grinning.
It was scarcely large enough to hold a man even of the little watchmaker’s size, so I asked Beef if he’d ever heard of corpses being cut up.  This must have flummoxed him, for he laughed and walked on.  The box was full of empty bottles.
At last it was clear that we should have to look elsewhere for Chickle, and we gathered in the hall.
“You’ll have to stay here to-night,” said Chatto to Watts-Dunton.  “I’ll get a warrant out for Flipp first thing tomorrow.”
Watts-Dunton returned to his charge and the three of us went out again into the chilly and dismal night.  It seemed that the wind had dropped a little as we stood outside, or else that the shelter of the trees produced a certain quietness.  At all events I was conscious of night sounds—the hoot of an owl and what sounded like a horse kicking the wooden partition of his stall in the shed near which we were standing.
Chatto was planning that we should go to “Labour’s End” by the route which Chickle would have used when Beef suddenly gave a signal for silence and said “Ussh!”
We stood there looking at Beef and wondering what on earth he had heard.
“Flipp hasn’t got a horse, has he?”
“Shouldn’t think so; why?”
“That’s not a horse, anyway,” he said excitedly, and made a bolt for the door of the shed near which we were standing.  It yielded to him, and by the light of Chatto’s powerful torch we gazed into the interior.
Has the reader guessed?  If so he has more perspicacity than I had, for to me the sight was utterly unexpected.  There were stout beams across the shed, no more than eight feet from the ground.  From the one of these nearest to a partition was hanging the body of Wellington Chickle, his feet beating the horrible tattoo which we had heard from outside the door.  Like Flipp he was fully dressed and wore a greatcoat, while his felt hat was ludicrously pulled over his eyes.  An old wooden chair lay toppled at his feet as though he had kicked it away from under him.
In a moment Chatto had pulled out a claspknife and cut the rope while Beef lowered the little man to the ground.  I waited breathlessly while Beef stooped over him.
“Dead as mutton,” was his vulgar and irreverent verdict when he had made his examination.