Case for Sergeant Beef, Chapter Twenty-Five

Case for Sergeant Beef


For some moments we stared down at that grotesque little figure.  Then Chatto threw the light of his torch on to a white square of paper roughly pinned to the left lapel of the coat and we read three words written in big childish letters:  “I have failed.”  If this was suicide the dead man had chosen a singularly curt message, and I at once wondered why it was written in these big square letters when normal handwriting would have served as well.
The crumpled body in its neat black clothes was not without pathos, I considered, though the protruding eyes and hideously stretched lips made it seem more macabre than pitiful.  And I realized how little we knew of this urbane old man who was in some mysterious way bound up with the crime we were investigating, and who, according to his housekeeper, had changed so drastically since the afternoon of the murder.
“That settles it,” said Chatto curtly.  “If I’d had any doubts about arresting Flipp this would have been enough.  Unless I’m very much mistaken this is Flipp’s third murder.”
“Think so?” said Beef.  “What makes you think this is murder?”
“What else could it be but a murder meant to look like suicide?”
“It could be a suicide meant to look like murder,” asserted Beef.
Chatto made that interesting sound usually reproduced by novelists as “Pshaw!”
Beef stooped over the corpse.  “You think this label was pinned on him?” he asked.
“I do,” Chatto told him.
“Well, here’s a clue for you.  If it was pinned on by another person he was left-handed.”
“How d’you make that out?”
“It’s a little towards the left breast and the pin runs from left to right as you face Chickle or from right to left as he would handle it himself.  Try handling a pin on yourself and then on someone else and see which way you instinctively put it.”
All our tempers, I think, were a trifle frayed, for it was nearing midnight and we were tired and anxious to be in warm beds.
“And you seriously ask me to decide that Mr. Chickle committed suicide because the pin on that label runs in that particular direction?”  Chatto’s voice was loud in exasperation.
“I don’t ask you to decide anything.  In fact what I’m doing is to suggest that you should not decide yet.  You’d more than half made up your mind that it was murder.”
“I had.  And I still think so.  What’s he doing here otherwise?  We know he set out to see Flipp.  It may be that while he was away he’d found out something about Flipp.  Or it may be that he’s known all along and suddenly decided to speak to Flipp.  At all events he came here, and found Flipp alone.  We can guess what happened.  It would not have been hard for that big fellow to have choked the life out off the poor little bloke, then strung him up in his shed and pinned that label on him and gone and got himself drunk.”
“All that could have happened,” admitted Beef.  “But I don’t think it did.  I’m interested in the words on that piece of paper—I have failed.  They don’t seem to me exactly the message that would be chosen by a murderer for his victim if he wanted it to look like suicide.  There’s something very real about them.”
Chatto ignored that and rather impatiently began to go through the dead man’s pockets.  Nothing.  There was not even a handkerchief in them.
“That cuts both ways,” observed Beef.
“We’ll lock this shed up and leave everything as it is till the morning.  Then we’ll get the medico out and have a proper examination.  It’s past midnight now and I’m not going to drag him out here to-night.”
The key was on the outside of the lock, so this was quite easy.  But before leaving “Woodlands” we crossed again to the house and found Constable Watts-Dunton sitting peacefully in a chair reading by the light of the oil lamp.  Flipp was still lying on the floor breathing stertorously.  Chatto called the constable out of the room and told him in a hurried whisper what we had found.  The long, serious face of Watts-Dunton did not change as he heard it.
“I’ll keep an eye on the shed till you all come up in the morning,” was all he said.
“Happen to know if anyone connected with this case is left-handed?” asked Chatto.  I smiled to perceive that he had been more impressed by Beef’s little argument than he had admitted at the time.
“I don’t recall anyone.  He wasn’t,” he said with a contemptuous nod at the figure of Flipp.  “I know that because he once turned out for the cricket team.  Nor’s Bridge.  He plays every week.  Can’t say about Mrs. Pluck, of course.”
“Better wake him up.  There’s something I’ve got to ask him at once.”
This was not so easy as it sounded, but after a good deal of shaking from Watts-Dunton, Flipp eventually opened his eyes.
“What is it?” he asked drowsily.
“Have you been across to your mixing shed this evening?”
“Yes.  Course I have.  Fed the chickens.  My wife’s deserted me.”
“What time?”
“About four o’clock.  Why?”
“Never mind why.  All right, constable.  We’ll get along.”
I noticed that Flipp’s head dropped back and his eyes closed automatically even before we had left the room.
We started the walk home with the wind behind us and were soon out on the road.  We had not gone half a mile, however, when we heard someone whistling a tune ahead of us and recognized Joe Bridge.  Chatto stopped him.
In the light of certain events of this evening about which you will doubtless hear later,” began Chatto, I’m afraid I must ask you where you have been, Mr. Bridge.”
“All right.  I’ve been to see my uncle in Barnford.”
“Funny time of night to pay a call.”
“Yes.  Wasn’t it?  Good night,” returned Bridge cheerful and recommencing his whistling he strode on.
I was scarcely awake next morning before Beef was in my room saying that we had a job to do and adjuring me to jump into my clothes quick.  I obliged him as far as I conveniently could though I would not renounce my shave.  He led me off at a fast pace, and it was scarcely seven before him I was knocking at the door of Mrs. Wilks’s cottage.  I was relieved when the door was opened by Mrs. Pluck.
“Something to tell you,” Beef mumbled.
“What is it now?”
“Mr. Chickle’s dead.  Thought you’d better know at once.”
“Oh, my God.  How?”
“You mean he hanged himself?”
“That or—well, the police think it may be murder.”
“Wherever’s this going to stop?” cried Mrs. Pluck.  “First one, then another.”
“It will stop when Shoulter’s murderer is arrested.  Now I want you to come up to Chickle’s house.  I want to have a good look round.  He may have left something interesting.”
“All right.  Wait here.  I won’t be a minute.”
Her prediction was almost accurate.  In a very short time she had joined us, wearing the rusty black hat and coat she had had on when she had called at our inn on the previous night—which seemed an age ago to me.  She proved herself the farmer’s daughter we knew her to be on her way up to “Labour’s End', striding along ahead of us so that I was soon panting in my efforts to keep up.
Inside the bungalow she became the efficient housekeeper.
“I don’t suppose you’ve either of you had a cup of tea, have you?  Sit down while I get a kettle boiling.  Poor old chap—I’m not surprised though.  I told you he’d been funny lately and yesterday when he came in he looked right down queer.”
“You don’t think it was murder then?”
“Who’s going to murder him? The other one I could understand.  But Mr. Chickle was a kind little soul.  Friendly word for everyone.  I’m sure he hadn’t an enemy in the world.”
We were soon drinking hot sweet tea and munching some bread and butter.  Mrs. Pluck seemed thoughtful, but not unduly distressed.
Then Beef made a systematic search of Chickle’s room, turning out drawers and cupboards, and examining papers.  He did not hurry, but he did not seem to find anything to interest him.  Papers were arranged methodically and were not in any case abundant, so that the search took less time than I had anticipated.  It was then extended to the rest of the house with as little result.
“You’d have thought he’d have left a letter, wouldn’t you?  He was that sort.”
By the time we had returned to Barnford the village was stirring and I saw a motor-cycle outside the police-station.
“Looks as though Chatto’s got his warrant,” remarked Beef.
As we were finishing breakfast I decided to attempt the usually unprofitable business of pumping Beef on his theories and conclusions.  He made his usual retort that I knew just as much as he did, so that my guess was as good as his.
“Do what your readers have learnt to do,” he suggested, “and choose the least likely of the lot, then see where that gets you.”
“I suppose the least likely is Aston,” I suggested tentatively.
“What about the youth Ribbon?” grinned Beef.
“I hadn’t thought of him.”
Then there are Mrs. Pluck and the two servants and Mabel Muckroyd . . .”
“I refuse to suspect her.”
“Why?  It’s been known to be ever such nice people before now.”
“You think you know who murdered Shoulter?” I asked.
“Yes.  I think I do.”
“Then why don’t you go to Chatto and tell him your theory?”
“Because it’s not complete yet.  I’ll tell you one thing.  As I see it, one of the keys to the whole thing is that little inscription I have failed.  And another’s that pair of outsize shoes.  And another is the Christmas card which Miss Packham sent to Flipp.”
“Now you’re only making it more difficult.”
“Well, it is difficult.  I doubt if we shall ever prove the thing conclusively.  It’s an unusual case, as you’ll realize.”
“Mm.  You think Chatto’s making a mistake?”
Beef grew more genial as the police were blamed.
“He’s ignoring too much evidence,” he said.  “He chooses what suits his notions and leaves out what doesn’t.”
Speak of the devil, I thought, for at that moment Inspector Chatto walked into the room.  There was a considerable change in him since the previous night-he looked fresh and sleek and smoothly shaved, and he was smiling amiably.
“I thought you two would like to be there when I make the arrest,” he said.  “Since you’ve helped me with two or three little bits of evidence.  I’ve got the warrant and I’m going up in a few minutes.”
“I should like it,” agreed Beef.  “It’s always interesting to see how a man behaves when he’s accused of murder.”
Chatto grinned.
“Especially when he’s wrongly accused, eh?  Well, come along the pair of you and you shall see for yourselves.  I’ve got a police car this morning.”
We needed no second invitation.  We pulled on our greatcoats, for it was a bitterly cold morning, and followed the inspector out.