Case for Sergeant Beef, Chapter Twenty-Seven

Case for Sergeant Beef


That evening we held the last conference in what was called in the Press the “Deadman’s Wood Murder Case”.
Chatto, very pleased with himself and twinkling with good humour, told us that since Beef had given him more than one piece of valuable information, he was going to let him in on the case against Flipp as the police had formulated it.  As he outlined it to us in the little back parlour of the Crown, where so much had come to light during our investigations, I could not help feeling the strength of it.  I was convinced that whatever Beef might have up his sleeve there was little doubt that Flipp would hang.
“I’m not going over the murder of his wife and I don’t know what view the prosecuting counsel will take of that,” said Chatto.  “Nor am I going to try to prove Flipp guilty of murdering Chickle—though personally I believe he did so—for the simple reason that we have not got enough evidence yet.  I’m going to concentrate on the murder of Shoulter, about which I cannot see that there can be any doubt at all.  If I prove that, the murder of his wife goes with it, as far as I can see, and it’s more than likely that the murder of Chickle follows.
“First of all, what brought Flipp to live at Barnford?  The Shoulters.  Then either he was friendly with Shoulter or, as we maintain, he was being blackmailed by him.  The latter is virtually a certainty, and I don’t think that Flipp himself will deny it, though he will probably maintain that he never administered poison to his wife but was being blackmailed by Shoulter because he had purchased morphine at that time and was afraid that if this were known a case would be made against him.  At all events there was the poison book with his signature hidden in Shoulter’s room, there were the withdrawals of money from his account in notes of small denominations, withdrawals which were made before Shoulter’s visits to Barnford, and his calls on Flipp after dark.  Surely very little doubt about the blackmail?”
“Very little,” conceded Beef.
“Right.  Then we have this powerful man of violent temper who had already, we believe, despatched one human being who stood in his way, being bled by a drunken ne’er-do-well who was in all probability the only man who had the information on which Flipp was being blackmailed.  The setup is pretty plain, isn’t it?  Moreover Flipp had a gun and cartridges of a type used by half a dozen people in the neighbourhood; Flipp knew that Shoulter was coming down for Christmas and would walk alone through Deadman’s Wood.  What could be more obvious?
“What is more, Flipp knew that there were at least two people in Barnford on whom suspicion might fall, and there was a very good chance of at least one of them not having an alibi that afternoon.  There was the retired watchmaker, Chickle, and the hot-tempered young farmer, Joe Bridge.  Now he himself had noticed and called attention to the fact that little Chickle was very fond of a particular spot on the footpath through the woods which Shoulter would have to pass.  Why not, then, lay in wait for him there?  If Shoulter was shot in a place which Chickle, in Mr. Townsend’s word, haunted, and Chickle was known to carry such a gun as Shoulter was shot with, there was a reasonable chance of Chickle being suspected, however improbable Chickle’s action might seem.  Again he knew that it was Joe Bridge’s custom to walk down to Barnford from Copling on Saturday afternoons to see his uncle and aunt, and with any luck this would bring the farmer to the spot.  All he had to do was to approach it by a route through the wood itself from his house, wait for Shoulter to appear, shoot him, and return home without being seen.
“Then, like all murderers, he over-plotted.  His wife was away for Christmas and it suddenly appeared to him that at all costs the servants must be got away from “Woodlands", in case they saw too much of his movements.  This is where he made his first mistake.  As it happened the girls were not keen on going and he insisted.  Now why?  What possible reason could he have for insisting on their absence unless he wished to remain unobserved?  To my mind that alone was almost enough to hang him.
“But he left further evidence.  We know beyond doubt—and we owe the knowledge to you, Beef—that he was in the wood that afternoon, and not many yards from the place where the crime was committed.  Miss Packham had sent him a Christmas card which was delivered to him shortly before three.  He was already dressed to go out—in an old mackintosh which, as we also know from Beef, had a pocket-lining missing.  The card was handed to him, he hurriedly stuffed it into his pocket, for he had not much time to spare, and subsequently dropped it on his way to the clearing.  It was found there by a Boy Scout.
“Moreover we know from Miss Shoulter that in spite of Flipp’s statement that he never left his house he was not in fact there when she called at three-forty-five.  He was, as a matter of fact, on his way back from the clearing where he had just killed Shoulter.
“And lastly there is Joe Bridge’s statement that as he approached the clearing a man in a raincoat was slinking away through the trees.  If this was not Flipp, who else could it have been?  Not Chickle, for Bridge described him as a biggish man.  There is no one else possible, unless you are going to suppose that some complete stranger of whom we haven’t heard was waiting for Shoulter in the wood that day.  The only two other males in the district who are known to go into that wood at all are the poacher Fletcher and Packham the parson.  Neither of them possesses a raincoat.  No, I think you can take it that Flipp was standing among the trees waiting for Shoulter to come from the direction of Barnford when he heard someone, who turned out to be Bridge, coming from the direction of Copling.  Not wishing to be seen, he hurried off among the trees to return when Bridge had gone.  Right?”
“Right!” said Beef with an emphatic nod.
“Then, as we know from Bridge, Shoulter came up the path a few minutes later, since Bridge met him before he reached Chickle’s bungalow half a mile away.  And he was carrying his golf-clubs.  What, I should like to know, was in that bag?  In my theory it was the gun which he had borrowed without permission from his sister some weeks before.  After he had killed his blackmailer Flipp may have noticed this and it gave him an altogether new idea.  Why should not this be made to appear suicide?  It would be yet another fortified line in his own defence.
“Flipp’s failing as a murderer was to overdo things.  If he had been satisfied with having left the suspicion to fall on Chickle or Bridge he would have made his case a better one.  But no—he could not resist this new idea.  He pulled the corpse to the side of the clearing so that it would not be visible from the path and with the only kind of line handy—a length of red tape which was either in his pocket or Shoulter’s—he rigged it as best he could to look as though Shoulter had shot himself.  Clumsy that.  It scarcely needed our ballistics expert to say that the man had been shot from some yards away while he was on the footpath.  In defence of Flipp’s intelligence it must be remembered that the face of a man shot at point-blank range by a twelve-bore would have been so nearly shot away that at the time he could scarcely be expected to see that a ballistics expert would be able to gauge the exact distance of the barrel from the head.
“Just as his arrangements were complete, some time past four o’clock he realized that he was making a serious mistake.  The gun by the dead man had not been fired.  Still wearing his gloves he remedied this, using two of his own cartridges.  Then he returned stealthily to ‘Woodlands’, quite unaware that Miss Shoulter had been there to see him, or that he had dropped the Packhams’ Christmas card near the scene of the crime.  He believed, in fact, that he had achieved a pretty clever murder.
“Now the rest is conjecture, I admit, and at present forms no part of our case, though I hope it will do so.  For I believe that Flipp murdered Chickle.  Why?  And why, according to Chickle’s housekeeper, was he so changed after that particular afternoon?  There is only one answer that I can see — Chickle knew too much.  He saw some part of the proceedings, perhaps the most fateful part.  And it worried him.  A peaceful little man of regular habits, he was distressed by being brought into contact with anything so violent, and was determined to keep out of it.  He lied to us to save himself not from the dock but from the witness box—a form of lying more common than you would suppose.  But it got on his mind.  He grew, as Mrs. Pluck said, distressed and unhappy.  If he had only done his duty and told us what he knew he would have saved his life.  But he preferred to keep it to himself.  Well, you have seen the result.  Flipp knew that he knew.  They may even have talked together in that clearing over the body of the dead man.  That we shall never know.  At all events Flipp was taking no chances.  He induced Chickle to come up to his house when no one else was there and silenced him for ever.”
“Wasn’t that a bit clumsy?” suggested Beef.  “Hanging him in his own stable, I mean?”
Chatto shrugged his shoulders.
“This one was to look like suicide.  And take in the other too.  For if Chickle committed suicide it would appear that it was because he had in fact been a murderer.  We know that Flipp was a gambler.  He was getting odds of two-to-one.  He would clear himself of both murders by this, or hang for the two.  It wasn’t a bad idea, as murderers’ ideas go—
“Well, there you have it—lock, stock, and—appropriately enough— barrel.  And I’m only waiting for you, Beef, to act according to precedent, pull the whole thing to pieces, and indicate an entirely different person as the murderer.  Then Mr. Townsend will be happy, the police will be made to look silly, and Mr. Townsend’s readers will get what they bargained for—a surprise in the last chapter.  What about it?”
Beef shook his head.
“Can’t do that,” he said.  “Can’t pull it all to pieces.  You’ve got too much truth there for me to treat your theory as a pack of cards.”
Both Chatto and I were startled, but for different reasons.
“Great Scott!” cried Chatto.  “You’re not going to admit that the police are right?
“Beef,” I exclaimed, “if you let me down after all the time I have spent on this case and the writing I have already done, I shall consider it unforgivable.  Are you going to sit there and tell me that the police suspect is guilty, and that you haven’t got a theory after all?”
Beef chuckled in his most irritating way.
“Hadn’t you both better wait till you’ve heard what I’ve got to say? I only said there was truth in what we’ve just heard.  And there is.  Any amount of truth.  But what I don’t like about it is that it leaves so much unaccounted for.  If you don’t mind my saying so, Inspector, you’ve chosen your bits of evidence to suit your theory.  And I don’t believe in doing that.  I like a theory which covers all the evidence, not bits here and there.  It’s not to say that you aren’t right enough in most of what you say.  But what about Miss Shoulter’s old shoes?  And the shot at six-fifteen?  And what Bridge saw Chickle doing in his garden?  And the marks the Boy Scouts found on the tree? There’s an awful lot you don’t account for.”
“I thought this was coming,” said Chatto.  “Go on.  You’d better tell us.  Whom do you suspect?”
Beef sucked his moustache.
“I shall have to tell you the story in my own way,” he said.
Chatto leaned back in his chair.
“Go ahead,” he invited.