Case for Sergeant Beef, Chapter Twenty-Eight

Case for Sergeant Beef


“I first began to take an interest in Mr. Wellington Chickle,” announced Beef portentously, “when I found him reading one of Townsend’s books.  I thought there must be something funny about a man that would do that for pleasure.  And when I examined his library and found that every book in it was about crime I was certain that I was on to something.  Not just crime novels, mind you, but legal books and technical books that could only be of interest, anyone would think, to a detective, a criminal lawyer, or a murderer.”
Beef paused and stared at each of us in turn, as though to mark the effect of his words.  On Chatto this was practically nil.  I felt a little pardonable irritation.
“Then there was his name.  That struck me as peculiar.  I mean, you just fancy going through life with a name like that.  Think of the kids at school.  And the fellows you’d meet later.  Nothing short of cruel to send a lad through life with a label tagged on to him that was enough to make a laughing-stock of him.  You never know what effect it will have either.  I don’t go much on psychology and that, but if half of what I’ve read is true, the name Wellington Chickle’s enough to give a man a neurosis, a couple of fixations, and half a dozen complexes.  And in this case it worked out a treat.
“All the same, though I noticed these two things about Mr. Chickle, and a lot more later which I’ll tell you about, all of which seemed to point to him in connexion with the crime, I was stumped for one thing.  And that was a thing which you had very strongly for your suspect, Inspector.  A motive.  I could not see what possible reason this little man with the funny name could have for bumping off a fellow who.  to the best of my knowledge and belief, was a complete stranger to him.  Not, that is, until yesterday, when I met his lifelong friend and heard a lot about him which I’d only suspected before.  He had a motive, but it was one of the queerest ones I’ve ever heard for a crime.”
Beef became irritatingly silent till Chatto prompted him.
“Have you ever heard of Art for Art’s sake?” Beef went on at last.  “Well, that’s what Wellington Chickle’s idea was—murder for murder’s sake.  What he wanted to do was to kill someone.  No one in particular.  Just anyone.  You heard what Flusting said?  He meant to leave his mark on the world.  And into his distorted little mind had come the idea that the surest way to do this was to commit a murder.  Madness?  Well, yes, if you like.  But to my mind anyone who wants to leave his mark on the world’s a madman, however he proposes to do it.  This was just worse than others.
“That’s where Flusting’s story was valuable.  I could not see that Chickle.  could have had any reason for planning Shoulter’s death.  And the answer was that he had not.  He hadn’t planned Shoulter’s death, but the death of the first man who came down that path that afternoon.  But let’s get back to the beginning and see what he did plan, and how it all happened.
“The key to the whole thing is that Chickle decided, I think more than a year ago, to commit a murder.  You must give me that or else what I’m going to tell you doesn’t mean anything.  He had retired from business with a nice bit of money to last him the rest of his days.  And he wanted to do something that would have made a name for him.  He might have gone into politics and no harm done.  Or he might have took up some hobby and got himself famous.  Instead of that he decided to go in for murder.  Well, tastes differ.  One man’s drink is another man’s poison, as you might well say.
“He admitted to me that he’d been down to Barnford years ago and probably remembered that footpath through the woods as a likely place.  He soon found the ideal spot, but what does the crazy little fellow do but start practising—dodging down behind the fallen tree and that and looking a proper fool when the parson comes on him at his tricks, besides putting ideas into Flipp’s head.  But he hasn’t yet thought out how he’ll do it and he’s just playing with the idea of a gun when Miss Shoulter asks him slap out if he likes shooting, and he’s told a lie before he knows where he is.  He wasn’t very clever, really, you know.  Thought he was, no doubt.  Big ideas of himself as a murderer who would never be found out.  But he made some stupid slips.
“Then he came round to the idea of a gun, rented the bit of shooting in Deadman’s Wood, and made a habit of walking about there with a twelve-bore.  His reason was obvious.  When the day came and he used his gun, if he was seen it would be no more than his everyday habit.  No one would think nothing about it.
“I think he made a mistake, just as you think Flipp made a mistake, in planning to make it look like suicide.  That was just adding complications where none were needed.  If he had just shot his man, any man, and relied on the absolute absence of any motive to clear him, and not started larking about with red tape and that, he’d have been better off.  Because as soon as he decided to make it look like suicide he was up against the problem of a gun.  He could not leave his own gun beside the dead man.  So he decided to pinch that old one of Edith Shoulter’s which always stood in a corner of the hall.  Wasn’t difficult, of course.  Since he’d got everyone in the habit of seeing him with a gun.  All he had to do was to go to the house one day without one and come away with it.  Which he did.
“Then he would need a cord of some kind with which the dead man would have been supposed to have pulled the trigger of the gun with his foot—the usual method of suicides who shoot themselves.  He was careful enough to realize that it was just such a thing as a piece of cord that gives murderers away, so he hit on the idea of red tape and stole a spool of it from the nearest lawyer’s office.
“Finally there was a shot which had to be heard when he had a clear alibi.  The shot which was actually to kill his man was easy enough, he would innocently say that he had taken a pot at a rabbit.  But the shot that was to be supposed to be the fatal one was a different matter.  He had to fix that.  And it was only luck, really, that I got on to the way he done that—just young Bridge happening to notice him tying his garden line on to a line going off into the wood, and Mrs. Pluck mentioning that he was out on the lawn getting in his measuring line when she heard the shot at six-fifteen.  You notice, too, that whereas Chickle spoke of it as far off in the wood, she was positive it was close at hand.  And Edith Shoulter who heard the other shots never noticed this one at all, so far from her house was it.  In fact it was in the tree which the Scouts found.
“But there was what seemed like some luck with Chickle, too, during the days in which he was preparing for his crime.  That pair of shoes of Edith Shoulter’s which she sent to the Jumble Sale.  He seized that opportunity at once.  I was certain it was he who had worn the shoes, because Mrs. Pluck noticed the change in him from the time he came in from his walk that day.  He had obviously had the shock.  Yet none of his footprints approached the clearing.  Even if he wasn’t guilty, how could he have known that there was anything wrong if he hadn’t worn those shoes to go to the clearing?  And we know that they had passed into his possession.  This was later confirmed when I told him that the Boy Scouts were going to search the woods next day and he went out to recover the shoes from their hiding-place and tried to drop them out of sight when he saw us approaching.  When he had had time to realize that I knew what he was carrying, he told another lie and said that they were an interesting find of his by the side of the path during his evening constitutional—at nearly midnight on a dirty wet night.
“It was pretty carefully planned, wasn’t it?” said Beef, as though Wellington Chickle’s preparations were a matter for his, Beef’s, personal pride.
“M’m,” said Chatto.
“You see your theory doesn’t really, account for a good many things, does it?”
“What do you expect me to do then?” asked Chatto.  “Release Flipp, or charge him with the murder of his wife, and pin the murder of Shoulter on Chickle?”
Beef suddenly stood up and answered with all the emphasis he could command.
“Not without you want to make the biggest bloomer ever you made in your life!” he almost shouted.
“But you’ve just been proving Chickle’s guilt. . . .”
“I’ve just been proving that Chickle set out that afternoon to commit a murder.  And I still say so.  The nasty, half-crazy, conceited little jack-in-the-box meant to kill the first person as he came down that footpath.  There was only one thing stopped him.”
“And that?”
“It had been done already, see?  He’d come on a real murder.  I was almost going to say a man’s murder.  A murder which had had a motive to it and been done against a blackmailer by his victim.  As he walked up the path he came smack on the body of Shoulter whom Flipp had killed half an hour before.”
“So I was right,” gasped Chatto.
“Of course you was right in thinking Flipp had done it.  Only you’d got the rest of it boxed up.  When Chickle saw that, and right in the very spot where he had been going to do it, it gave him a nasty turn.  For one thing he didn’t know but what he might be suspected more when he hadn’t done it than when he had.  And he decided to carry out his original plan and fix up a suicide.  As he had planned it he no doubt meant to get his victim near his gun-barrel by some trick, so that no expert in the world couldn’t have told but what the dead man hadn’t leaned over his own gun.  He could only hope that the real murderer had done the same.  By the look of what was left of Shoulter’s head, he certainly had.  Anyway he chanced it.  He dragged the body to the fallen log and carried out his plan with the gun he had taken from Edith Shoulter and the tape he’d got from Aston’s office, fired off the gun and went home to tea.  At least, he’d said to himself, it was a stranger.  You can imagine what a shock it was to him that evening when young Jack Ribbon came in and said it was Edith Shoulter’s brother.  Of course he’d never seen him, but it brought the thing rather to his doorstep.”
I put in a question.
“What makes you so sure of this?” I asked Beef.  “How can you tell for certain that it wasn’t Chickle who committed the murder as well as faking the suicide?”
“Times, for one thing.  Bridge saw Flipp at the clearing at about three to three-fifteen.  He passed Shoulter a few minutes later and heard a shot, presumably from the clearing, a few minutes later still.  If that wasn’t the shot which killed Shoulter it means that Shoulter sat waiting at the clearing for an hour till Chickle came to shoot him at four-fifteen.  And that’s silly.  There were only three pairs of shots.  Those by which Shoulter was murdered at three-fifteen say, those by which the gun was made to look as though it had been used for suicide at about four-fifteen or four-thirty, and those which we know came from Chickle’s contrivance in the tree soon after six.  Now when the first shots were fired Chickle was still in his garden.  Bridge saw him there.  So he could not have done it.  Simple, isn’t it?
“Besides, there’s another matter.  From that afternoon onwards Chickle became depressed, and frequently said that he had ‘failed’.  Why?  Precisely because he had failed.  He found he could not even commit a murder.  It smashed his rotten little ego altogether, until at last he wrote I have failed on a piece of paper and hanged himself in Flipp’s stables.  Flipp’s, mind you.  Flipp was the man the police suspected, the man whom Chickle either knew or guessed to be guilty, and therefore the man who had done Chickle out of his murder and the man whom he hated most.  So if he could do him a bit of harm he wanted to.  ‘I’m going to Mr. Flipp’s’, he told his housekeeper twice, and went up there.
“It’s imagination you need, Townsend,” went on Beef as he eyed me solemnly.  “Imagination.  You’ve got to be able to put yourself even in the place of a little rat like Chickle if you want to know what he’ll do next.  It’s no easy task sometimes.  But it’s very often how I work my cases out.  Imagination and plenty of common sense, and you can’t go far wrong in detection.”
There was another long silence, which Beef at last broke.
“Quite satisfied?” he asked us.
Chatto for his part said frankly that Beef had done a fine piece of work.  I was less easily pleased.
“It’s all very well,” I grumbled.  “But you know what’s expected of you—a big surprise in the last chapter.  I can see that you’ve done well in tumbling to Wellington Chickle, but when all’s said and done, whom do you point out as the guilty man?  The one the police have suspected all along!”
Beef grinned.
“Well?” he said.  “You wanted a surprise, didn’t you?  And I don’t know what this is, if it isn’t one.  The police ‘suspect’ guilty!  It’s never been known to happen before in all the history of detective fiction.  He’s the one man that the most hardened reader never suspects.  You’re safe this time, my lad.  You write it up and see.”
He laboriously stood up and stretched himself.
“Well, I don’t know about, you gentlemen,” he said.  “But I’m going to have a tumble down the sink.  I think I’ve deserved it.  Four pints please, Mr. Bristling.”
“None for me, thanks,” said Constable Watts-Dunton primly.
“That’s all right then,” said Beef irrepressibly.  “I can manage yours.  Cheer-o, everyone.”
With an expert fist he tilted his tankard.