Case for Sergeant Beef
JOURNAL OF WELLINGTON CHICKLE
Another piece of luck has come my way, this time of a rather amusing kind. That pasty-faced curate came and asked me if I could manage to look in at the Jumble Sale at the Village Hall, and true to my benevolent character I agreed. There was the usual litter of rubbish—old books and clothes and ugly vases—and the usual crowd of tiresome people trying to find something on which they could spend a few shillings without wasting them.
There was a stall for old clothes over which the curate’s sister, a plain and meaty girl who resembles her brother, was presiding. Right in front of her I saw a clothes-basket full of old boots and shoes, and on top of them a pair of the most enormous woman’s walking shoes I have ever seen. They must have been size twelve at least, though there was a pretence of the feminine in their design. Under them was a pair of carpet slippers of my own size which I picked up and in which I pretended to take an interest.
“How much are these?” I asked, though my brain was already busy with a new idea suggested to me by the woman’s shoes.
“Well, we were rather hoping to sell the whole basketful. As a lot, you know,” said the curate’s sister.
Just what I hoped.
“Oh, dear!'” I said good-humouredly. “Whatever should I do with all these? How much would they be?”
“We hoped to get a sovereign, with the basket.”
“I think I could manage that,” I said, and gave her a pound note.
“It’s very good of you,” grinned the curate’s sister. “All in a good cause, you know.'
Just as I was going away I picked up one of the woman’s shoes.
“That’s a big size,” I said. “I wonder who wore those?”
The curate’s sister seemed to enjoy the mild malice in her reply.
“Miss Shoulter,” she whispered. “Huge feet. Haven’t you noticed?”
“No, I haven’t,” I said with just a suggestion of rebuke in my voice. “I never notice that sort of thing.'
But my head was singing with excitement. Now I shan’t even leave tracks on the Great Day. My feet will go into these easily and I’ll keep them in the wood ready. On the afternoon I’ll change into them for the task itself, then back into my own when it’s over. The police, if they manage to find any footprints, will only know that Miss Shoulter has been near the scene of the crime.
So now I have defence in depth. The first line is suicide. The second Miss Shoulter. No one can even break through to my citadel. And there’s always Flipp who has the same kind of gun.
Every day now I conscientiously take my walk in the afternoon with my gun. Now and again I get a rabbit and I’ve shot one pheasant already. I have met almost everybody in the course of these walks—Flipp and his wife, Miss Shoulter, the curate, the postman and a number of other people. Everyone knows that it’s the custom of that nice old gentleman Mr. Chickle to take a stroll with his gun in the afternoon. Just as it should be.
The chief problem now is that of getting hold of Miss Shoulter’s gun. So easy, and yet a matter for great care. A slip over that would be disastrous—not for my safety but for the success of the present scheme.
She keeps it in the little front hall of her house. I consider that most reprehensible, really. A firearm is not a thing to leave lying about. But there it is, leant against the wall as though it were a walking-stick. All I have to do is to pick it up as I leave the house and walk away with it. No one seeing me on my way back to “Labour’s End'” would find anything odd in it—indeed, it would be the most normal thing since they would not dream that it was not my gun. And if by any chance Miss Shoulter herself should see me, or miss the gun so soon after my call that its disappearance would seem connected with me— then all I have to do is to plead absent-mindedness. “How silly of me. I’m so accustomed to carrying a gun. Must have picked yours up by mistake.”
I shall have to become very friendly with Miss Shoulter, though. On ‘popping-in’ terms. I shall have to make her so accustomed to my visits that she won’t even bother to see me out. That will be rather a bore. Her house is painfully untidy. She keeps no servant and her dining-room table nearly always has an opened tin on it. And she shouts so that conversation is trying. But she’s a good-natured woman. It won’t be difficult to establish the kind of relationship I need.
Of course, when I do take the gun, if anything goes wrong I postpone the whole scheme and then think of a new method altogether. No chances for me. But if she misses it a few days later and informs the police, all the better. They will have to discover after the murder how it came into the possession of the man who apparently shot himself with it. That’s just the sort of thing that will suit the police. They’ll work out some sort of theory to account for it, you may be sure.
Another thing I have to obtain in a way which will prevent its being connected with me is some kind of string, cord, tape, or ribbon with which to fake the suicide. You see how careful I am? Just that piece of cord could hang a man. And I’ve had a delightful idea about this, too. Red Tape! My victim shall be killed with red tape, just as it will be the red tape of the police force which will prevent his murderer being caught.
There’s a lawyer in Ashley, and in a few days’ time I will call on him and arrange a new will. I suppose I shall have to leave my money to my cousin’s son, Rudolph Gooding. But I’ll find a few improbable charities to endow with some of it. Gooding is such a prim conventional young man, engaged to an equally prim and colourless girl. He would never have the imagination to spend a large sum of money at all happily. But for the sake of form I will leave him the bulk.
Now while I’m in the solicitor’s office I can surely find some red tape. I’ve often seen those little spools of it on lawyers’ tables. If I don’t see any lying about—well, it will just be too bad. I’ll think of something else. As I assure myself again, there’s no hurry. And red tape will add such a picturesque, such an ironic touch to my murder. Quite a treat for the crime reporters.
I think Christmas Eve would be a good time. Unless, of course, there is snow. I do not want a so-called white Christmas; it would shew altogether too much of my movements. But if it’s suitable weather, that would make a very good date, and another idea for the reporters.
All my preliminary preparations are made now, and we’re still in November. Everyone is accustomed to seeing me with a gun and to hearing shots in Deadman’s Wood. Miss Shoulter is so accustomed to my looking in on one pretext or another that she always leaves me to ‘see myself out’ as she calls it. (Actually, I think she thinks I’m in love with her, poor woman.) Flipp and his wife call on her nearly as often, and all three come to see me. The shoes are locked up in a trunk in my room. And Mrs. Pluck can be relied on to notice any time at which anything happens, besides being accustomed to seeing me ‘planning the garden’ with a line on two pegs which I’m always moving about as I discuss new flowerbeds and paths. In another week’s time I can start really active measures.
I’ve got the gun! It was really too easy.
Of course, I took the greatest care. I did not leave my home without a gun, you may be sure. I took my 12-bore, walked slowly away from “Labour’s End,” as I always do, and went to a spot in the wood I had already decided on. There I wrapped my gun in an old sheet of mackintosh and concealed it in the undergrowth. I walked on to Miss Shoulter’s bungalow and found her very busy with a revolting new litter of pups. Also, she was concerned because her brother is expected this evening. I chatted for about ten minutes, then rose politely.
“I can see you’re busy,” I said. “So I won’t waste your time. I do hope the puppies thrive. No, don’t you move. You know I can see myself out.”
I left her kneeling on the floor with her dogs, carefully closed the door of her sitting-room and walked away as unconcernedly as you please with her gun under my arm. I did not meet a soul on my way to the place where my gun was hidden—not that it would have mattered if I had, for nobody could tell one gun from another. Then I unwrapped my gun, and wrapping hers left it there. I was home at my usual time. It only remains to see how soon she misses it. Personally, I doubt if she will, until her attention is called to its absence by events. Those events! Not far away now.
And now I’ve got the red tape, too. I wonder why it’s called red? It isn’t red at all, but pink. However, I’ve got a dozen yards of it.
I called on Aston, the lawyer, by appointment yesterday. I found that he has only two rooms, his own and one where his solitary clerk sits, with two extra chairs for clients, I suppose. I sat in one of these waiting while Aston got rid of an imaginary visitor, and passed the time by chatting with the clerk. We earnestly discussed the weather and shortages of food and fuel. Then, touching some documents which were bound with the stuff, I asked whether that was what lawyers called red tape.
“Yes, indeed,” he said.
“But it’s not red at all,” I ventured.
“No. Pink, isn’t it?”
“Do you really use much of it?” I asked. “Or is that just a joke in the comic papers?”
“We do use quite a bit,” he admitted.
“How is it sold to you?”
He pulled open a drawer and revealed a dozen or so spools of the stuff. He handed one to me to look at. I glanced at it but, seeming to lose interest, handed it back to him.
“I see,” I said indifferently. “I should prefer paper-clips myself.” Then I went off into a long discussion on stationery.
But when the buzzer went and he hurried through to Aston’s office my hand was in the drawer in a moment. And now I have a nice new spool of red tape.
After that the making of my will was almost pleasant. I’ve left sums of money to half a dozen obscure charities and £100 to Mrs. Pluck if she’s still in my service. The rest to Rudolph Gooding.
Tomorrow will be December 20th. I am getting very excited as the day draws near. I went to see Miss Shoulter today for the first time since the afternoon on which I took the gun. Her brother had come and gone, she said, adding that she was sorry I hadn’t met him. It appears that he is coming again for Christmas. About the gun she said nothing, though I gave her a lead by mentioning reported thefts in the district. I feel sure she does not know it has gone. How easy everything is made for me!