Case for Sergeant Beef
JOURNAL OF WELLINGTON CHICKLE
I met Flipp and his wife to-day. Another piece of luck—Flipp is fond of shooting and goes down to the marshes, somewhere Rye way I gather, for duck when he can get petrol for his car. Hasn’t done much since the war, but says he has a 12-bore. So that’s three in the district—mine, Miss Shoulter’s, and his. It begins to look as though the whole thing is being made too easy for me.
Flipp is a big man who is in some business in London which does not take too much of his time. He goes up to town twice or three times a week, I gather, and does not worry if he misses even that. If it is of any interest I can easily find out the nature of this business. He looks more like a farmer, a heavy hard-drinking man, who swears too much, even using rather strong language in the presence of his wife. She, poor woman, looks anæmic, a frost-bitten unhappy creature very much under Flipp’s thumb.
I met them on the road on their side of the wood. I was taking a leisurely stroll and they came striding up behind me as though they were soldiers marching, at least Flipp walked like that and his wife hurried along beside him as though she was afraid of being left behind.
“You’ve just come to live at that bungalow with the silly name, haven’t you?” was Flipp’s greeting to me. I shewed no annoyance.
“Good afternoon,” I said, raising my hat. “Yes, I have just come to live here. I suppose ‘Labour’s End’ does sound rather an odd name, but in my case it’s appropriate, you know. My labours are ended, you see.”
“Lucky man,” said Flipp. “How d’you like Barnford?”
“Charming. Charming,” I told him.
Think so? Bloody awful hole, I think. Cold and damp.”
“I must say I haven’t found it so,” I said.
“But you haven’t spent a winter here yet, Mr. Chickle,” his wife put in as though she had to say something.
“That’s very true,” I smiled.
“Better come in and have a cup of tea,” said Flipp. “Our place is just up the road.”
“I should be delighted. I wonder what made you come here if you think so little of the place?” He did not seem to like that question and answered it rather gruffly.
“Edith Shoulter found the place for us.”
“Oh, you knew Miss Shoulter before you came here?” I asked. I was naturally interested.
“Known her for years,” grunted Flipp. “That’s our place you can see ahead of you.” And he began to take even longer strides so that I was quite out of breath when we arrived at “Woodlands”.
The first thing I noticed in the hall was his gun—a 12-bore.
“Fond of shooting?” I asked casually.
It was then that he told me about the duck. I pretended to be only politely interested and soon changed the subject to gardening.
It was six o'clock when I got back to “Labour’s End”, having refused a drink from Flipp before leaving. I found that the afternoon’s post had come in and there was a letter from the owner of Deadman’s Wood. He says that he cannot honestly ask anything but a nominal rent for the shooting since I shall find nothing but a few rabbits, but if I like to send him a fiver each season I am welcome to pot what I like over his ground. I chuckled at the phrase “pot what I like”. He would be surprised if he knew its full implications for me.
It is past midsummer now, and a long time since I added anything to my Journal. The truth of the matter is I am in something of a quandary. My scheme seems to be losing its most essential quality, that of spontaneity. Willy-nilly I find myself making plans, just as lesser murderers must have done. I have to keep reminding myself that the secret of my success will lie in the casual nature of the enterprise. I still maintain that if I just go out and kill someone, anyone, without an elaborate design, I shall be safe from discovery; but that if I begin to play with strategy I shall call attention to myself. The trouble is that the ordinary precautions need so much forethought.
I remember when I was a boy at school we used to be given essays on set subjects—“Duty”, “A Day in the Country”, and so on. A teacher told us one week to write an essay on any subject we liked. At first the very thought of this was thrilling. What scope! What a choice! But as we sat down to think it over, hesitating between one subject and another, each so attractive, we found it almost impossible to decide. I spent two days puzzling my head over it, and in the end did my essay on “A Day in the Country” or “Duty”, or one of the old stock subjects, I forget which. It’s like that now. I have a complete choice of time, place, method, and victim, and I find myself veering round inevitably to precedent, to planning my alibi and foreseeing police inquiries just as other murderers must have done.
However, other murderers had not the genius with which I approach the problem.
The gun for instance. Suppose I just shoot a stranger at that point on the path I have chosen. Well, it might have been Flipp with his gun, or anyone else with Flipp’s gun, Miss Shoulter with her gun, or someone else with her gun, or someone using my gun, or someone altogether different with another gun. Nothing anyway to suggest that it could be me.
But another more interesting possibility occurs. Suppose the stranger, whoever he is, is found with a gun beside him from which both barrels have been fired, and suppose there are strings attached to the triggers and his fingerprints on the barrels, who could possibly suggest that it wasn’t suicide? After all, I could make sure that I shot him from in front and at very close range—and that would conform perfectly. Everybody, for some queer reason, is more ready to believe in a man taking his own life than someone else’s.
What about the gun, in that case? It mustn’t be mine, that’s certain. But it could very easily be either Miss Shoulter’s or Flipp’s. Both keep them very carelessly. With any luck I could come into possession of one or the other a week or so before the Great Day. The chances are that they would never even notice that the gun had gone, and if they did and reported it, well, I can always postpone the murder and start on a wholly different tack. It’s all getting very interesting, and I scarcely ever need to read at night now. I just sit in the garden and dream of my triumph.
Yes, that’s how I’ll do it. It’s all clear now. A fortnight before the provisional date I’ll get hold of either Miss Shoulter’s or Flipp’s 12-bore. This I will hide under the leaves in Deadman’s Wood, wrapped up in an old piece of mackintosh I have. Then, on the appointed day, I will await my victim. If he comes, that is to say if anyone who is a stranger to me comes down the path, I will do it. If not, I will wait till another day, or another, till just the right person comes at just the right time. Then I will get him quite near me. I can think of many ways of doing that. I could pretend to have sprained my ankle and be flat on the ground waiting till he came close to me. Or I could shew him something I was going to shoot and as he is looking let off the two barrels in his face. Half a dozen ways. Then get the other gun out of hiding and fix up the string as though he had shot himself.
Or maybe I might actually shoot him with the other gun. Why not? I should rather like to use my own trusty old 12-bore, but it would save an extra shot to use the other, because it would have to be fired off, anyway. I will consider” the pros and cons of this. But anyway, that’s the broad idea.
As soon as autumn comes I shall start going for a stroll with my gun every evening towards dusk, and bringing home a rabbit or two. This must be known as my daily custom. I must let off a few shots, too, even if I don’t see a rabbit so that people get used to the sound of a gun. And, of course, I shall have to take the normal precautions—footprints, fingerprints, and so on. Those will be child’s play to me. And the question of time—I’ll be careful of that. I shall have to make sure that a shot is fired after I’ve come in for the evening. At present I don’t quite see how I’ll do that, but I shall think of a way.
September already. How this summer has flown. I think time does pass quickly, though, when one has some absorbing interest.
I’ve had a brilliant idea during the last few days. It is about the gun. I realized that a shot must be heard in the wood after I had returned to “Labour’s End” on the Great Day. How could I be sure of this? My idea is simple, but very effective. Suppose a gun were fixed to the branch of a tree a little way into the wood, and a ball of thin strong string passed round the trigger. All I would need to do would be to pull the string while I actually remained at “Labour’s End”. Complicated? Not a bit. The place for the gun would be about ten paces into the wood, far enough away for the report to come from the wood. I am quite sure Mrs. Pluck could not gauge the actual distance. She would simply say she heard a shot in the wood. It must be in a straight line from the house—I don’t want my string passing over anything. As for the string—its length inside the wood is no problem at all—I could ‘lay’ it on the night before the murder. The length of string across the lawn would be another matter. That afternoon I would be planning and laying out flower-beds and have a line running right across from my window to the wood, marking the edge of a path or a bed, or whatever you please. When it grew dusk I would tie this line to the double ends of the string already round the trigger of the gun. I would remain in the garden and look in at the window of the room to call Mrs. Pluck. “Oh, Mrs. Pluck,” I would say, “have you the right time? Half-past six? Thank you.” Then I would pull my line and away in the wood there would be a report. “Someone shooting,” I would smile. “They’ve no right to, but let it pass. A rabbit or two won’t hurt us, will it, Mrs. Pluck?” And later, when the body is found and it is believed that the man had been shot that afternoon—well, there’s my alibi! Simple, isn’t it?
Of course I shall remark to Mrs. Pluck that I’ve stupidly left my line in the garden. “Must bring it in,” I’ll say. “Someone might trip over it.” Always the considerate old gentleman, you see. Then I’ll pop out and draw in the garden line and by drawing only one side of the double string pull in the other one from the gun. Then all I’ll have to do is to go out that evening and get the gun or bring it back next day. Wait, though. I can choose my day. So it will be on Mrs. Pluck’s evening out, and when she has gone to the pictures over at Ashley—as she always does—I’ll bring the gun in. Splendid. I'm beginning to enjoy this.