Case for Sergeant Beef
“What you want to know, of course,” began Inspector Chatto, “is what makes us think it was murder. That’s simple enough. The corpse was found with a length of red tape round his foot which was attached to the trigger of the gun. The inference being that he held the gun in an upright position, leaned over it and fired it with his foot. His head in that case could not have been more than eighteen inches at the most away from the gun. Now, if you care to read the medical evidence and the report of the ballistics expert you will find that in point of fact the gun was at least four yards, possibly more, from Shoulter when it was fired.”
Beef nodded knowingly.
“That makes it murder,” he said. “That’s good. I do hate suicide. Nasty panicky little crime. What else did the experts have to say?”
“Not a great deal. The doctor did not see the body until early on Christmas morning. He could not say more than that the man had been dead for anything from nine to sixteen hours, that is to say that Shoulter was killed between one p.m. and eight o’clock on Christmas Eve.”
“Not very helpful.”
“The bullet man was better. You can be pretty accurate when it’s a shot-gun. The spread of the shot and so on. He believes that Shoulter was coming up the path, that is to say walking from Barnford towards Copling. That would be his quickest way from Barnford to his sister’s bungalow. The man who shot him was hidden on the wood side of a little clearing beside the path. You can see the place. There’s a fallen tree there which would make excellent cover. When Shoulter was about level with the murderer he probably looked towards him, because he got both barrels in his face. His distance in that case would be just four yards. Then the murderer must have rigged the thing to look like suicide. He had some red tape in his pocket and tied it round the barrel and made a loop for the man’s foot. Then he dragged the corpse across the clearing and dumped it behind the tree. There was evidence of the body being dragged across the wet, sticky ground.”
“Did you see that yourself?” asked Beef.
“Yes. Constable Watts-Dunton here had the sense to get me out at once, though it was Christmas Day. When I came to have a look at the place I found everything untouched since the crime, except just for the footprints of young Jack Ribbon who found the body at eleven-thirty on Christmas Eve. It was very useful. There was no doubt about the body having been dragged across the clearing, though very determined efforts had been made to destroy the marks of dragging.”
“Footprints, you said,” prompted Beef.
“Yes. They were interesting. There were the dead man’s coming from Barnford and stopping short on the footpath about half-way across the clearing. There were Jack Ribbon’s coming from Barnford and turning off to go to the tree on which he sat down for a smoke that night before he found the corpse. And the only other ones were—guess!”
“Joe Bridge’s,” I said at once, remembering how astutely I had already secured his name as a suspect.
Chatto positively goggled at me.
“What makes you say that?” he asked.
“Never mind Mr. Townsend,” said Beef rudely. “He’d say anything.”
“I’m interested,” the inspector told him. “We have heard about this young Joe Bridge. Had a row with Shoulter, didn’t he? Know any more?”
I had to admit that at present I did not know any more.
“Well, there were some of Bridge’s. But it looked as though he had simply walked down the path from Copling. There were some more interesting ones than that. The footprints we particularly noticed were those of Miss Shoulter, the dead man’s sister. And your client,” he added with a rather malicious smile.
“Were they new?” said Beef. “When had it rained last?”
“Night of the twenty-third – twenty-fourth,” said Chatto. “These had all been made on Christmas Eve. Of course,” he conceded as though he wanted to be kind. “Of course the clearing could have been approached by other ways which would have left no footprints at all. You could come up between the trees and if you were careful and avoided patches of mud you wouldn’t need to leave a mark.”
“I see. Now what about this Shoulter?”
“The dope on him is coming in every day. Masses of it. No good at all. Goes in for professional punting and has been mixed up with some pretty shady lots on the racecourse. Started as a chemist. Was bookie’s clerk for a time. A drunk and a sponger. He was a parents’ darling as a child and when the old people died went rotten. Ran through what they left him and did his best to get the little bit left to his sister. One report says that he’s not above blackmail. No loss, and anybody’s victim.”
“How long had he been in Barnford?”
“Arrived that morning from London on a train that gets in at two-fifty. Too late for a drink, but went to the back door of the Feathers and asked the landlord, a man named Brown, if he could have one. Brown says he refused and that Shoulter walked off at once. But of course we can’t be sure about that. He may have sat there drinking all the afternoon. We only know for certain that he came off the train at two-fifty. No one except Brown admits to having seen him alive again.”
“I see,” said Beef. “That’s all very clear and interesting.”
“There’s a lot more stuff,” said Chatto.
“Yes. I was just going to ask about the gun.”
“Your client’s again,” smiled Chatto. “But she did report to the police about seven days before the crime that she had lost it. Taken from her front hall. Says she had no idea when it went. The last time she had seen it to her knowledge was when her brother had been down a month ago. He had taken it out one afternoon to try and get a rabbit. She can’t be sure that he put it back in its usual place in the hall. She only knows that about a week before Christmas she noticed that it wasn’t there. She asked young Ribbon and he said that he hadn’t seen it for some days. The last time he positively remembers seeing it was when she told him to clean it once in October. He put it back after that.”
“What about cartridges?”
“Potter’s Fesantsure were in the gun,” said Chatto. “The local firm, Warlock’s of Ashley, say that they supplied these to most of the people round here who had licences. That includes Miss Shoulter, a man named Flipp who lives in the wood, a retired watchmaker named Chickle who lives at a bungalow called ‘Labour’s End’ at the Barnford end of the footpath through the wood, a solicitor named Aston with an office in Ashley and a bungalow at Copling, and your friend Joe Bridge.”
“Any interesting fingerprints?”
“None. The gun had been wiped dry and then gripped by the dead man, presumably after death by someone holding his hand round the barrel. None on anything else that we’ve found. Gloves, of course.”
“Any idea when the shots were fired?”
“Pretty contradictory. Both Flipp and a woman named Mrs. Pluck who is housekeeper to Chickle, whose first name, by the way, is Wellington—”
“Wellington?” shouted Beef.
“Wellington. After the Iron Duke.”
“Blimey, you haven’t half got some names round here.” And he gave a rude stare at Watts-Dunton.
“I was saying that Mrs. Pluck, Flipp, Chickle himself and Miss Shoulter say they heard a double shot at about twenty past three. Mrs. Pluck, Miss Shoulter, and Flipp heard the same thing about an hour later, but Chickle says that was himself potting at a hare. Then Chickle and Mrs. Pluck, but not Miss Shoulter or Flipp, heard another shot, which might have been two barrels fired simultaneously, at exactly six-five. They’re sure about the time as Chickle was putting away his gardening things just then and called Mrs. Pluck’s attention to the fact that someone was poaching.”
Mm. Now what I’d like to know is this. Suppose Shoulter was shot with the gun he was holding, is there anything to make us certain of that? Could he have been shot with one gun, then this one discharged and put by him by the murderer?”
“He could. Nothing to prevent it. But no reason to think so. Why should the murderer use two guns?”
“I was wondering perhaps whether Shoulter borrowed his sister’s gun last time he was down and had it with him that afternoon. She can’t swear to seeing it since he was in the house before. The murder might have been done with another gun, then this one fired off in the air and used to fake the suicide.”
“Conceivable,” agreed Chatto. “And it had occurred to me. There’s nothing final against it, but two reasons why I don’t think it’s likely. First the ticket-collector remembers seeing Shoulter when he got off the train but does not remember his having a gun. He says he believes he had a golf bag, so I admit it could have been in that, but it doesn’t seem very likely. However, I still have an open mind. The second reason is that none of the double reports heard came near enough to one another. I mean, if he was going to fake it to look like suicide he—or she—would surely attend to that at once. There was nearly an hour between the first double report and the second, and an hour and a half between the second and third.”
“Of course,” said Beef slowly. “If it was premeditated, and someone knew Shoulter would be coming off that train and walking up to his sister’s house, he could have fired the barrels of Miss Shoulter’s gun the day before in readiness.”
“True—though there are a lot of ifs. And why would he do that? Why not use the gun first for the murder, then leave it there for the faked suicide?”
“No reason. I was just looking all round, if you know what I mean. How about alibis?”
“Well, we haven’t touched on that much, as we haven’t got a suspect yet. Of the people who lived round about, for what they’re worth, very few have an alibi for much of the time and none for all of the time. Miss Shoulter went out on her bicycle at about four and says she went to Copling (which you can reach by road from her place). She went to post a letter and can’t remember whom she may have met, if anyone. Joe Bridge was with his cowman till about five, then drove off in his car. He was in the Crown soon after opening-time, which is six o’clock around here. Aston, the solicitor—”
“Why have you got him in?” asked Beef.
“Well, he has a gun, some Fesantsure cartridges, and he is a solicitor.”
“But that doesn’t make him a murderer, surely? Though I dare say there’s many a solicitor must feel like murder with the silly things people come to them with.”
“No. But it does mean that he might have had red tape in his pocket,” said Chatto, and left this to sink in.
“Yes,” said Beef after a moment. “And who else?”
“Little Mr. Chickle left his house at three-thirty, and was back at ten to five. His housekeeper’s a sort of walking alarm clock, and notices all his times of coming and going. Then Mrs. Pluck went off to the pictures in Ashley at six-thirty and young Jack Ribbon finished work at four. Flipp has no one to testify to his movements at all. His wife’s away and he’d let their servants, two sisters from Ashley, go home for Christmas. Says it was his only chance of keeping them for another month or two. He says he was indoors all day. Never left his house at all. Of course you understand these are not our suspects. They’re really the only people whose movements could seem of the least possible interest. You may find some more whom we’ve not yet come on.”
“Who are your suspects?” asked Beef.
“Frankly,” he said at last, “we haven’t any. Of course, Miss Shoulter’s footprints do take some explaining, and she’s not helpful She says that she never used the footpath that day. The only time she went out was on her cycle. Quite positive about it, she is. A very downright woman. But I don’t suspect her. I cannot see what possible motive she could have had. Shoulter had no money. And she appears to have been quite fond of the wretched man.”
“Then the police,” I put in with a disarming smile, “are what the newspapers called baffled?”
“That’s about it,” said Chatto complacently. “But I think we shall get at something from the other end, as it were. When we’ve learnt all there is to learn about the dead man we shall know that someone here had a motive. We shall start from there. Motive’s the thing, every time. You can’t go wrong if you find the motive.”
“I suppose you’re right,” said Beef. Only sometimes there’s a lot of motives, and a lot of people with them.”
“Yes, there is that,” admitted Chatto.
Beef stood up.
“Very grateful to you,” he said. “And now I suppose I get to work. But I’ve got no big ideas, Inspector. In fact I’ve got only one idea at present, and it’s this. I think we’re going to find this case a lot more difficult and a lot more interesting than it looks. Anyway, I’ll come and see you again. And if I should hit on anything I shan’t forget that you’ve let me in on this.”
Inspector Chatto gave us his ready little smile again. But my ears burned when I thought what he must be saying to Constable Watts-Dunton about Beef when we had left the house.
Beef disgusted me further by turning back to the Crown.
“Quite enough for to-day,” he said. “I want to think. Besides, it’s opening time.”