Case for Sergeant Beef, Chapter Seven

Case for Sergeant Beef


Jack Ribbon was sixteen years old and considered that his job as kennel-boy to Miss Shoulter was a good one.  He was fond of dogs, fond of all animals for that matter, and in a desultory way was studying with the hope of one day becoming a veterinary surgeon.  His hours of work were not too long and his pay was generous.  He thought Miss Shoulter a bit of a gorgon, but he liked the straight way she talked to him, and used to say that it “wasn’t like working for a woman”.
Jack Ribbon was rather apt to talk of “women” just then, for they had begun to interest him, and he them.  He was considered the best dancer in Barnford and never missed one of the village hops.  He was concerned with such matters as ties, brilliantine, and a new suit which he had just obtained from Ashley.  He knew himself to be a presentable youth, fair-haired, light-skinned, quick of eye and movement, with an easy laugh which shewed his excellent teeth.  He found that he liked girls.  A year ago he had not been aware of the fact.  Now he was aware of little else.
Not that there was “anyone special”.  He knew all of them who came to the dances, but he had not yet started walking off with one.  He was adept at the familiar slightly Americanized banter of the dance floor, but he had not yet started “anything serious”.
He was not a remarkably inquisitive boy, but he could not help noticing things.  Miss Shoulter’s brother now—he did not like him.  A sullen fellow who drank too much and “treated the old girl rotten”.  Jack could not make out why she put up with him.  Yet every now and then he'd turn up at the bungalow, stay a night or two, drink anything he could lay hands on and, Jack believed, borrow a few quid from Miss Shoulter.  He could not understand a woman who was so strong and downright in everything else being so weak over her brother, who, Jack thought, was nothing but a rotten sponger.  He was supposed to make a living in some vague way out of horse-racing, but whether as a professional punter or a tout he would not like to say.  Privately Jack did not believe that Shoulter had ever done a day’s work in his life.
Last time he had been down there had been trouble—and it had something to do with Flipp.  That was another thing Jack had never understood; what there was between Ron Shoulter and Flipp.  Every time Shoulter came down he would go up to Flipp’s place, usually in the evening, yet Flipp never came to Miss Shoulter’s while her brother was there.
And last time, after her brother had gone, Jack Ribbon had seen an extraordinary thing.  He had gone into the bungalow to see her about one of the dogs and had found the old girl in tears.  He could scarcely believe it.  Miss Shoulter, such a manly, noisy woman, sitting in an arm-chair crying her eyes out.  He had not told anyone.  It was the sort of thing Jack believed in keeping to himself.  But it had made him think.
Then there was the old boy who had come to live at “Labour’s End”.  He was pretty thick with Miss Shoulter now.  In and out of the house every day.  What was the idea?  Decent old boy, mind you.  He had given Jack ten bob as a Christmas present for no reason at all that he could see.  And he was always smiling and spoke friendly.  Still, you couldn’t size him up.  There was something funny about the old chap.  And he did not like dogs.
Well, it was Christmas Eve.  And tomorrow he’d be free all day except just for the feeding.  But tonight he was going to Midnight Mass at the little church in Copling.  His mother would not be able to come this year because of her rheumatism which had been chronic lately, though she’d never missed before.  A good Catholic his mother, and she’d brought him up strict.  She didn’t mind him going to a dance and having a bit of fun, but let him miss Mass on Sunday and see what would happen.  Not that he wanted to miss Mass—particularly on Christmas Eve.  The little church at Copling had been made out of an old barn and was still thatched.  It was just like the real Christmas night, Jack thought.
So at eleven o’clock he started off from Barnford and began his lonely walk by the footpath through Deadman’s Wood.  Pity there was no one to go with him, but he and his mother were almost the only Catholics in the village, except for one family who would be going by car.  Still he did not mind the walk and it was a nice clear night with lots of stars.
Jack Ribbon passed “Labour’s End” on the outskirts of the wood and noticed a light on in the housekeeper’s room.  She'd probably come back on the Ashley bus and was just turning in.  The old man must have gone to bed—no light anywhere else in the house.
He followed the path by which old Chickle came when he called on Miss Shoulter.  It was still a bit sticky underfoot from last night’s rain, and you had to be careful how you walked.
Presently he reached a point in the path where there was a slight clearing and a fallen tree.  It was here that old Chickle was always hanging about.  He had heard Flipp tell Miss Shoulter that.  “The old boy’s always standing about near that fallen tree beside the footpath,” Flipp had said.  “I wonder what the idea is.”  Miss Shoulter had laughed and said that he was probably waiting for rabbits to come out.  But Flipp had seemed very puzzled.  “I’ve met him half a dozen times, and always in the same spot.”
Jack was early for Mass.  The church was only ten minutes away now and it was not yet half-past eleven.  He crossed to the fallen tree, sat down on it and lit a cigarette.
When he told the story afterwards he could not say exactly what had made him look on the ground behind him.  He did mutter something incoherent about feeling as though someone was watching him, but admits that was just his imagination.  But look he did, then jumped to his feet.
The first thing he saw was the dirty old teddy-bear overcoat which Ron Shoulter always wore.  Perhaps it was this which made him certain that the Thing behind him was, or had been, Ron Shoulter.  He never had any doubt of it at the time or afterwards, though it was not by the face that he recognized it, for the very sufficient reason, which he gave between chattering teeth later, that there wasn’t any face.  In fact what he saw was a corpse with—as he put it—the best part of its head blown off.
He did not, he could not, touch it.  He thinks he gave some sort of a shout.  Then he set off as fast as he could and did not stop running till he came out of the wood.  He was very scared.
The first thing he wanted to do was to get among people.  Talk to someone.  As he came to “Labour’s End” he saw that the light was still on in the housekeeper’s room and without thinking very clearly he hurried up to the front door and gave the electric bell a long ring.  As he waited he watched the footpath into the wood as though he thought someone might be following him.  Mrs. Pluck came to the door.
“What . . .  Why, Ribbon, what on earth . . .” she began.
“A dead man,” he said.  “A dead man in the wood.” A light showed in another window and in a few moments Mr. Chickle came to the door in a thick woollen dressing-gown.
“What’s this?” he asked rather snappily.  “Young Ribbon, what do you want at this time?”
“I . . . just found a dead man, sir.  In the wood.  Just near that place where you often go . . .”
Mr. Chickle seemed cross.
“Place where I often go”  he repeated frowning.
“Yes, sir.  You know, by the fallen tree.  He’s dead.  Half his head blown off.  I think it’s Miss Shoulter’s brother.”
If Mr. Chickle had seemed angry before he was much more so now.
“Miss Shoulter’s brother!  What makes you think that, young man”
It’s got his coat on,” said Jack Ribbon lamely.
Mr. Chickle seemed to have recovered himself.
“Well, really, Ribbon, I don’t see why you should come and wake us up at this time of night.  I was asleep and I expect Mrs. Pluck was just going to bed.  If as you say you’ve found some evidence of an accident, surely you should know that it’s your duty to report it to the police.  Not to come ringing our door-bell.”
“Yes, sir.  I was a bit upset. . . .”
Then Mr. Chickle became more like his old self.
“I must say you look upset, Ribbon.  I’m sure it was very distressing.  And since you are here and Mrs. Pluck has not retired, you’d better drink something before you go to find the police.  Give him a drop of brandy, Mrs. Pluck.”
“Thank you, sir.  I didn’t ought to wait really.  I ought to tell the police.  It was a horrid sight, really it was.  No head to speak of left, you might say.”
Mrs. Pluck brought some brandy in a medicine glass, as though she wanted to stress the fact that it was restorative and not festive.  Jack swallowed it.
Mr. Chickle did not seem at all interested in the “horrid sight”.  He asked no questions at all, and when the brandy was finished told Jack to hurry down to the village.
“I expect you’ll find Constable Watts-Dunton in bed,” he said.  “But you should knock him up in view of what you have found.  Please tell him not to disturb me again tonight, however.  He will know what arrangements to make.”
Jack, feeling a little better, hurried on to the village and knocked at the constable’s door.  It was ten minutes before he got any answer and then a woman’s head appeared at an upper window.
“Yes?” said Mrs. Watts-Dunton.
“Tell the constable there’s a dead man in Deadman’s Wood,” said Jack breathlessly.
“I’ll tell the constable,” suddenly shouted his wife.  “And you’ll see what happens to you, young Ribbon.  He knows all about you and your silly larks.  Now you’ve gone a bit too far, let me tell you.  Waking people up . . .”
Jack began to lose his temper.
“It’s true, I tell you.  I’ve seen him myself.  Half his head blown off.”
“What d’you mean?”
“You call the constable.  There’s nothing funny about this.  If you’d seen what I’ve seen.”
The window was closed, but after ten minutes Constable Watts-Dunton himself appeared at the door, fully clothed.
“What’s this?” he asked severely, as though Jack Ribbon was certainly to blame for something or other.
“It’s what I say.  A dead man in Deadman’s Wood.”
Constable Watts-Dunton, a thin and very solemn man who attended a chapel called Mount Sion and disapproved of most human activities, suddenly leant forward to sniff at Jack Ribbon’s breath.
“Have you been drinking” he asked in a hollow voice.
“I had a tot of brandy from Mr. Chickle,” admitted Jack.  “I was upset, see?  It’s not a nice thing to happen to anybody.”
“What isn’t?” asked Constable Watts-Dunton.
“Finding a stiff in a wood with its head blown off.”
“And what were you doing in the wood at this time?” asked the constable.
“On my way to church.  Midnight Mass at Copling.”
“No wonder,” said Constable Watts-Dunton darkly, but did not enlarge on this cryptic negative.
“I believe it’s Ron Shoulter,” added Jack.
“Oh, you do?  Well, we’ll have to look into all that.  You'd better come along and shew me where you found whatever you have found.  Wait a minute while I get my torch.”
So the police began their investigations rather earlier than Mr. Chickle had anticipated.