Authors: Leo Bruce
Published in 2010 by
Academy Chicago Publishers
363 West Erie Street
Chicago, Illinois 60654
Â© 1939 by Leo Bruce
Printed and bound in the U.S.A.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without the express written permission of the publisher.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data on file with the publisher.
MARTIN AND IDA
my telephone bell rang that morning I had a presentiment that it was Beef. And because, as it transpired later, presentiments, not to mention predictions, became an important part of the affair in which we found ourselves involved, I remember it now. When I lifted the receiver I could hear the well-known voice making an effort to control itself, and could picture the Sergeant attempting dignity, much as he might have done in his village constable days, when the cheekiest boy in the village was explaining why there was not a lamp on his bicycle.
“I intend,” he said grandly, “to investigate a new case.”
This was frankly incredible. Only six months before, Beef's career, such as it had been, had obviously come to an end. The Sergeant had allowed a man to be hanged for a crime of which he was innocent, and the fact that Stewart Ferrers had committed a murder of which the Court knew nothing did not prevent Beef from being branded as a failure by the other members of his profession. In the eyes of the public Beef was a fallen star. After two startlingly successful cases he had crashed on his third, and the newspapers had not been slow to seize on his defeat. I could not believe that a client in trouble would come along and employ him as an investigator. With all the varied talents of literary detection at the disposal of anyone who needed them, not to mention Scotland Yard, it seemed scarcely likely that my blundering friend had been called in to do more than watch a suspect or examine the inside of a building.
The last time I had seen him I had tried to make him realize that, so far as he was concerned, private investigation was finished. I had not stressed the loss to me, or grumbled that
my chances as a crime writer had died with his lost prestige, though I might well have done so. His wife, I knew, had been trying to persuade him to apply for a job as a cinema commissionaire, for which his appearance made him most suitable. We could both of us picture him standing with solid dignity, a firm embroidered figure, at the steps of some Renaissance or Neo-Grecian hallway. At least he would tolerate no disobedience when his orders were to “Stand in line there,” and he could clear the steps of any small boys who attempted to make them a playground.
In fact, Mrs. Beef had gone so far as to unscrew the brass name-plate from his door with the explanation that the neighbors had been pulling her leg about it. But Beef had insisted that this should be stowed away carefully in the drawer of his desk.
“Never know but what I might need it,” he said, and even then I thought I had detected a faint spark of hope in his voice, and had tried not to crush it too brutally.
And now, suddenly, had come his phone call. He was considering going to Yorkshire on a new case and wanted to talk it over with me. Something to do with a circus, I had gathered, but he had not been explicit. There was nothing else to do but go straight round and see him, and I got the car out with some misgivings and headed it towards the little street in the region of Baker Street which Beef had chosen as being the only possible headquarters for a private investigator.
Even in the warm spring sunshine Lilac Crescent looked no more cheerful than I had remembered it in the rain of a January afternoon. The long bare pavements were dry and dusty, the gutters littered with paper and rubbish from hawkers' carts, and the occasional smear of coal-dust around the manholes in the pavement only increased the desolation of the place. Beef's house lay on the right, in the center of a row of small unobtrusive houses which huddled together
rather like a dozen monkeys sheltering from the wind on a rocky ledge. The drawn front-room blinds were shut against the brilliant stare of the sun, which was too intimate and probing for the quiet retiring life of that street.
I drew the car into the side of the road opposite Beef's front door. A hundred yards farther along stood an empty cart with a tired horse between the shafts and a man beside it in the road ringing a hand-bell. There was no sign that he had been heard, no other movement in the street.
Beef was leaning over the kitchen table on which was spread a large-scale map of Yorkshire. He stood up and held out a huge hand to me as Mrs. Beef showed me in.
“So you came,” he said unnecessarily. “Well, sit down and have a cup of tea.” Whereupon Mrs. Beef took the hint and bustled out of the room to leave us alone.
Beef had changed since I last saw him. Although he still seemed very pleased with himself, it struck me that perhaps he was not quite his old bumptious self. Beef had never been the man to feel ill at ease whatever happened, but now he sucked at his empty pipe, and seemed to be waiting for an opening in the matter-of-fact conversation.
“Why the map?” I asked casually, pointing to the green sheet covering the table.
Beef seemed to wave it out of existence. “Yorkshire,” he said. “I was just getting my bearings. Big place, Yorkshire.” He paused, looking at the map in a thoughtful way, then after a few minutes he turned and walked over to the hearth-rug, and I knew by the expression in his eyes that he was about to tell meâin his own wayâthe story of his new case.
“Have you ever been to one of these traveling circuses?” he said suddenly.
“Circuses?” I said, with the astonishment that was expected of me. “Why, yes, when I was a kid.”
Beef looked pained. “No, I mean,” he interrupted, “have
you ever thought about the way people lived in them? You know, touring around and stopping every day at a different place. Living in wagons and all that?”
“I can't say I've thought about it very much,” I answered.
“No, nor don't many people. Well, my wife's nephew, he works with one. And he writes to Mrs. Beef every now and again and tells us about the sort of life he has. Exciting it must be, with animals and that and moving about seeing the country.” Beef's eyes glistened for a moment, and he seemed to be thinking of the adventurous life of his fortunate nephew.
“Well?” I asked.
“Well, that's it,” said Beef calmly. “This nephew has just written us a most peculiar letter. Most peculiar. I was talking to the wife about it, and she thinks I ought to follow it up, like. She says it's the chance of my career. Here, I'll show it to you.” And he drew out of his pocket a piece of folded paper and handed it to me.
“Dear Uncle & Arntie
“We arrived at Scarborough this week-end and shall be moving on south next week. The season has started very well. I am very well. I hope you are the same. I must tell you Uncle about a strange thing what hapend the other day you know there is a gypsy woman with us who tells fortunes well she has just told mine. It did not cost me anything trust Albert Stiles because I fetched her water one day and and she said she wood do it for nothing. âMisfortune will befal you,' she said. âYou will lose your job in the circus, but you will find another soon which will make you happy.' Then I asked her if they would give me the sack but she said no it wood come about difrent. She said the circus wood break up this summer because of a culammity She said there wood be a murder in the circus and that wood mean the end. I thought I wood write this to you you being interested in murders and
a detective. I think its a pity the circus will be breaking up don't you and perhaps if youve got nothing else to do just now you wood come up and stop it. I have written where we shall be every day next week so that you can find us.
“I hope you will come,Â Â Â
“Your affec. nevew,Â Â
“But Beef,” I said. “You're surely not going to tell me that this is your new case?”
“I dont see why not,” said Beef huffily. “Albert wouldn't have written if he didn't think something was likely to happen. There's more in this than meets the eye, that's what I say. What do you think about it?”
“I think the whole thing is perfectly absurd. Some old gypsy tells your nephew's fortune. She sees he's a romantic sort, so she makes it exciting for him. Do you mean to tell me you believe in that sort of thing?”
Beef looked awkward. “Well, not exactly,” he said, “but you never know. There must be something in it. Some of these gypsies know a lot more than they let on.”
“So you mean to go all the way up to Yorkshire because of something a gypsy said,” I snorted. “I think the whole idea is crazy.”
Beef sat down slowly in his chair and his pale, watery blue eyes had a stubborn look in them.
“And,” I continued, “suppose there was no murder when you got there. It wouldn't do you any good.”
“Any good!” Beef burst out scornfully. “That's all you think about. The matter with you, Townsend, is that you're too careful. You like a nice ordinary murder case so's you can laugh at it for being ordinary. Everything's just a game to you, something to make a story out of. Look at my last case. You don't seem to realize that it was serious for me. The
newspapers and that poking fun at me. They said I'd failed to save an innocent man and that my career was finished. What do you think that sort of thing did to me?”
“Yes, I know, Beef,” I said patiently. “I know you've had a hard time over that. But how can it do you any good to go dashing off on a wild-goose chase like this?”
“How can it do me any harm?” demanded Beef truculently. “Do you know that not a soul has crossed that doorstep since my last case? I tell you I shall never get any cases coming to me now. What I've got to do is find a case for myself. And this one looks like a chance.”
“But a gypsy's warning â¦” I began.
“I know it looks a bit thin,” agreed Beef, “but I've got to do something. You don't know what might happen.”
“And where do I come in?”
“I want you to come with me to write the case.” Beef grew suddenly quite excited. “It would be something quite new,” he went on. “Murder in a Circus, or something. It would probably make your name. You'd have all those other writers green with envy. There's never been a really big case in a circus, and, anyway, not this sort of case.”
“This sort of case?”
“Yes. All back to front, as you might say. We go up to investigate a murder that hasn't happened yet. That's new, isn't it? I never read a book like that. Just think of it, all those people waiting for a chance to do someone in and trying to do it so that no one won't suspect them. A lot of circus folk, and no one knows who's going to murder who until the last moment. And we've got to stop them.”
“And then there wouldn't be a murder at all,” I protested.