Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm: A British Library Crime Classic

Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm: A British Library Crime Classic

‘He could feel it in the blackness, a difference in atmosphere,a sense of evil, of things hidden.’ Amy Snowden, in middle age, has long since settled into a lonely life ...

About The Author

Gil North

GIL NORTH was the pseudonym of Geoffrey Horne (1916–1988), a writer from Skipton who worked as a civil servant in ...

Read an Excerpt

Chapter I

Silent in the old cottage isolated at the foot of the moors. Silent except for the crackling of the log fire in the grate, or a sudden flurry of rain beating against the windows, or a more pronounced moan from the wind hurtling over the moor tops.

The silence shattered. The harsh ringing of a telephone, regular, unceasing.

The dog in front of the fire stirred and rumbled in his throat. In the passage outside the living-room the telephone continued its strident summons.

The dog was big, shaggy, of a working breed, descended from a line of collies. He climbed to his feet, his gaze shifting to his master, nodding in a large arm-chair, comfortable, at peace.

The dog began to bark. The man in the chair jerked, coming to life. A cat, built on the same generous proportions as the dog, slept on the man’s knees. Everything alive in the cottage was huge in the dancing shadows cast by the fire and the dim light of the single oil-lamp, turned low. The long fur of the cat, grey, Persian, stood on end. The cat’s claws unsheathed and dug through the cloth of the man’s trousers, into his thigh.

“Quiet, Clive! Quiet!” the man ordered.

He heaved his bulk reluctantly from the chair, holding the cat. The cat protested, its protests dying as the man placed it in the warm hollow of the cushion on which he had been sitting.

The dog’s tongue lolled from his open jaws. His flanks rose and fell. His alert eyes followed the man as the man moved slowly, deliberately, without haste, to the passage.

“Yes?” said the man into the mouthpiece of the telephone. “Of course. Cluff speaking.”

His words dropped like stones into a pool, broad-vow- elled, well spaced, with long pauses between them.

“What?” he said. “Where? Number thirty-three, Balaclava Street? I suppose so. Not long. Half-an-hour. No more. Less.”

The cat did not move. “Stay, Clive! Sit!” Cluff said.

The dog sank to his haunches. The dog’s ears pricked  as the outer door slammed. The dog’s head inclined lower in disappointment as a car engine started with difficulty, wheezing and clanking.

Rain plastered itself against the yellowed windscreen of the bull-nosed, two-seater Morris, defeating the efforts of the worn wipers. The ancient car travelled the dark road, freewheeling into a deep dip, labouring up the opposite hill at snail’s pace. The steering wheel twisted in Cluff’s loose grip. Cluff’s heavy tweeds were damp and redolent in the confined space under the tattered hood. His shapeless tweed hat, with the grouse feather in its band, hooded his eyes. On the seat beside him the handle of a thick, chestnut-wood walking-stick, its ferrule wedged against the gear lever, bounced with every jolt.

The lights of houses ahead. The main road into Gunnarshaw. The car knew its own way. Down to the church. The High Street. At the bottom of the High Street, left. Past shuttered shops. The glare of a hotel. Right, into Little Crimea.

Sevastopol Road. The car slowed. Side-streets ran away from the road, at right-angles to it, climbing a hill. Between the mouths of the streets rows of houses, opening directly on to the pavement, all alike, a door, a parlour window, the windows upstairs of a larger bedroom and a smaller one. Sometimes the glass in these smaller windows was frosted, where the room behind had been turned from its original purpose into a bathroom. The curtains in the light of the infrequent street-lamps were white, neat and clean, the doorsteps scrubbed and holystoned.

Inkerman Street. Alma Street. Scutari Street.

Cluff crouched forward, staring into the night. A grocer’s on one corner. A cobbler’s on the other. He swung the wheel, regardless of whether there was traffic behind him, disdain- ing the use of an indicator, sidling like a crab into Balaclava Street. The street was unadopted and the rear wheels of the car spun on the slope slippery with the rain, scouring the wet grass, sending mud flying. Cluff pulled on the brake. He climbed out and the car ran backwards a little, until chocked by a boulder.

He could feel it in the blackness, a difference in atmo- sphere, a sense of evil, of things hidden. The doors he passed should have been locked and bolted. In the dark they appeared closed, but Cluff had an impression that they were open, just the slightest of cracks, people listening behind them in unlit hallways. Pale patches showed in the upstairs windows of the houses on the side opposite to him, disappearing when he paused to look. Eyes watched him. More than once he heard a quick intake of breath. At the top of the hill a dog escaped. Someone shouted and a short, staccato yelp of pain came to Cluff’s ears.

Three quarters of the way up light spilled from an open door on to the flagged pavement. Heavy-shod feet clattered towards him. A uniformed constable almost knocked Cluff down.

“There, Sergeant,” the constable said, turning to point. “Up there.”

A smallish man, stocky, with a permanently hostile manner, dressed in Inspector’s uniform, hopped about in front of the open door.

“At last, Sergeant,” the Inspector said. “Do we have to wait all night?”

Cluff ignored him.

Inspector Mole, dripping, angry to be called out on such a night, grew more irritated, conscious of Cluff’s physical mastery. Liberty of action amongst his inferiors offended him. Unorthodoxy was anathema to him. He was a natural man, suitably married, the father of a family. He conducted himself with decorum in all his actions, official and unofficial. He had a tidy mind and Caleb Cluff with his dog and his cat and his cottage two miles from town, fitted into none of his pigeon-holes. He supposed that one representative of the County Criminal Investigation Department was essential in the division. He was at a loss to understand how the Sergeant had made the plain clothes branch in the first instance.

Behind Mole, in the doorway out of the rain, a little woman could not keep still. She was thin and angular, dried-up, with peaked features, wispy grey hair, a long nose, a receding chin. She wore cotton stockings under her crumpled skirt and her jumper was of a neutral colour. Her watery eyes stared past Mole at Cluff, through black- rimmed glasses fixed to her ears by metal sidepieces. A man without a jacket, his waistcoat unbuttoned, his collar and tie discarded, fat overlapping the belt holding his trousers up, leaned unperturbed against a passage wall.

“Well?” asked Cluff. “Well?”

“Next door—” Inspector Mole began.

“It’s all nonsense,” the man interrupted. “I told her  so.

She’s got you out for nothing.”

“Don’t listen to him, Sergeant,” the woman pleaded.  “If the sky fell on him he wouldn’t notice. I know there’s something wrong. I know it!”

“Tell me about it, Mrs. Toogood,” Cluff said, quietly. “Damn him!” Mole swore to himself. “How does he come to know everybody in Gunnarshaw? What chance have the rest of us got?”

“I always said so,” the woman went on, in a piercing voice. “Married. At forty-five. To him. Twenty years younger, if he’s a day!”

“Look,” said her husband. “Why don’t  you come in?

She’ll talk for hours.”

“Amy?” Cluff asked. “Is it Amy?”

“The milk,” Mrs. Toogood said. “It hasn’t been taken in. On the back doorstep. The paper, sticking through the front letter-box. I haven’t heard anything all day. There’s no light.” “Gone out,” said Mr. Toogood.  “She doesn’t  have to account to you for her movements.”

Cluff moved forward. “I’ll take this way,” he said. “It’s quicker than going round the row.”

Mole and the constable followed him through the house. Its owners tagged on to the end of the procession. Cluff led them into the backyard, out into the back-street, into the yard of the house next door.

“You can see for yourselves,” Mrs. Toogood said. “The curtains, still over the window—”

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