The Methods of Sergeant Cluff

The Methods of Sergeant Cluff

It is a wet and windy night in the town of Gunnarshaw, on the edge of the Yorkshire moors. The body of young Jane Trundle, assistant in the chemist’s shop, ...

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 ...

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Chapter I

The constable watched him swing across the deserted High Street, from the corner by the church. Modern lighting bathed the macadam in an eerie blue. The front of his Burberry was dark with wet. Water matted the grouse feather in his sodden, tweed hat. His thick trousers, heavy with rain, hung shapeless below the hem of his coat. The tip of his stout stick kept time with the solid tread of his mud-spattered boots. The big collie at his heels stayed close, tongue lolling, tense.

The constable stepped out of the shadows.

“Sergeant,” the constable said, showing no surprise to see Cluff on foot. “Round there,” he added, pointing. “I think they’d given you up.”

Cluff nodded, without stopping. The clock in the church tower began to chime, four strokes for each quarter, eleven longer ones, deeper in tone and more widely spaced, for the hour.

He turned off the High Street into a narrow roadway, little more than a passage, by the side windows of a Victorian Town Hall. The doors of the public conveniences to his right were closed, the signs above them unlit. Wind funnelled from the moors, moaning. Rain dripped disconsolately from crumbling cornices.

A gas-lamp, on a bracket fixed to the wall at the corner beyond the conveniences, flickered uncertainly. He rounded the corner, under the lamp, into a cobbled area walled on three sides. The explosion of a flash-bulb made him blink. He halted, the dog’s muzzle cold against the fingers of his free hand. The headlights of a police car, its engine cut, blazed on men milling restlessly.

Inspector Mole, neatly uniformed, detached himself from a group of lesser officers. The dog retreated, growling. Mole remembered the Sergeant’s recent experiences and the Sergeant’s present standing with his superiors. The Inspector gritted his teeth, biting back the sarcasm with which he usually greeted Cluff’s dog.

Mole mustered a smile. Envious and insincere, he remarked, “We thought you weren’t coming, Caleb. It’s more than an hour since I rang you.” He stifled an exclamation of annoyance at Cluff’s lack of excuses. He said, “I couldn’t help it. I got on to Patterson at County H.Q. He wanted you to know.”

Cluff told him, “We arranged it like that before I went on leave.”

The Sergeant stalked forward, past the photographer already dismantling his tripod, policemen moving to let him through.

“What’s the use of a single C.I.D. man in a division this size?” Mole asked. “Do they think crimes are going to happen one at a time?”

“You’ve been busy,” Cluff said.

“Someone has to be,” Mole answered, unable to suppress his feelings, throwing a glance over his shoulder to ascertain the present whereabouts of the dog. The dog growled again. Cluff, without looking round, ordered, “Sit, Clive!” Clive sank to his haunches, lips withdrawn from  pointed, white teeth, ripples of excitement flowing under the loose skin on his back.

A little, dapper man, brisk, straightened and rubbed his palms together busily. She lay face down on the stones, her arms flung out, her legs splayed, her thighs bared in her fall. Cluff looked at her head. A transparent, plastic hood, tied under her chin, draped her shoulders.

“Well?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” the surgeon replied.

A dark patch marred the brightness of her hair, spun-gold in the car lights. Dark threads patterned an ivory nape and lost identity in the rain on the cobbles.

The surgeon demanded irritably, “What’s going on in Gunnarshaw? What have they been getting away with all these years?”

Cluff, his belly large, bent with difficulty. He rolled the girl over. Mole, taking a handbag from one of the attendant constables, held it out and said, “We found this.” The Sergeant, his eyes fixed on the girl’s face, ignored him.

“You don’t need me,” the surgeon interrupted. “I can’t do any more here.”

“How long ago?” Cluff said.

“On a night like this!” the surgeon exclaimed. “In this cold! With this rain! I’m not a witch-doctor. Wait for the post-mortem.”

“She’s—” Mole started to say, opening the handbag. “I know who she is,” Cluff stopped him.

Mole pushed the envelope he was pulling out back into the bag. “Of course,” he said bitterly. “I was forgetting. You were born and bred in these parts. You know everybody.” He watched the movement of Cluff’s eyes. He went on, “There wasn’t anything else. I’ve been over the place with a fine-tooth comb.”

“If you’re looking for a blunt instrument,” the surgeon broke in, a little spitefully, “you’ve got quite a choice.” The surgeon buttoned his raincoat: “You might intend to stay here all night. I don’t.”

“Clive!” Cluff called. He opened the rear door of the police car and got inside after the dog. A driver came to life amongst the spectators and moved hurriedly for his seat. Cluff, peering out, informed no one in particular, “You can take her away. Let her parents know.”

Mole spoke to a constable, taking the envelope from the bag a second time and holding it while the constable copied down the address. The Inspector climbed into the car, ostentatiously choosing his place next to the driver, making it silently clear that he preferred to be as far away from the dog as possible.

At the police-station Constable Barker, on the desk, rose to his feet when they entered. Barker snapped his fingers at Clive. “Good dog,” he said. Clive’s tail wagged. Clive crossed obediently to Barker and allowed the constable to scratch him on the head.

Barker, young and eager, his cheeks flushed with embar- rassment, murmured, “I’m glad to see you, Sergeant. I hope you’re feeling better.”

“He’s in my office,” Mole interrupted, opening a door and leading the way.

A youth about eighteen years old, his face dead-white, his limbs trembling, huddled small on an upright chair. Occasionally a more violent twitching afflicted his body. His wide-open eyes stared into infinity and he gulped frequently as if fighting nausea.

Mole settled himself behind a desk. He stabbed a finger in the youth’s direction. He explained, “He found her.”

Cluff put a hand on the youth’s shoulder and the youth cringed. “I’m sorry, Jim,” Cluff said. “Can you tell me about it?”

The youth swallowed hard, his lips dry. Cluff wandered to a window. He lifted the blind at one edge and looked at the rain-swept night.

“It’s late,” Cluff added. Mole coughed.

“Was Molly with you?” Cluff said.

Jim’s words cleared the obstruction of his parched throat. They tumbled over each other: “We weren’t supposed to be there. I said we were going to the pictures.”

“It’ll have to come out now.”

“I didn’t know what to do,” Jim pleaded. “It was the only thing you could do.”

“She’s dead, isn’t she?” Jim asked, reading his answer in the eloquence of Cluff’s broad back. “You’ll keep Molly out of it?”

“As much as I can.”

“I came out of the lavatory,” Jim said. “I was waiting for Molly. Someone ran out of that yard behind.”

“A man?”

“It’s dark there, Mr. Cluff. That lamp at the corner doesn’t give much light. It was raining too. I wasn’t taking much notice.”

“Think, Jim.”

Jim said, “I suppose it must have been a man. I’d have noticed a woman’s legs, whiter—”

Cluff turned from the window: “What sort of man?” “‘What sort of man?’” Jim echoed.

Mole picked up a pencil and began to tap on the desk-top. He thought, “What can you expect from them?” disgusted with the people of Gunnarshaw.

“A big man? A little man?” Jim hesitated: “Not big.” “He saw you?”

The youth considered: “He ran away. By the Town Hall.

Into the darkness—” “Towards the car park?”

“That’s why I went—round the corner. At first I couldn’t see anything. Then I heard Molly—”

The Sergeant opened the door. He shouted, “Barker!” Barker stopped fondling Clive.

Cluff said, “Get the driver to run Jim home.”

They heard the car drive away. Mole put his pencil down: “Was that all?”

Cluff looked at him.

Mole said, “It’s up to you, Caleb. There’s not much chance for the uniformed branch when you’re about.” He paused and went on, in a sharper tone, “It shouldn’t be difficult, not in a town this size, where everyone knows what there is to know about everybody else.” He climbed to his feet: “My wife’ll be waiting up. I’d better be moving.”

Cluff stayed put. Mole shifted from foot to foot. He forced another cough. He commented loudly, “It’s after midnight.” The handbag lay on the desk. He offered it to Cluff: “You’ll want this.”

Mole asked, “You’ll take the car when it gets back?”

The Sergeant walked into the outer office, clutching the handbag.

Cluff turned for a second door, leading into his own room. The door closed. Although not in the habit of famil- iarity with inferiors, Mole couldn’t prevent himself from informing Barker, “He’s no different. You wouldn’t accuse him of charging at a job like a bull at a barn-door.”

“He gets there just the same,” Barker retorted, rousing an anger in Mole that expressed itself in the violent slamming of the door to the street.

Clive stood by Barker’s desk. Barker fidgeted, uneasy at the dog’s stillness. The ticking of the clock on the wall filled the room. The sashes in the windows rattled. Flurries of rain attacked the window panes.

Barker went suddenly to the frosted glass panel behind which Cluff had disappeared. He tapped with his knuckles. He found the knob and twisted it.

Cluff slumped in a chair, on the other side of a table, his hat tipped over his closed eyes, fists thrust into the pockets of his Burberry, trouser legs steaming slightly under the table. Clive, sedate, walked forward and settled himself on the floor. Barker tip-toed away, easing the door to, missing the flicker of Cluff’s eyelids.

The police car returned. Its driver stamped into the outer office, a gesture from Barker pleading for silence. “Is he going home?” the driver asked.

“Who?”

The driver glanced at Cluff’s door. “Hasn’t he got his car?”

“Not him!”

“He’s asleep.”

The driver said, “It’s not the night or the time I’d have chosen for a stroll. You could have knocked me down with a feather when he finally turned up with that dog of his. He wouldn’t get away with it anywhere except in Gunnarshaw.”

“Let him rest.”

“She wasn’t half a bobby-dazzler,” the driver commented.

Alone in the office Barker crossed from time to time   to Cluff’s door, pausing to listen. He could hear nothing except the ticking of the clock and the wind and the rain. Gunnarshaw slept, its streets empty, the only lamps still lit those at road junctions, the rows of terrace houses climbing the slopes of the moors dark and quiet. Barker found it hard to believe that anyone else was alive in the town. He was a little afraid in case Cluff should be unable to repeat the one important success that stood to his name, solicitous for Cluff, disturbed. Cluff’s heavy, jowled face persisted in his mind, lined, the hint of greying hair peeping from under Cluff’s hat. He looked older to Barker in repose, more careworn, less competent.

Barker jumped, startled by the discordant ringing of the telephone. A woman’s voice, pitched in too loud a tone, demanded peremptorily, “Is he there?”

“I’ll put you through.”

He switched over to Cluff’s extension, prepared for a slight delay before Cluff woke. The Sergeant answered at once. Barker said, “It’s Mrs. Croft.”

“I’m not in.”

“I’ve already told her—” Barker began and Cluff’s phone banged on the rest.

Barker went back to the outside line and excused himself lamely, “I can’t get hold of him.”

“Very likely!”

“A woman’s been killed.” “Again!”

“They sent for him last night.”

“He’s the only policeman in Gunnarshaw?” “It’s a job for the C.I.D.”

“He’s got Clive with him?” “Yes.”

“That’s something. Who are you?” “Barker.”

“The young one? I want him here by eight.” “I don’t know—”

The telephone said, “He’s not fit to be let loose on his own,” and died.

“She wants you back, Sergeant,” Barker said, avoiding Cluff’s red-rimmed eyes, Cluff’s grey dewlaps covered with a stubble of grey whisker.

“Is it still raining?”

Barker shook his head.

“Get me Patterson. At his house.” Cluff’s phone said, “Caleb?”

“It’s me.”

“I expected a call.” “Did you?”

The Superintendent at County Police Headquarters said, “Sooner or later.”

The seconds ticked away.

“Where are you?” Patterson asked. “The station.”

“A pity it’s come just now.”

“My God!” Cluff said. “What else do you think I had to do with Wright dead and Jinny Cricklethwaite in prison?”

“I told Mole—” “Whose job is it?”

“I’ll send you an extra man—” “What for?”

“You can’t handle this alone.”

“He’ll do more harm than good in a place like Gunnarshaw.”

“Where have you got to?” “I haven’t started yet.”

The telephone stayed quiet. “Don’t you trust me?” Cluff said. “You have your methods.” “Leave it then.”

“It isn’t me. The Chief Constable—” “All right. Someone local.”

“We haven’t—”

“There’s a man in the uniformed branch here. Barker.” “I’ll arrange it with his Superintendent. Mole won’t like it.” “Never mind Mole.”

“Can we help in the laboratories?”

“I’ll let you know. It was raining last night. Mole searched for a weapon. He didn’t find one.”

“Put something on paper and let me have it,” Patterson was saying when Cluff rang off.

The Sergeant rubbed his eyes. Clive stretched. The dog approached Cluff and put his head on Cluff’s thigh. Cluff looked at his watch. “In a while, boy,” he said.

He reached for the handbag Mole had turned over to him. He fingered apart the metal claws fastening it and up- ended the bag, allowing its contents to drip on to the dirty sheet of blotting-paper that served him, when he wrote, for a writing-pad. The articles came slowly, obstructed by the letter that had revealed the girl’s identity to Mole. They piled in a little heap, a lipstick, a packet of cigarettes, a box of matches, a powder compact, loose coins. The letter arched at the mouth of the bag, blocking an object too bulky to slip past its edges.

He removed the letter and a folded wallet joined the other debris of her life. The Sergeant dealt with the wallet first, counting out twenty-five pounds in one-pound notes, crisp, straight from a bank.

He took the letter from its envelope and read it. It told him nothing that he hadn’t known, or guessed in the course of the night. What he knew or suspected others in the town must know or suspect equally.

His face set obstinately. He sat staring at the currency notes. At first they worried him but, after a time, he saw them differently. He began to be glad of the notes.

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